Meir Litvak, associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, spoke to participants in an October 5 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about Iran's use of proxies to advance its regional hegemonic ambitions.
Iran takes advantage of local conflicts in Arab states by mobilizing Shi'ite communities who often suffer discrimination, harnessing their grievances to organize militias and exploit existing unrest. Litvak explained that, contrary to popular wisdom, "Iran is a rational state conducting policies [based] on cost/benefit analyses." The use of proxies has several advantages over direct military interventions for Tehran:
- It enables Iran to threaten targets (e.g. Israel) beyond the effective reach of its conventional military.
- It avoids pushback from Iran's own people, who are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for their government's foreign adventurism.
- It avoids pushback from locals in target countries by creating the image of an indigenous movement.
- It avoids retaliation against Iran from stronger foes by maintaining a veneer of deniability.
Iran's use of proxies began in the early 1980s, when its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) indoctrinated Shi'ites in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and trained them to fight Israel, a paramilitary and terrorist network that later adopted the name Hezbollah. In addition to waging war on Israel, Iran employed Hezbollah to kidnap American diplomats in Lebanon, using them as bargaining chips to negotiate weapons transfers to Iran in the Iran-Contra affair. Litvak characterizes Hezbollah as "the most effective long arm of Iran in the region," noting its role in such operations as the 1995 Khobar Towers attack against the US military in Saudi Arabia and, most recently, a plot to kill Israeli diplomats in Bangkok (in retaliation for Israel's alleged assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists) that was thwarted earlier this year.
Also during the 1980s, Iran cultivated an Iraqi proxy comprised of some ten thousand Shi'ite POWs captured during the Iran-Iraq war. These POWs were successfully organized into the Badr Brigade to fight against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. After Saddam's fall in 2003, the Badr Brigade emerged as a pro-Iranian political force, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, though one that was "seen by most Iraqis as too much of an Iranian stooge to be popular."
Following the capture of Mosul in 2014 by ISIS fighters and the collapse of Iraq's regular army, Iran set up new proxy militias to wage "jihad against ISIS" under the leadership of Iraqi Shi'ite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They operate under the umbrella Hashd al-Shaabi militia, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq. Three militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi are wholly subservient to Iran and, like Hezbollah, formed the basis for political parties that are part of the ruling Iraqi coalition in parliament.
Efforts to subordinate these militias under the Iraqi army's control by two consecutive Iraqi prime ministers – Madi Abdul Hadi and now Mustafa Al-Kadhimi – have proven to be unsuccessful. The militias receive government salaries and played a role in suppressing the mass demonstrations that erupted in Iraq in 2019. Litvak describes these militias as "a state within a state" much like the situation in Lebanon, where Hezbollah "vies with the government over effective control of the country."
In Yemen, Iran has cultivated a proxy in the Ansar Allah Houthi militia, which traces its origins to the political strife in the early 1990s. In recent years the group, though representing a different Shi'ite sect than the Iranians, received support and weaponry from Tehran that enabled it to capture and control most of Yemen. Ansar Allah serves Iran's strategic interests by enabling Iran to threaten Saudi Arabia, and by fighting for control of the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait. Controlling the strait, which links the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, serve two of Iran's strategic goals -- to encircle Israel and to threaten Saudi Arabia.
In Syria, Iran has recruited Shi'ite fighters from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight against the Assad regime since 2014.
Iran's Shi'ite proxies operate like "local mafia organizations" and arouse "tremendous opposition and resentment" locally.
Despite Iran's successes utilizing proxies to further its regional interests, the practice also suffers from key weaknesses. These proxies, which are largely confined to Shi'ite communities, typically arouse Sunni sectarian animosities, which undermine Iranian efforts to dominate the predominantly Sunni Middle East. Moreover, Shi'ite proxies tend to operate like "local mafia organizations" in territories they control, arousing "tremendous opposition and resentment" even from local Shi'ites. Recent mass demonstrations against government corruption in both Lebanon and Iraq have included open expressions against Iranian intervention in their countries. "The Iranian use of these proxies may become now a liability and prove to be counterproductive."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.