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04 February 2024, Iraq, Baghdad: Members of the Iraqi's Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashed al-Shaabi) take part in the funeral of the 16 members killed in US airstrikes. The US military said it had attacked more than 85 targets in'Syria'and Iraq, in response to the deadly attack by pro-Iranian militias that killed three US soldiers in Jordan last week. Photo by: Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Iran’s Loosening Grip: The Unraveling Control Over Militias

The first week of February 2024 was marked by a series of renewed air strikes between the U.S. troops stationed in Syria and Iraq and Iranian-backed militant groups across the region. On January 28, an Iranian-made suicide drone struck an American air base in Jordan, killing three U.S. soldiers and injuring dozens; in retaliation, American forces launched a series of reprisal strikes in Iraq and Syria against Iranian proxy forces. Several days later, an American airstrike also killed Abu Baqir al-Saadi, a key commander of the Iran-aligned Kataib Hezbollah militant group in Iraq. The Biden administration left the reprisals open-ended, saying that they would respond in stages and explicitly refusing to rule out the possibility of further attacks on Iranian soil.

In short, after months of halting, indecisive action—aimed at preventing the ongoing Gaza war from escalating—the Biden administration finally responded swiftly and overwhelmingly to combat the militia threat. The purpose of the strikes appears to have been twofold: first, to impose maximum pain against those responsible for the drone strike on the base in Jordan; second, to deter future attacks by Kataib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups. However, considering Iran’s broad network of proxy forces across the Middle East and their high degree of embeddedness within the Arab public, U.S.-led airstrikes seem almost destined to fail. The major pro-Iranian militant groups that make up the ‘Axis of Resistance’ are not simple Iranian proxies that take their marching orders from Tehran. In the years leading up to the present, Iran devoted enormous efforts into establishing well-equipped, well-trained, and fundamentally autonomous and semi-autonomous proxy forces in its close vicinity—both to exert greater pressure on hostile nations, namely the United States and its allies, and to maintain the safety of the Islamic regime.

Proxy Defenses

Iran’s direct support and coordination efforts with these proxy forces became more visible in the light of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip—a conflict which has sparked renewed rounds of violence beyond the Palestinian territories, boosting fears of prolonged regional war. Since the outbreak of war in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, various militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen have been able to plan and conduct independent operations against Israel and its partners, inflicting grave damage on the global economy. Since early 2024, for instance, the Houthi rebels have launched a series of attacks on commercial vessels transiting the Bab el-Mandeb adjacent to Yemen. Moreover, Hezbollah conducted missile and drone attacks across Israel’s northern border—sparking fears of a renewal of the 2006-07 war between them—while Iraqi-based militant groups have conducted occasional attacks against U.S.  troops stationed in the region in retaliation for U.S. support for Israel during the war.

Iran’s significant proxy network gained notorious prominence mostly because of the late Iranian Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani, who was considered the key architect of Tehran’s proxy warfare strategy. For many years, Soleimani remained one of the foremost symbols of the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance,’ until his killing by the United States in early 2020. Since Soleimani’s death, however, Iran has continued to fund, train, and equip its foreign militias, and their role in their respective home nations has only grown.

The proxy warfare strategy perfectly suits Iranian interests. By keeping a vanguard of Iranian power spread across the region, Tehran’s militias push the danger of war well away from its own borders, enabling it to keep a pulse over the immediate neighborhood. At the same time, organizations like Hezbollah, Harakat Al-Nujaba, Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat al-Iraq al-Islamiyah, and others have become a real strategic danger that threaten the stability of many countries in the region. Despite the international pressure and efforts to contain their influence, the power of these organizations will inevitably strengthen its own deterrence, creating a kind of “defense belt” around Iran stretching from Lebanon through Syria and into Yemen.

Losing Control

However, the recent incidents with the killing of American troops in Jordan and the attacks on commercial vessels—including those unrelated to the Gaza conflict in any sense—in the Red Sea suggest that the relationship between Iran and its proxies is not one-way. Instead, these groups, in spite of their ideological alignment with Iran, have sometimes demonstrated a degree of independence, or even defied Iran’s wishes. Interestingly, such a tendency with Iranian proxies occurred shortly after Soleimani’s death, when the Iraqi and Syrian organizations he had exercised control over began to retaliate of their own accord. As such, it may hint at the notion that Iran lacks a charismatic military leader with the ability to lead and control the extended network proxies in the volatile region.

Recent U.S. intelligence reports also underscore that Tehran’s control over its proxies in the Middle East has steadily diminished since 2020. The October 7 attack is an insightful case in point: although Iran and Hamas are strongly allied, and the news of the attack was welcomed in the Iranian parliament, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Hamas had not informed Iran beforehand—and even that the operation might have gone against the wishes of Tehran, which sought to decrease tensions in the region in order to repair its fragile economy.

Furthermore, earlier in November 2021, Iranian proxies in Iraq conducted a deadly drone attack in order to assassinate then-Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa al-Kadhmi, although this attack was unsuccessful. Had this attack succeeded, it would have been disastrous for Iranian interests in Iraq, simultaneously leading to massive instability and an extreme anti-Iranian backlash among the Iraqi people; for these reasons, Tehran almost certainly did not order it. However, its failure to prevent the attempt ahead of time speaks to its struggles in corralling the quarreling Shiite militia leaders in Iraq.

In the case of Houthi rebels, the systematic attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and missile attacks on Saudi soil are a further concern for Iran, which has sought in recent years to rebuild its relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Although Iran has been the main supplier of weapons and know-how to the Houthi government for nearly a decade, it is unlikely that Tehran is the mastermind behind the Houthis’ recent violent attacks—which have, in fact, led it to scramble its diplomatic resources to prevent a bigger diplomatic crisis with the Gulf states.

In short, the lack of an influential military figure over regional militant groups like the late General Soleimani, and the wide diversity of ideologies and religious identities within Iran’s foreign militias, have resulted in tenuous ties between Iran and its regional allies. Considering the current regional dynamics that occurred amid the Gaza war, the activities of the pro-Iranian proxy network will rise significantly, while the US-led coalition’s airstrikes will likely have a limited impact on deterring it in the medium- to long-term.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue:
Country: Iran

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Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.


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