There is no doubt that Iran has achieved the goal it set itself after the 1979 revolution of becoming a major player in the region. In one way or another the Persian country has been involved in all the significant events that have taken place in the Middle East. In some as the main element and in others as part of the same or instigator. But there is something else which is worth discussing in more detail.
Firstly, the training, financing and employment of foreign mercenaries who have moved around the region, fighting in the different conflict zones. Secondly, the direct employment of their own special operations units, "Quds", in Syria.
These actions have enormously complicated the political and economic relations that underlie the ever-present conflicts throughout the region, and are a clear indication of how Iran understands both its role and the opportunities presented to it in this context of "underlying conflicts".
In Afghanistan, Iran has shown itself to be willing to help US efforts to overthrow the Sunni Taliban government. The Taliban were totally opposed to the Shiite ideology of the Tehran regime, and of course to the idea of an Islamic revolution led by this current. Thus, the action of the United States meant for Iran the opportunity to eliminate a dangerous adversary from its eastern border. But when, in 2012, the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement made it clear that it was to some extent to perpetuate the US presence in the country, Iran was strongly opposed. In this way, in a practical example of that pragmatism so characteristic of Iranian politics, putting if necessary the interests of the Republic before those of the Revolution, the position changed to support the Taliban and to create networks and relationships with local politicians and military authorities, thus undermining the central government.
Iran is aware of how complicated the task it has undertaken, not only the US, but the international community, to create a strong central government in Kabul, and has therefore chosen to create cross-border networks and local or regional political relations that serve its purposes. Once again, Iran is confronting its enemies through third parties and on foreign soil.
Another example of this "modus operandi" is what we see in Yemen, although here the motives guiding Iranian action are very different. Iranian support for the Hutu rebels is sustained by an interest in maintaining a conflict with which Saudi Arabia, its great rival in the Islamic world, must deal with on its own border. It is clear that a country destabilized by a harsh internal conflict is a negative and a destabilizing factor for the bordering countries. This way of acting in Yemen seems to clash with Iranian interests by operating the way it does in Afghanistan, as it does not seem reasonable then to provoke conflict and instability on its own border. But the difference between the two situations lies in the actors on either side and in Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia, as well as in Iran's confidence in having a greater capacity to handle instability than Saudi Arabia does.
In the conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has an internationally recognized ally, the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. Its aim is to end the conflict by restoring the power of the aforementioned al-Hadi. On the opposite side, Iranian interests are to bring about a victory for the Houthi rebels, although a prolongation of the conflict also serves their goals. The main difference with Afghanistan lies precisely in that point, in the absence of an ally to help it achieve power.
Generally speaking, Iran's attempts to exploit domestic conflicts in pursuit of its interests always seek to follow the path of international Shiite unity. In Afghanistan, however, they have built political relationships and exploited security vulnerabilities through other channels. A fractured and unstable Afghanistan offers a great opportunity to create such political connections through groups and support networks whose loyalties are fragile and shifting, while also requiring external material support, making this need their real Achilles' heel.
Iran has been recruiting fighters for its militias from among Afghan refugees and then sending them to fight in Syria for the Asad regime. Of course, in exchange for a salary. These are part of the "Fatimid Brigade," composed of brave Shiite fighters who have fought alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon and as members of Shiite militias in both Iraq and Pakistan.
Similarly, it operates among Pakistani Shias, organizing those it manages to recruit under the so-called "Zainibuin Brigade" and sending them to fight in Syria for an estimated $600 a month. In this way, Iran takes advantage of its ability to provide these economic incentives to facilitate foreign mercenaries that do not require their direct involvement in support of those it considers its allies or in those areas where it is interested in acting for its own benefit. This, as can be seen, is becoming an increasingly common and defining mode of action in "new conflicts".
Iran has very cleverly contributed to the benefit of its foreign policy by creating a structure of economic incentives in exchange for fighting in the ranks of its like-minded militias. In areas where the situation makes the prospect of economic progress or almost survival little more than a chimera, joining militias becomes a more than tempting option. Once again it is clear that the factor of lack of hope and of horizons of progress is key when pushing diverse groups to take up arms in favour of those who become a reference point or give them the light they need, whether it is Iran, Daesh or Al Qaeda.
Currently, Iran's strategy in the Middle East is based on a context of low-intensity conflicts arising from sectarian (religious) or ethnic elements.
In Syria, the Persian Republic cooperates with the armed forces of Al-Asad and paramilitary and self-defence groups, such as the "Badr Brigades" or Hezbollah, coordinating the action of mercenaries both in that country and in Afghanistan, while the involvement in Syria is reinforced to the point of sending its own special operations units that fight on behalf of the Syrian government under the cover, without ceasing to be an irony, of the "global fight against terrorism".
Iran's strategy in this field is defined by the creation of a series of multilateral and transnational coalitions between groups and non-state actors that serve its interests.
In a context of rapidly changing alliances, foreign interventions in the region and an unstable economy, Iran has been able to bring together different types of groups and organizations by exploiting their converging interests and, most importantly, to coordinate their efforts to achieve a common goal.
And that enormous experience gained throughout history, of building relationships with groups that act as proxies for the regime, has led to a very well-developed balance of interaction between state and non-state organizations and groups.
By acting through these proxies, Tehran avoids direct involvement, saves its own resources and appears in some ways less responsible to the rest of the world for the actions carried out by these groups, but the other side of the coin is the greater difficulty in exercising effective control over these elements and directing them appropriately.
The truth, however, is that Iran does not need to directly lead each of these like-minded groups. This leadership role is delegated to its main recognized militias, such as the Badr Brigade in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon. This results in a whole collection of elements that do not have an organizational structure or a coordinated mission or objective among them, but at the same time their structure and functioning go beyond what could be considered a terrorist group. This fact is what makes it so complicated to confront them.
On the surface, it may seem that the proxies employed by the ayatollahs' regime can be divided into political and military proxies. But the reality is that all of these groups cover the entire spectrum of actions that are covered by political-military organizations. The big difference lies not in the orientation of the groups themselves, but in the context in which they operate.
Most authors therefore classify these groups into two main groups: "active or latent". They qualify as "active" those groups that actively exercise violence against the government of the state in whose territory they act, against other armed groups within that same territory, or against both. The appellation "latent" is given to those whose actions do not involve violent or armed actions, at least for the time being, which does not eliminate the possibility that, if the situation so requires, they will be added to the list of "active". Depending on its needs, Iran employs one or the other for its benefit.
Active proxies are the Houthi rebels in Yemen or Hezbollah in Syria. Support for these groups mainly translates into the provision of arms and economic support, including as seen in the recruitment of paid combatants. Such groups have the capacity to destabilize large areas of any state, while securing small areas of it for Iran's allied groups or ethnicities. Returning again to the example of Yemen, there the Houthis are fighting to achieve their goal of gaining power and control of the country, establishing a government that would in some way be an ally of Iran, but for the moment their struggle provides Iran with the benefit of a situation of total instability on the southern border of Saudi Arabia, its great rival in the Muslim world.
In a very similar way, Tehran benefits from Hezbollah's activity: its permanent confrontation with Israel has the main result of obstructing and slowing down the anti-terrorist operations of the Hebrew state and its security operations on the border.
The groups that fall into the category of latents are not involved in direct fighting, but they appear in the context of situations of political tension with the state that governs where they reside. Iranian support for these groups is often limited to the political rather than the material side, whether in the form of weapons or money, despite the fact that most of these groups often have armed militias associated with them.
The clearest example of this is the Iraqi Shiite groups. These groups, in principle eminently political, focus on intervening in domestic policy matters to act in Iran's own interests within Iraq. As a consequence of these activities and in order to support them, each group has its own armed militia (Badr Brigades for example), which fight alongside the "Iraqi People's Mobilization Forces" (PMF) against the Daesh but which could in time act in favor of Iran in a hypothetical new confrontation between the two countries.
Another important aspect of the use of proxies is its economic aspect. This practice allows them to optimize their resources by allocating part of them to finance those groups, even though they have methods to do so themselves, even if in an insufficient way. Thus, instead of having to pay for a military operation in its entirety, Tehran relies on such self-financing measures of its proxies. This is one more reason that underlines the low probability that Iran will give up a strategy that allows it to influence regional security at significantly low cost, thus avoiding the enormous costs of a conventional armed confrontation with any other state.
Continuing with this approach from the economic point of view, it is interesting to observe how the policy of recruiting in exchange for a salary, combatants in areas, even if not ideologically related but with serious economic and development problems, the way it has been carried out with Afghan and Pakistani refugees, has achieved a surprising effect: taking advantage of a problem of regional economic insecurity for its own benefit by transforming it into the root of its geopolitical security.
Thus, it could be said that the transnational network of proxies established by Iran acts as an effective dissuasive element throughout the region by balancing the balance of power, which does not prevent it from still being somewhat unclear whether this strategy will be sufficient to maintain this balance of power in the face of its greatest rival, Saudi Arabia, in the long term.
The main advantages provided by this complex Iranian network through its decentralization are its capacity to respond almost immediately to any aggression or hostile action, of whatever kind, against the Persian country and the establishment of advanced positions or bases within the territory of other countries. The danger of this strategy is the inability to exercise direct and effective control over the proxies and the lack of long-term financing and support projects.
However, there is a reality that cannot be ignored, and that is that although Iran stands as the central core of this network of like-minded groups or proxies, it is by no means the only or main instigator of these, and the conflicts in which they take part will continue even without Tehran's intervention. The regime's influence is simply exploited to serve Iranian interests.
Iran's national security policies are the product of a large number of overlapping factors that sometimes even seem to rival each other. Among these are the ideology of the Islamic Revolution itself, which led to regime change in 1979, the perception of threats to the state itself and the regime, long-term national interests and the interaction between different factions within the regime.
What we can consider as general lines guiding the security policy of the Iranian regime are the following:
- To try to provide a sufficiently convincing dissuasion against any attempt to invade its territory, to intimidate or to provoke a change of regime, either by the US or by any foreign power.
- To try to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the regional conflicts that permanently plague the Middle East to change the power structure in the area that the Iranian regime considers to be in favour of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunni Muslim states.
- To seek to consolidate certain prestige and recognition at an international level that in a certain way recovers the splendor of the ancient Persian Empires.
- To provide material and financial support to the governments it considers allies and to the militias or armed factions it considers related, such as those mentioned throughout this document. Iran presents and justifies this support as helping the oppressed in the region, reaffirming the idea that it is particularly Saudi Arabia that is responsible for provoking sectarian tensions and trying to exclude the Persian country from issues that affect the whole region. It can be seen here that, although there are not minor economic factors at play, what lies behind this is the internal struggle between the two main currents of Islam and their struggle for hegemony.
- Taking advantage of the imposition of sanctions as a consequence of its nuclear programme to appear as a fundamental center for trade and energy production in the region and thus to ensure the acquisition of new weapons systems (let us not forget the purchase of the S400 air defense systems).
As a last point, it is important to point out that despite appearances, not everything is hegemony in the country (recently episodes of protest have come to light in the streets, some of them harshly repressed), not even in the ruling class.
Within the latter there are certain disagreements when it comes to deciding on the strategy to follow. And while supreme leader Ali Khamenei and hardliners like the Revolutionary Guard oppose any decision that would compromise the main objectives in terms of national security, President-elect Hassan Rohani advocates the return of the country to the regional and international diplomatic concert.
For the time being, the supporters of the hard line are loyal to the latter course of action. It will be interesting to follow developments and see how far they are prepared to go.
Hollingshead, Emmet, "Iran’s New Interventionism: Reconceptualizing Proxy Warfare in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East" (2018). Political Science Honors Projects.
Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action, “Managing the Saudi-Iran Rivalry,” 25 October 2016
Max Fisher, “How the Iranian-Saudi Proxy Struggle Tore Apart the Middle East,” The New York Times , 19 Nov.2016.
J. Matthew McInnis, “ Iranian Deterrence Strategy and Use of Proxies,” AEI , 6 Dec. 2016
Congressional Research Service, “Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies” Dec. 2018