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A nation must think before it acts.
Since March, a series of massive floods has devastated several regions of Islamic Republic of Iran. Dozens have died, and many more have been displaced after severe damage to their homes. And the damage caused to infrastructure, transportation, telecommunications, and agriculture will require years of work and millions of dollars to address. The floods coincided with the Trump administration’s push to further pressure and isolate Iran in the hopes of forcing a change in the regime’s behavior, including by designating Iran’s paramilitary force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. This news broke as the IRGC and the country’s conventional military were stepping in to help with flood relief—bringing with them an unusual coterie of relief workers: Arab and Afghan militiamen. This move marked the first instance of the regime bringing these forces on its soil and publicizing it, a departure from 40 years of Iran-non-state actor partnership. This could suggest a broader change in strategy which will have Iran relying more on its transnational network of proxies and sponsored militia forces.
The Iran threat network (ITN) is a global enterprise comprised of surrogates, proxies, and partners that work with Tehran to help carry out Iran’s foreign policy objectives throughout the globe. The network’s posterchild is Lebanese Hezbollah, one of the world’s most powerful terrorist groups, which maintains a global reach with operatives active in dozens of countries worldwide. Hezbollah serves as an essential force multiplier for the ITN, since the former maintains a presence across the Middle East, as well as in West and Central Africa and throughout Latin America. Lesser known areas where Hezbollah has established a presence include Uganda, South Africa, and several Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.
The ITN also includes the Houthis in Yemen, Shia militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and other groups trained by the IRGC and elite Quds Force members. The most recent additions to the network are the Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyoun battalions, comprised respectively of Afghan Shia and Pakistani Shia militants currently fighting in Syria. Western observers often dub all of these groups Iranian proxies, but it is important to recognize that they each receive varying levels of support from Tehran, with some being deeply dependent on the regime and others largely independent, especially in decision-making and command and control.
Iran’s relationship with these militias isn’t new. Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the U.S.-aligned Shah was forging ties with non-state actors beyond the country’s borders—in particular, he laid out the foundations of Tehran’s relationship with Lebanese Shias and Iraqi Kurds. After the collapse of the monarchy, the revolutionaries who hoped to export their ideology beyond the country’s borders built on these ties and deepened them, while also establishing new relationships with non-state actors throughout the region. Unlike Iran’s relations with its state partners, its ties with non-state actors didn’t suffer from the transition of power and, in fact, expanded in both breadth and depth.
During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the regime gradually moved from an ideological worldview to a more pragmatic one and so did its rationale for working with non-state actors. The revolutionaries had seized power with ideological zeal and vowed to export their ideals and movement beyond their country’s borders. But the war proved all-consuming, ushering in a more pragmatic side of Iran as the country’s new leadership grappled with the war effort. The regime has since viewed its ties to these groups mostly in practical terms—although some remain more ideologically inclined toward and aligned with Tehran. The ITN is now a key pillar, if not the key pillar, of Iranian grand strategy.
Today, Iran sees the ITN as a highly effective means of power projection, enabling it to deter and counter adversaries—chiefly the United States—to increase its influence outside its borders, and to do so at a relatively low cost. For example, through the ITN, the regime is able to maintain a presence in half a dozen theaters across the Middle East and South Asia and even an indirect presence in Latin America. But it has only deployed troops and lost lives in Syria.
The Iranian populace sees matters differently. Iran’s ties with militias and terrorist groups have long bothered Iranians, who have objected to their country’s non-state client strategy on practical and moral grounds—arguing, for example, that the country shouldn’t be spending money to prop up Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Arab country, one that’s far away and whose developments don’t affect Iran. Some also argue that Tehran shouldn’t lend support to a brutal dictator in Damascus. Although these differences haven’t led to Iran halt its activities in the region, they’ve served to dial down the level of involvement by leading to fewer Iranian troops being deployed to Syria and compensating with non-Iranian forces, whose relationship Iran has often minimized, for example.
For these reasons, the Islamic Republic had mostly been discreet about the nature, depth, and breadth of its relations with non-state clients. Only a select few leaders of these militias and terrorist groups have had photo ops with the highest levels of the Iranian leadership. Lebanese Hezbollah’s longtime Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah belongs to this small group. Similarly, Iran often denies harboring any ties to or supporting these groups for fear of repercussions at home and abroad. Until recently, it denied any ties with the Taliban, although it has admitted to some intelligence cooperation with the group to counter the Islamic State in Khorasan (the ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan) over the past few months. Similarly, Iran denies supporting the Houthis in Yemen, claiming that the Houthi missiles intercepted by the United States and its partners in the region aren’t Iranian in origin.
Iran’s view that it is emerging on side of the victors in the Syrian civil war slowly changed this behavior, with the IRGC publishing and publicizing material pertaining to its ties with various non-state clients. But it is careful to showcase these fighters in key theaters, while continuing to deny or ignore allegations that these groups have been granted access to the Iranian territory, being trained in Iran for example.
Since the floods occurred, the IRGC reversed its longstanding practice of underplaying and denying support for non-state clients and avoiding any visible non-Iranian force presence in the country. Not only did it not deny that foreign militias were on the ground in Iran, but it also publicized this fact. Previously, rumors of foreign militiamen lending a hand to the regime had floated around—in particular, in 2009, some protesters had claimed that their torturers or interrogators were Arabic-speakers and thus not Iranians (an allegation that hasn’t been confirmed and which could very well stem from xenophobic and anti-Arab sentiment in Iran). Nevertheless, for the first time, IRGC-affiliated media outlets and social media accounts are now publicizing these groups’ presence in Iran and using it as a propaganda tool: Iranians, they claim, should learn who their friends are. As the Americans are imposing sanctions on Iran and the Europeans are failing to deliver on their promise of providing them with economic recovery to sustain the nuclear deal, Arab and Afghan militias are knee-deep in the mud, helping flood victims with nothing but a shovel and rubber boots.
As the conflict in Syria continues to wind down, Iran is looking ahead to figure out how it might be able to use the assets it has been cultivating throughout the conflict and across the region. One thing the Iranians do not lack is options. The regime can use the ITN as a strike force to further its foreign policy goals in the region. The growing Shia foreign fighter network also serves as a force multiplier in Iran’s proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, which has already manifested itself on the ground in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, but could also extend to Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.
The opportunism evident in Iran using the recent floods as a means of legitimizing its proxies is a departure from the past and could indicate a more permanent shift in Iran’s behavior and approach. Taken together, recent moves to publicly acknowledge the role played by Iranian-sponsored militias could suggest that Iran is seeking to formalize the relationship, similar to how Iran cemented its ties to Hezbollah decades ago.
Despite sanctions intended to cripple it, the ITN is perhaps as robust as ever, especially in terms of geographic reach and a deep bench of fighters and militants at the regime’s disposal.