Relationships with terrorist and militant groups are integral to Iran’s foreign policy. The clerical regime in Tehran sponsors a range of organizations in the Middle East and maintains the capacity to conduct international terrorism outside the region. Iran’s terrorism and destabilization efforts are primarily a threat to U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East: Tehran’s activities worsen civil wars and contribute to the destabilization of the region. Iran does not appear to be actively targeting the U.S. homeland with terrorism, but its capacity remains latent. Tehran uses its ability to strike U.S. assets outside war zones to deter the United States and as a contingency should the United States attack Iran.
Support for militant and terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere benefits Iran in several ways. It enables Tehran to shore up key allies like the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad. It also gives Iran leverage against regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. Ties to militant groups strengthen pro-Iran voices in the region, increasing Iran’s influence in some capitals and in the more remote hinterlands of several countries. Finally, the threat of Iranian terrorism against otherwise stable countries is a factor these countries must consider if they choose to confront Tehran.
For the Trump administration to better counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, it should seize the opportunity to reset U.S. relations with key regional allies. Many Middle Eastern allies had lost faith in the Obama administration and several, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, are going to elaborate lengths to ignore the missteps and often contradictory behavior of the Trump administration in the hopes of closer cooperation. Additional pressure on entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would help send the right message to allies and to Iran. Washington should also highlight the costs of Iran’s adventurism to ordinary Iranians to raise domestic awareness of, and discontent with, the regime’s foreign policy. The United States should step up its efforts to build a credible and moderate Syrian opposition, putting additional pressure on Iran’s Syrian ally. In Yemen, Washington should support negotiations to end the war as the current Saudi approach is giving both Iran and the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen opportunities to expand their influence.
At the same time, the Trump administration must remember the limits of U.S. power and Iran’s ability to push back. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), for all its flaws, remains better than any current plausible alternatives, and pulling out of the agreement would be a mistake. In general, Iran’s use of militant groups is well-entrenched: a successful policy would reduce the scope and scale of Iranian support but not end it. In addition, Iran has leverage and many vulnerabilities to exploit given its role in fighting the Islamic State and the exposure of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria to Iranian-directed violence.
Below I detail Iran’s motivations for supporting militant and terrorist groups, with an emphasis on Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. I then discuss the threat to the United States, both directly and indirectly. I argue that Iran’s overall stance toward militant groups is not likely to change in the near-term. I conclude by offering policy recommendations for the Trump administration.
Iran has supported terrorist and militant groups in the Islamic world since the 1979 revolution. In his 2016 testimony, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper warned: “Iran—the foremost state sponsor of terrorism—continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its terrorist partner Lebanese Hizballah, and proxy groups” – an assessment that has stayed roughly constant for many years.
Iran has long sought to “try hard to export our revolution to the world,” in the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, the clerical regime’s dominant revolutionary leader. This goal is embedded in Iran’s constitution and in the missions of organizations such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a military and paramilitary organization that oversees Iran’s relationships with many substate groups.
Revolutionary ideology, however, has long taken a backseat to more strategic goals. In the decades since the 1979 revolution, Iran has used terrorism and support for militant groups to undermine and bleed rivals, intimidate the Gulf states and other neighbors, project power to make itself a player in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and other arenas, disrupt peace negotiations that might isolate Iran and benefit Israel, and deter enemies, including the United States, that might otherwise use force against it. Iran has also sponsored terrorist attacks to take vengeance on countries that have supported its enemies, hosted its dissidents, or killed its operatives.
Finally, as a relatively weak state with hostile neighbors, Iran maintains ties to violent groups for contingencies, strengthening the relationship as need be depending on changing circumstances. Given Iran’s considerable success in spreading its influence in the Middle East and hostility to the United States and its allies, many observers often overrate its power. Iran’s conventional military is weak, and its economy, while beginning to improve, remains in poor shape. Ties to terrorist and militant groups is a relatively cheap way for Iran to offset its weaknesses.
Because Iran works through terrorist and militant groups, it gains a degree of deniability for some of its actions. This deniability, however, is better characterized as willing disbelief on the part of many countries rather than true uncertainty. If a group like the Lebanese Hizballah carries out an attack, observers may debate whether Iran gave the order. However, the broader Iranian policy that facilitates and supports such attacks is rarely in question. The depth of Iran’s ties, the shared goals between Iran and many proxies, the clerical regime’s long history of association with violent groups, and the fact that many past instances of terrorism showed involvement of individuals at or near the top of Iran’s hierarchy should lead observers to err on the side of Iranian responsibility.
Tehran’s closest militant ally is the Lebanese Hizballah, perhaps the most capable terrorist group in the world. Iran helped create Hizballah in the early 1980s, and in subsequent decades has armed, trained, and otherwise nurtured it. This assistance is massive: Iran regularly gave Hizballah over $100 million a year, and in many years the figure is significantly higher. Iran’s military aid includes relatively advanced weaponry, such as anti-tank and anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as thousands of rockets and artillery systems. Hizballah has emerged as a key bulwark of the Syrian regime, and Hizballah operatives work with Iran globally to prepare and conduct terrorist attacks.
Tehran has long worked with Palestinian groups. Relations are especially close to Palestine Islamic Jihad, though these ties discredited the group among many Palestinians. Tehran has also had extensive ties to Hamas at different times in the group’s history, though their fallout over the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars lead to a decline in funding and military aid and frayed, but did not end, relations in general. In 2016, however, the pragmatic Hamas again resumed its public praise for Iran, in part because the coup in Egypt deprived Hamas of a key ally and because by then revolution in Syria looked less likely. Iran, unlike other states, was willing to offer Hamas serious weaponry as well as funding.
In Iraq, Iran has played an influential role since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Iran has close ties to the Haider al-Abadi government in Baghdad, but its goals differ from those of its Iraqi partners. Iran wants a state that is weak and vulnerable to its influence, while Iraqi leaders seek a strong regime and country. In addition to relations with the Abadi administration, Iran maintains influence by supporting a host of militant groups, particularly within the Hashd al-Shaabi (or Popular Mobilization Forces), an umbrella militia organization that is playing a leading role in pushing the Islamic State out of Iraq. Many preexisting Shi’a militias supported (and even created) by Iran, such as the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hizballah, joined the Hashd al-Shaabi, thus gaining greater popular legitimacy, combat experience, and state recognition. Iran gives these groups, which number perhaps 100,000 in total, money, arms, training, and other forms of assistance. Through these ties, Iran exercises influence is both at the national level in Iraq and at the local level.
In Syria, Tehran is the chief patron of the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and without Iran’s help it is likely the regime would have fallen by now. Iran has long seen the Syrian regime as a vital ally – it is Tehran’s only true state ally in the Arab world, and perhaps even in the entire world. To save the Syrian regime, Iran has deployed several thousand IRGC and regular army forces, and Iran also commands another 25,000 or so foreign Shi’a fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan. Regime forces number perhaps 250,000 in total, counting both regular and irregular forces, so Iranian-supported foreigners represent at least 10 percent of the total and an even larger percentage of the forces on which the regime can truly rely.
Iran arms, trains, and funds these foreign fighters. Quasi-government foundations in Iran also provide financial support for the wounded and the families of the slain. In Syria, Iranian officers often command these fighters (as they also do for many Syrian groups), and Iran works with Syria to provide logistical support. The foreign fighters have played a role in almost every aspect of combat, helping guard key areas, storm cities, and shore up Syrian regular army forces.
Hizballah in particular has played critical roles in battles for Qusayr, Damascus, Aleppo, and other cities, bolstering Syrian government forces and providing key shock troops when necessary. The intervention has come at a high cost for Hizballah—an estimated 1,500-2,000 dead and many thousands more wounded, which are significant numbers for the relatively small group. The Syria conflict has also forced Hizballah to devote less attention and resources to its traditional adversary, Israel. In addition, the conflict is exhausting for the Lebanese Shi’a and may make Hizballah more cautious in the future. However, as much as the war has been a serious strain on the organization and its personnel, it has also provided valuable combat experience, greater access to weapons and technology, and, through Russia, an education in conventional maneuver warfare.
In addition to giving the Syrian regime more combat power, using proxies from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan to fight in Syria will have the long-term impact of increasing Iran’s influence in these countries in years to come. When these fighters return, they will have organizational and personal ties to Iranian leaders. In addition, their increased military power will make them more important local actors, helping their communities but also Iran.
In Yemen, Iran provides small arms to Houthi forces, and the use of anti-ship cruise missiles against U.S. and Emirati warships suggests greater Iranian investment as well as technical training and assistance. However, there is little publically available evidence of any significant personnel presence. In contrast to Iran’s presence in Iraq and Syria, Yemen is not a strategic priority for Tehran, and it is probably using its support for the Houthis as a way to gain leverage against the UAE and Saudi Arabia, drain their attention (and coffers), and counter what it perceives as the Gulf states’ aggressive stance against it.
Because Iran’s approach is more strategic than ideological, it is willing to work tactically with groups like Al Qaeda, even though mutual mistrust limits cooperation. Iran has at times allowed Sunni jihadists to transit Iran and given Al Qaeda operatives a de facto safe haven, albeit one that Al Qaeda has contended is restrictive.
Iran’s partnering with various Shi’a and minority groups in the Middle East has worsened the sectarian climate, made existing civil wars bloodier, and contributed to a back and forth with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states that further ratchets up regional tension. For Sunni states, Iran’s support to militant groups is proof that the clerical regime is bent on spreading its revolution and that it supports subversive activities in their own countries. Iran, however, sees itself as an “Islamic” actor, not a Shi’a power, and often works with Shi’a groups by default because few Sunni groups are willing to ally with it – an approach that increases its isolation from the Sunni powers.
Most of Iran’s efforts against Israel involve aiding proxies such as Hizballah or assisting groups like Hamas to fight Israel.
Source » lafareblog