How Iran Exploited Wars in the Middle East to Spread its Influence

Tehran is Building a Contiguous Arc of Influence Using Non-State Actors

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran in this handout released by SANA on February 25, 2019. (Reuters)
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran in this handout released by SANA on February 25, 2019. (Reuters)

How Iran Exploited Wars in the Middle East to Spread its Influence

Iran is ascendant in the Middle East, having exploited opportunities arising from the wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen by actively supporting proxies to spread its influence in a contiguous geographic arc from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Some of Tehran’s neighbors and Washington see the country as an expansionist power with hegemonic aspirations. Despite the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal US sanctions and against Iran, Tehran wields influence through its non-state actors and its leaders appear just as committed to destabilizing engagement across the region.


An arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Forces, runs the training efforts for various proxies, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s nearly four-decade investment and biggest poxy achievement, has grown into the country’s most powerful political and military force.

Hezbollah emerged during the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war which created the conditions for Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary leaders to demonstrate that their example could be replicated in the Arab world by exploiting long-standing grievances of Lebanon’s Shia Muslim underclass. Initially hardly noticed in the noise of the Lebanese civil war, Iranian Revolutionary Guards (as many as 1000) established training camps in the Biqa’ Valley in the early 1980s. Iran committed to the Shia community tens of millions of dollars annually to cover salaries and financial subsidies. They also created hundreds of service institutions and started catering its services to all the Shia community – and sometimes beyond – cultivating an image of provider and protector.  

But by 1985, when Hezbollah’s initial manifesto (calling, among other things, for the establishment of an Iran-style Islamic republic in Lebanon) was issued, the group already had a reputation internationally for its methods of simultaneous suicide attacks, later copied by other terrorist groups, and for its hostage-taking. At this point, Iran was already viewing Hezbollah as a big success. The 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut, as well as assassinations of regime opponents, have been attributed to Iranian operatives. They are also suspected in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center, an accusation Iran denies. The group claimed credit for the departure of U.S and French military personnel in 1984 and declared victory for “the resistance” in forcing the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and for having survived the Israeli ground and air attacks in the devastating summer 2006 war that Hezbollah provoked. Especially since the 2006 war, Iran has facilitated an exponential increase in the size, sophistication, and lethality of Hezbollah’s arsenal.

Hezbollah also provides assassination services. Operatives of the group are indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and under suspicion for the elimination of many other anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah Lebanese politicians in the 2005 and 2008 period. 

Today, Hezbollah uses the combination of its popularity among the majority of Lebanon’s Shias its positions in Lebanon’s parliament and cabinet, and its militia power to exercise effective veto over any Lebanese government policy it opposes—while at the same time constructing an impenetrable wall against any public or parliamentary accountability over Hezbollah’s decisions. 

President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian whose followers once idolized him as the symbol of courageous resistance against Damascus, has embraced his role as Hezbollah’s enabler in this regard. His son-in-law, current Foreign Minister Gebrane Bassil, made a 2006 memorandum of understanding between Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Hezbollah, and the two groups have maintained a close Shiite-Christian alliance ever since.

In May 2018, Hezbollah and its political allies made significant gains in Lebanon’s parliamentary election, with candidates supported by the group or allied to it winning just over half the seats in parliament. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah then spent months blocking Lebanon’s cabinet formation by insisting that individual Sunni proxies of Hezbollah be awarded cabinet representation at the expense of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s larger and more representative Sunni bloc. The group now controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s cabinet including the health ministry which has the fourth-biggest budget in the state apparatus. 

Hezbollah fighters hold party flags during a parade in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)


In the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2011, Iran began its military involvement in Syria with its immediate objective to defeat the Syrian opposition militarily to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and consolidate Iran’s long term influence in the country.

Syria has been Iran’s main scene of activism over the past several years and Iran has invested heavily by providing political, financial, cyber and military support to the Syrian government forces, and as a result, the Assad regime has reclaimed most of the Syrian territory as the eight-year war enters its final stages. As the dominant actor in Damascus, Tehran dictates the fighting on the ground by the pro-Assad coalition, controls the Syria-Iraq and Syria-Lebanon border crossings. It has deployed thousands of soldiers on the ground—from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and regular Iranian forces to Hezbollah and other Pakistani and Afghan Shia groups in Syria. The IRGC has been involved in major battles across the country and the external operations department of the IRGC-Quds Force has been critical in organizing the militias.

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has been the group’s greatest military undertaking. The U.S. State Department said in 2017 that the group has about 7,000 fighters in Syria, By one estimate, it’s lost 1.675 in the war.  Other domestic consequences include attacks on Hezbollah and mainly Shia-populated areas in Lebanon by jihadists sympathetic to the anti-Assad opposition in 2013-14. 

On the other hand, Hezbollah fighters have benefitted significantly from combat experience in Syria, notably operating tanks provided by Syria and coordinating with air power provided by Russia. It has also learned to fight in challenging and diverse geographical environments, helping the group to morph from an insurgency group to a much larger hybrid paramilitary. Plus, Hezbollah has grown even closer to its benefactor, Iran, which massively increased the group’s stockpiles. The group reportedly possess more than 130,000 rockets and missiles - compared with 15,000 on the eve of the 2006 war - including ballistic guided missiles fitted with large warheads, anti-tank missiles, and unmanned drones. In terms of personnel, Hezbollah massively increased its recruitment by expanding its ideological and age requirements.

While Iran and Hezbollah are exploiting Syria’s instability the Israelis fear the country will become a new launching pad for Iranian influence and attack. Throughout the conflict, Israel has used military strikes to stop the flow of advanced weapons from Syrian and Iranian arsenals to the Lebanese Hezbollah and to keep Iranian and Hezbollah forces far from its border along the Golan Heights. These include over 100 airstrikes on weapons going to Hezbollah, attacks on Iranian arms-production facilities, strikes on IRGC and Hezbollah officers in Syria, and an attack on an Iranian drone facility. With a presence in Syria, Iran can increase its threat to Israel and Israelis worry about an Iranian-controlled land bridge that goes from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. Israel is adamant on avoiding what it feels are the mistakes of Lebanon, by preventing any lasting Iranian militarization in Syria—a goal shared by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other rivals to Tehran.

Iran has bases in Syria and is constructing weapons factories there. Both its officers and its proxies are well-integrated into the Assad regime’s military effort, with both often playing a leading role. Earlier this year, a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has researchers across Syria, said that Iran has recruited at least 1,200 militiamen from different parts of Syria to form a new military force in the country under their supervision with the aim of boosting  Iran’s agenda in the region. Iranian and Syrian officials have been considering the building of such a force for a long time.


Iran is pursuing a strategy in Iraq similar to that which is employed in Lebanon with a goal of achieving unparalleled influence in Baghdad. Ever since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the rapid disintegration of Iraq along ethnic and secretariat lines that quickly followed Saddam Hussein’s toppling, many among Iraq’s Shia militias looked to their neighbor for ideological sustenance, and more importantly arms and funding to confront local rivals, and Iran was happy to oblige. The Trump administration has attributed the deaths of 608 U.S. troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 to the IRGC. U.S. President George W. Bush, who had previously identified Iran as a member of the “axis of evil,” accused the Quds Force in 2007 of providing roadside bombs to Shia militants to kill American forces, though experts inside and outside the government questioned whether such orders came from the government.

United under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and an official part of the Iraqi security forces, a constellation of Shiite militia groups emerged in 2014 in response to the Iraqi military’s capitulation to ISIS, recruiting thousands of new fighters. Some militia groups are seen as Iranian proxies and have been trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, while others oppose Iranian influence and bill themselves as Iraqi nationalists. Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada are among those in the former category that U.S. officials may be watching closely.

The Shiite militias played a key role in the fight against ISIS, such as when they helped recapture the city of Tikrit in 2015, and suffered heavy losses. But they also claimed credit for victories largely won by government troops and were accused of massacres, torture, and other abuses against Sunni civilians at a rate that far outpaced similar accusations against other forces. IRGC advisers were often on the front lines with the militia groups they supported, and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, was occasionally photographed on the battlefield. 

There are an estimated 100,000 Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, collectively known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), most of which belong to Iran-backed groups. Even though ISIS was declared ‘defeated’ in Iraq at the end of 2017, and despite a 2016 law requiring the militias to fold into the national military command structure, the Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias have retained their independent capabilities and command structure. 

In August 2018, Iran reportedly transferred short-range ballistic missiles to some of these Iraqi Shi’a militia allies, enabling Tehran to project force deeper into the region. The IRGC-QF provides an estimated $150 million per year to Tehran’s proxies in Iraq, with figures running to perhaps $1 billion per year immediately after the 2014 ISIS offensive in Iraq.  The militia commanders are emerging as political titans, enabling them to exercise formal influence that will undoubtedly constrain the authority of the relatively pro-U.S. leadership in Baghdad. Iran also wants its allies among the Shi’ite paramilitaries to pressure the United States. 

On March 5, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a militia that is part of the PMF. Unsurprisingly, Nujaba’s spokesman responded in Iranian media with claims it is resisting the United States and Israel throughout the Middle East. And, Had al-Amiri, head of the Iran-founded Badr organization and its paramilitary wing, said recently that he opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Baghdad against excessive Iranian influence, even as Iraqi officials have come to rely on Iran not just for security, but also for energy and trade.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) carrying their weapons, advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, Iraq, in this November 3, 2017 file photo. (Reuters)


The conflict in Yemen began in late 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthis overran the capital and forced the government to flee to Aden. The Saudi-UAE-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 in support of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.  Iran has long denied accusations that it provides financial and military support to the Houthis. According to the United Nations, however, Tehran has been supplying the rebels with weapons for more than a decade. In January 2013, the USS Farragut intercepted the ship Jihan 1 off Yemen's coast carrying 122-millimeter Katyusha rockets, radar systems, Chinese QW-1M antiaircraft missiles, and 2.6 tons of RDX high explosive. This action violated UN Security Council Resolution 1747 of 2007, which mandated that "Iran shall not supply, sell, or transfer directly or indirectly from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft any arms or related material. The United States also tracked Iranian Revolutionary Guards providing training and assistance to the Houthis in the Saadah governorate.

Iran’s support of the Houthis grew increasingly open and transparent after the successful military drive by Houthis and Saleh loyalists in the summer of 2014. The Houthis seized control of Sanaa, the capital, and Yemeni government operations. Houthi leaders traveled to Tehran and signed agreements to establish regular air service between the two capitals; they also agreed to increase Yemeni-Iranian cooperation. Iranian Lawmaker Ali Reza Zakani, a trusted adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, boasted that Sanaa had become the fourth Arab capital under Iranian control. Sanaa, he said, now joins "three Arab capitals [Beirut, Baghdad, and Damascus] which have ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Iranian Islamic revolution" and "the greater jihad. In November 2016, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, speaking at a gathering of naval commanders, said that Iran would like to set up naval bases in Yemen.

In addition to direct support from Iran, Houthi rebels are also receiving help from the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah. In 2014, for instance, several Hezbollah operatives were arrested in Yemen and held on charges of training Houthi rebels. The men were members of Hezbollah's Unit 3800, an expeditionary militia modeled on the Iranian Quds Force and aimed at spreading Iran's revolution to other countries. In March 2016, an unnamed Hezbollah commander interviewed by the magazine Foreign Affairs about his group's support for the Houthis remarked: "After we are done with Syria, we will start with Yemen, Hezbollah is already there... Who do you think fires Tochka missiles into Saudi Arabia? It's not the Houthis in their sandals, it's us."

Since 2014, the Houthis have been launching ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia and have stepped up drone and missile attacks to the Kingdom recently amid tensions between Iran and the US. Last month, the Saudi air force shot down a bomb-laden drone deployed by Houthi rebels that targeted Jizan airport, close to the southern border with Yemen, the coalition said.

Two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia were targeted by Houthi drones in May causing minor supply disruptions highlighting an apparent significant leap in the drone capabilities of the Houthis. This week, least 26 civilians were injured in a missile attack on an airport in south-west Saudi Arabia.

Iran-backed Houthi soldiers in Yemen. (AP)
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