The United States and its allies are currently in the opening stages of the pursuit of a strategy to contain and roll back the Islamic Republic of Iran from a number of points in the Middle East. This strategy is set to include an economic element (renewed sanctions), a military aspect (involving Israeli action against Iran in Syria, and the Saudi/UAE campaign against the Houthis in Yemen), and a primarily political effort (in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Lebanon).
Iran can be expected to respond with a counter-strategy of its own, designed to stymy and frustrate western and allied efforts. What form will this Iranian response take? What assets does Iran possess in the furtherance of this goal?
First of all, it is worth noting what Iran does not have: Teheran is deficient in conventional military power, and as such is especially vulnerable when challenged in this arena. The Iranians have neglected conventional military spending, in favor of emphasis on their missile program, and their expertise in the irregular warfare methods of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force.
In Syria over the last months, Israel has demonstrated that Iran has no adequate conventional response to Israeli air actions.
In Yemen in recent days, as government forces close in on the vital Hodaida port, so Iran’s weakness in this field is once more revealed. Hodaida, held by the Houthis, is the main conduit for Iranian supplies to the rebels. It is likely to fall in the period ahead.
Economic sanctions may also limit Iran’s ability to finance its various proxies. Nevertheless, Iran possesses in the Qods Force of the IRGC a doctrine and praxis for the establishment, assembling and utilization of proxy political-military forces which still has no serious rival in the region. It will be these assets and these methods which Teheran will be seeking to utilize to strike back at its enemies in the period ahead.
In Lebanon, thanks entirely to the use of these methods, Iran is at its strongest. There is no prospect in the immediate future for Iran’s opponents to challenge Teheran’s de fact domination of this country through its proxy Hizballah. Recent statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggest the beginnings of an acknowledgement by the US that Lebanon today is today effectively controlled by Hizballah. But it is difficult to locate within the country any mechanism today capable of seriously challenging the Shia Islamist party.
The recent events in Gaza may well offer an example of the kind of options available to Iran in its efforts to counter US and allied moves against it. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a wholly owned franchise of the IRGC. While the apparent ‘motive’ for its commencement of rocket fire was the killing of three of its militants by the IDF after a failed IED attack. This incident, however, would not normally have been of sufficient magnitude to generate the largest barrage of rockets since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. It is probable, therefore, that the escalation in Gaza this week was an example of Iran’s ability to mobilize a proxy on one front to place pressure on an adversary, as a result of events taking place in another arena.
Yet this week’s events also demonstrate Iran’s limitations. Hamas is not a wholly owned franchise of Teheran. And the joint interest of Israel, Hamas and Egypt in avoiding a descent to a 2014 style conflagration served to put a lid on the escalation.
As noted above, in Syria, Iran has so far found no adequate response to Israel’s intelligence domination, and its willingness to take air action against Iranian infrastructure.
Further east, however, in the Kurdish-administered, US-dominated 30% of Syria east of the Euphrates, the Iranians may find an arena more to their liking. Here, a fledgling, US-associated and Kurdish dominated authority rules over a population of about 4 million people, including many Sunni Arabs. In this situation, the IRGC’s methods of agitation, assassinations, the fomenting of unrest from below are directly relevant.
Unidentified gunmen are already operating in this area. A prominent Kurdish official, Omar Alloush, was assassinated on March 15th. Graffiti denouncing ‘Ocalan’s dogs’ has appeared in Arab-majority Raqqa city.
This week, demonstrations took place at four locations across the city demanding that the Kurdish dominated YPG quit the area.
It is more usual to attribute the guiding hand behind this activity to Turkish state bodies, rather than Iran. But an IRGC officer looking for vulnerabilities and areas of potential counter pressure on the US and its allies in the neighborhood would surely focus his eyes on this US guaranteed enclave.
More broadly, while Israeli air action may make the Iranians think twice in terms of deployment of heavy weapons systems in Syria, the broader Iranian project of establishing local client militias and stationing proxy forces on Syria soil remains largely untouched and invulnerable to Israeli air action.
Similarly, in Iraq, the ongoing coalition negotiations and Iran’s domination of the Popular Mobilization Units and their political iteration the Fatah list offers Teheran ample scope for action. Fatah came second in the elections, with 47 seats to 54 for Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon list. Much will depend on the nature of the government that will emerge from the 90 day coalition building period now under way.
But whatever coalition emerges, the independent, Iran-controlled, armed element is there to stay in Iraq. For Iran, a controlling influence in Iraq is a necessity, not a luxury. And with Saudi efforts to build influence in the country under way, this looks set to form a central arena for competition.
Again, the evidence of recent years shows that where Iran enjoys an advantage over its rivals in such arenas is in its greater ability to utilize paramilitary and terrorist methods. There are already some indications of possible targeting of elements linked to the Sairoon list. Unknown assailants bombed two offices linked to the Sadrists on May 15th. One was placed at an office of the Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist militia. The other targeted a religious organization linked to Sadr, Malek al-Ashtar. In addition, on May 25, a double IED attack on the Iraqi Communist Party’s headquarters in Baghdad took place. No group has claimed responsibility for any of these attacks.
The evidence suggests that Iran’s methods are at their strongest where it can take on its opponents within a populated area, in a mixed political and military context, and weakest where it faces conventional resistance and a hard border separating it from its enemies. This means that in the emergent contest, Iran is strongest in Lebanon and regime-controlled Syria, powerful and dangerous in Iraq and potentially in the Kurdish controlled, US guaranteed part of Syria, and weaker and with fewer options in Yemen and Gaza.
Iran enjoyed and benefited from the moment when the Arab world was at its most fragmented, and the west at its most rudderless. That period may now be coming to an end. The ‘strategy of tension’, utilizing political and paramilitary means, eschewing conventional ones, remains the IRGC’s preferred method of struggle. The period now opening up in the region will determine its continued efficacy.
Jonathan Spyer is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and an associate fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.