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Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East

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Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, an understanding of the capabilities and strategic intent of Iran has been essential for the security and defence strategies of regional actors and global powers alike. This has in the past decade translated into a requirement for an understanding of Iran’s military capabilities.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has contributed to this understanding through Strategic Dossiers on Iran’s two most salient sovereign capabilities: its ballistic-missile and nuclear programmes (published in 2008 and 2011, respectively). Both these subjects continue to be relevant, as tension between Iran and the United States and regional states continues to rise. Iran’s missile capability, both within its sovereign territory and through the missile systems operated by the partners it supports, continues to be a major consideration in any strategic calculation in Tehran, or Washington, of escalation.

However, in the contemporary Middle East a third Iranian strategic capability is proving the determinant of strategic advantage: the ability to fight by, with and through third parties. This subject forms the basis of the third Iran dossier by the IISS: Iran’s Networks of Influence. Iran has possessed a form of this capability since 1979, but its potency and significance has risen sharply in the past decade, to the point where it has brought Iran more regional influence and status than either its nuclear or ballistic-missile.

Explore how Iran has refined its strategic doctrine since the end of the Iraq-Iran War and learn how its expeditionary security and military capacity has evolved to meet new demands.

On 19 March 2003, American cruise missiles hit Baghdad, beginning a series of high-intensity, precision salvos. Within three weeks, the US-led international coalition had occupied the Iraqi capital and effectively ended a regime that Iran had failed to defeat during the eight-year Iran–Iraq War, a conflict that had consumed a generation of Iranians and crippled Iran’s economy.

Within months, Iran had executed the initial stages of an aggressive hybrid-warfare strategy1 aimed at frustrating US objectives in Iraq, while simultaneously attempting to reshape Iraq’s political dynamic to favour Iran. The campaign drew upon a military doctrine that acknowledged Iran’s conventional military weakness and avoided direct confrontation with powerful adversaries. The doctrine eschewed operations that might invite heavy casualties and instead focused on the use of unconventional forces and proxies.

Relying on unconstrained logistics lines, Tehran exported a relatively seasoned group of Iran-based Iraqi surrogates and developed its first foreign militia since the creation of Lebanese Hizbullah. Iran enabled these militias by providing military technology that was tailored for its lethality to Western military forces. The rapid collapse of political stability in Iraq, combined with an absence of a Western strategy either to prevent or levy a price for Iran’s intervention in Iraq, allowed Tehran to manipulate the political evolution of a collapsed Arab state for the first time since Lebanon in the 1980s. By 2011, Iran’s forces and political allies were entrenched in Iraq, and Tehran’s influence there acknowledged by the international community.

The collapse of Syria in 2011 threatened Iran with the loss of its only state ally and the logistical architecture it relied upon to sustain Lebanese Hizbullah. Furthermore, the intensity of the Syrian civil war challenged a military doctrine best suited for low-intensity conflict. However, an unconstrained logistics channel in the form of an air bridge, the availability of nearby surrogates, and the absence of any Western effort to block Iran’s involvement during a time of diplomatic engagement on nuclear issues allowed Tehran time to shape a strategy that achieved objectives without challenging its fundamental doctrinal principles.

However, Iran’s regional adventurism required a domestic narrative to blunt opposition. Tehran’s state-controlled media and religious institutions initially masked or minimised its involvement in Syria, framing its actions as the protection of Syria’s Shia community and important shrines from Sunni militants. Potential domestic criticism was stifled by aggressive state-security elements or muted in the wake of Sunni militant terrorism in Ahvaz and Chabahar in 2018, which validated the need for extraterritorial counter-terrorist operations. Although the extent of personnel losses and resource costs would eventually be revealed, domestic opposition never reached the point where Iran’s leaders needed to consider compromise on critical objectives, let alone withdrawal from the conflict.

The unexpected fall of the Yemeni city of Sanaa to the Houthi rebels in September 2014 provided Iran with an opportunity to inflict damage on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. By then accustomed to an absence of Western reaction to its interventions, Tehran might also have considered the Yemen conflict as a chance to extend Iran’s influence into the southern Red Sea.2 However, intervention in this conflict would not be easy. Tehran’s focus at the time could not be shifted from Syria, and its logistics channel to Yemen would be constrained. Iran’s relations with the Houthi leadership extended to the first days of the 1979 revolution, but the political and operational connections were shallow compared to those with the Syrian regime. The Houthis brought years of experience as insurgents, but their battlefield sophistication was more akin to that of the Taliban than Lebanese Hizbullah. Once again, an unconstrained, if less efficient, logistics channel and the absence of international opposition eventually enabled Iran to introduce advisers, funds, advanced ballistic-missile technology, armed uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) and explosive remote-controlled boats, which significantly altered the course of the conflict.

Table 1.1: Regional strategic assessment: the Shia element
State Political–military situation Social fabric Shia community’s attitude toward Iran Level of cohesion within the Shia community Nature and level of political power
Bahrain Stable Shia majority Ambivalent
Iraq Post-conflict Shia majority Leaning towards ●● ●●●
– Fragmented
– Institutionalised
– Non-state
Lebanon Stable Largest community (non-majority) Leaning towards ●●● ●●●
– Unified
– Institutionalised
– Non-state
Syria Conflict Shia minority* Leaning towards ●●● ●●
– Unified
– Low institutionalisation
– Non-state
Yemen Conflict Shia (Zaydi) minority Leaning towards ●● ●●●
– Institutionalised
– Non-state
*Excludes Alawites

Source: IISS ●●● High ●● Medium ● Low

By 2019, Iran’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen had become a new normal in a region where such a concept would have once been unthinkable by the region’s leaders, including those in Tehran. Iran had achieved much of this change using a transnational Shia militancy, capable of fighting with varying degrees of skill and discipline, which confronted different Iranian adversaries on disconnected battlefields simultaneously.

No state has been so active, and perhaps as effective, as Iran in regional conflicts in modern times. The list of Iran’s actions against regional targets is long: Iranian personnel and equipment have conducted offensive cyber attacks, enabled naval attacks in the Red Sea, and missile and UAV attacks on Saudi Arabia and its population. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) Quds Force operations have sparked hundreds of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-backed-group sites in Syria. Iran has also maintained small ground forces in Syria, Yemen and sometimes Iraq.

Map 1.1: Iran: overview of influence in the Middle EastSource: IISS

To the chagrin of those Arab states under attack by Iranian-backed groups and which had only recently survived the threats of the Arab Spring, there has been insufficient international response to deter Iran from developing and deploying this capability. Moscow blocked action at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and some Western leaders advocated a role for Iran in the economic development of the region’s Arab states.3 This perception, and a sense that the US was turning away from the region, has played an influential role in how Israel and the Sunni Arab states have responded to perceived Iranian threats.

Tehran has, to some extent, anticipated and carefully managed this strategic expansion – its extraterritorial ambitions are laid out in its constitution and the rhetoric of its leadership – though it could not predict the regional seismic shifts and international apathy that have enabled its success. However, there were also several points in each of these conflicts when it appeared as if the balance might shift against Tehran.

Figure 1.1: Iran’s Supreme National Security Council: structure and participantsSource: IISS

Iran’s expeditionary security and military capacity evolved to meet new demands, including increased intra-service military collaboration beyond that anticipated by the Islamic Republic’s founders. Regional interventions have also cost Iran hundreds of lives and billions of dollars at a time when it is also facing unprecedented international sanctions pressure and mounting domestic discontent.

The drivers and history behind Iran’s transformation since the 2003 Iraq conflict can be observed by analysis of Tehran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. These theatres illustrate how Iran’s military strategy has shaped its actions, even as it evolved to meet unexpected challenges. Examination of the growth and use of Lebanese Hizbullah, and of Iran’s reach into Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, completes the picture.

Iran’s doctrinal framework and the tools behind its execution

Iran’s response to regional challenges and opportunities in the aftermath of its war with Iraq involved an offensive and defensive strategy shaped by increasingly ambitious goals, resource limitations and unanticipated situational demands. Through rigorous self-control over the extent of its direct involvement in conflicts, Tehran has avoided the high costs of undertaking conventional warfare. It has also refrained from overt attacks on more powerful actors that could have threatened the regime.

Iran’s lack of state allies, a plethora of well-resourced regional and international adversaries, and antiquated and sanctions-constrained armed forces compelled Tehran to develop a military doctrine that avoided direct or extended conflict with superior conventional powers. The doctrine drew from both the Soviet and US systems, Iran’s revolutionary goals and experiences from the 1981–88 Iran–Iraq War, and observations of US performance against Iraq in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. It is also possible that those who developed the strategy also studied the US covert campaign in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

An important factor in Iran’s consistency of doctrine is the longevity of its revolutionary leadership. Since 1989, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been the ultimate guardian of Iran’s strategic posture and has staffed security elements with senior officers he trusts to share his hardline views. Similarly, Iran’s military leaders often remain in their positions for a considerable number of years. Few of Iran’s adversaries can match such consistency of leadership.

Tehran’s experience in the Iran–Iraq War formed the foundation of its military paradigm. Iran endured more than a million casualties, including 300,000 fatalities. The war cost Tehran as much as US$645 billion and left its economy and infrastructure in ruins.4 Its survivors had witnessed Iran’s survival in a war it fought without allies, with a military using (by the end of the conflict) outdated technology. Its perseverance required the determination of its people, thousands of whom died. The war taught Iran that its domestic defence and external operations needed to rely upon layered defences and asymmetric responses if Tehran were to prevail against stronger powers.

In addition, the Islamic Republic’s constitution includes several sections that could be interpreted as a mandate to export Iran’s revolution.5 Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and the Gulf in the 1980s demonstrated its willingness to do so. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Supreme Leaders have led a foreign policy in which Iran acts as the self-appointed leader of the world’s Shia Muslims, with an emphasis on those in Iran’s near abroad. Regional intervention in defence of Shia Islam provides evidence of its commitment to devote resources to do so. Tehran’s role in the Sunni-dominated Middle East also aims to achieve greater empowerment for the region’s Shi’ites.6

The military doctrine Iran adopted in 1992 in its ‘Complete Regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Forces’ reflected an intention to draw upon an atypical combination of conventional forces (with an emphasis on ballistic-missile programmes), the exploitation of geography and Islamic Revolutionary energy.7 Tehran’s doctrine required collaboration from an unusual military architecture consisting of a then politically suspect Western-style Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh-e Jomhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran, or ‘Artesh’ for short) and a more ideologically reliable, if inexperienced, revolutionary military force called the IRGC (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami).

Establishment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Eventually, the IRGC would become Iran’s foremost offensive and defensive actor. Established on 22 April 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the IRGC was born at a time when the Artesh was deeply distrusted by Iran’s revolutionary leaders and its personnel were being systematically purged. Formation of the IRGC not only provided a counterweight to the Artesh but also allowed Iran’s new leaders to gather the hundreds of armed groups associated with the hundreds, if not thousands, of revolutionary committees that dominated Iran in 1979. Article 150 of Iran’s constitution mandated vaguely that the IRGC protect the nascent revolution and its future achievements.8 As a force orientated to the socio-political values of the revolution’s leadership, the IRGC was also tasked to support liberation movements and oppressed Muslims abroad.9

The IRGC focused on destroying the myriad armed leftist, monarchist, communist and ethnic elements who opposed the new Islamic Republic’s ideology. Gradually, the group developed bureaucratic cohesion and professionalism, aided by the lessons taught in the Iran–Iraq War, and a systematic removal of members deemed lacking in ideological adherence to Islamic values and the concept of political rule by a supreme religious jurisprudent (Velayat-e Faqih), an important component of Khomeinism. Following the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the IRGC gradually became an important domestic economic player through its role in reconstruction, and its veterans could be increasingly found in parliament and government positions.

Figure 1.2: Structure of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard CorpsSource: IISS

The relationship between the IRGC and the Artesh during the Iran–Iraq War was strained. The IRGC suspected the latter’s loyalty while the Artesh focused on the IRGC’s lack of professionalism and use of ambiguous demarcations of its responsibility to encroach on what it saw as Artesh roles. However, the two forces are meant to collaborate in times of war on missile activity and control of the shipping channels of the Persian Gulf. In terms of defence, they share a responsibility to execute a ‘mosaic’ defence response, which would draw on unconventional operations, guerrilla actions and the exploitation of Iran’s terrain.10 Domestically, Iran’s deterrence-based doctrine ‘stresses raising an adversary’s risks and costs rather than reducing its own’.11Externally, the doctrine aims to raise the risk to adversaries without increasing the risks and costs to Iranian forces. Proxy partners abroad are also of use to Tehran in terms of perception management. Adversaries would need to consider the possibility that a strike on Iran could produce a counter-attack by multinational surrogate militias at a location and time of Iran’s choosing.12

Although the Artesh remained the model of a traditional military force, charged with the defence of Iran’s territorial integrity, the IRGC became Iran’s dominant military organisation. The IRGC’s aggressive loyalty to the regime won it a superior budget, greater prestige, access to Iran’s senior leadership, the ability to operate large parastatal commercial enterprises and greater autonomy from civilian control.13 Its ownership of companies involved in rebuilding war-damaged Iran provided it with vast resources, as well as a web of commercial and political interests. As its power grew, and despite Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the IRGC to refrain from involvement in politics, the Corps increasingly criticised Iran’s civilian leaders when it perceived the latter’s actions as threatening the revolution’s (or its own) values or interests.14

Establishment of the Quds Force

The IRGC’s extraterritorial mission to support revolutionary movements relies upon its subordinate element, the Quds Force (Jerusalem Force, or Niru-ye Quds), an unconventional force established in the first years of the Iran–Iraq War from intelligence and special-forces units with a mandate to engage in extraterritorial low-intensity conflicts in support of ‘oppressed’ Muslims.

Ayatollah Khamenei said in 1990 that the Quds Force’s mission was to ‘establish popular Hezbollah cells all over the world’.15 The IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari illustrated the consistency of this assignment in his 2016 claim that ‘the mission of the Quds Force is extraterritorial, to help Islamic movements, expand the Islamic Revolution and to bolster the resistance and endurance of suffering people throughout the world and to people who need help in such countries as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq’.16

The early years of the Quds Force were occupied by the conflict with Iraq and cooperation with Lebanese Hizbullah. During the tenure of its first chief, IRGC Brigadier-General Ahmad Vahidi,17 the Quds Force adopted a structure to enable operations in Afghanistan, Africa, Asia, Central Asia, Iraq, Lebanon, Latin America and the Arabian Peninsula. It established approximately 20 militant training camps in Iran,18 as well as camps in Lebanon and eventually Sudan.19 Its creation of a specialised logistics element allowed it to manage covert weapons shipments internationally.

As the group’s reach expanded, Quds Force officers provided a safe haven, funds, terrorist training, weapons and ideological nourishment to a broad group of international militants, including Afghan Hazaras, Balkan Muslims, Gulf militants, Palestinians and even al-Qaeda.20 As this list illustrates, the Quds Force can be ideologically flexible. It provides support to any group that it might consider part of the international ‘Axis of Resistance’, willing to confront Iran’s adversaries, particularly the US, and increase Iran’s regional influence. Western and regional governments during this period repeatedly accused the Quds Force of having played a role in terrorist operations in Argentina, Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as attempts to destabilise Bahrain and other Gulf governments. Some of these operations (for example, in Beirut in 1983 and Khobar in 1996) left hundreds of Americans dead or injured. The 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires left 85 dead and hundreds wounded.21 However, international reaction was limited to relatively modest economic sanctions and diplomatic démarches, which did little to constrain Quds Force activity.

In circa 1998, then IRGC Brigadier-General Qasem Soleimani replaced Vahidi, who moved to Iran’s Ministry of Defence. Born in March 1957 into a farming family in southeastern Iran and forced by poverty to leave home at age 13 in search of work, Soleimani found employment in the municipal water department in Kerman. He played no part in the 1979 revolution, and his first role in the war with Iraq was to ensure the delivery of water to front-line soldiers. As the conflict attrited Iran’s cadre of officers, Soleimani was moved to a battlefield position and here – despite an absence of military or indeed much formal education – he thrived and enjoyed a reputation for bravery. His early military career included the suppression of Kurdish uprisings along Iran’s northwest border with Iraq and participation in the Iran–Iraq War’s major battles.22

After the war, Soleimani was appointed commander of an IRGC division tasked with suppressing unrest and narcotics trafficking along Iran’s eastern border. Tehran’s tensions with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan increased soon after he assumed this assignment. In August 1998, the Taliban captured and later killed Iranian diplomats and a press correspondent, and a war was only narrowly averted. Soleimani would likely have been active during this time working with sources within the Taliban community on the status of the captured Iranians, negotiating their return, and participating in any Iranian military planning for an attack on Afghanistan. During this same period, Soleimani maintained the Quds Force relationship with Lebanese Hizbullah and expanded training facilities in Lebanon and Sudan.23

Conditions for Iranian intervention

The Iraqi conflict offered four characteristics that became essential to the success of Iran’s intervention there, as well as in its future adventurism:

  • A failed state of geostrategic significance with a disorganised opposition and local partners willing to employ lethal force to achieve Iran’s goals.
  • A Shia community that believed itself to be under existential threat. (However, the fractious Shia community in Iraq was such that no single umbrella organisation like Lebanese Hizbullah could ever be created and some Shia elements – such as that led by Muqtada al-Sadr – would challenge Tehran as much as Washington.)
  • A logistics pipeline, which allowed Iran to transfer personnel, materiel and weapons in support of its allies, as well as enabling it to bring surrogates to Iran for training.
  • The absence of an external actor with the will and capacity to threaten Iran’s core interests sufficiently to end its intervention.

Iraq

The US-led invasion of Iraq provided Iran with the first real opportunity to exercise the offensive aspects of its 1992 military doctrine. The Iran–Iraq War had ended only 15 years before, and Iran would have felt compelled to do everything possible to defang Baghdad permanently and to establish a relatively compliant and benign government in its place. In addition, the spectre of a long-term American presence in Iraq would have been seen as unacceptable.

Iraq’s Shia majority offered the prospect of a large Arab state sympathetic to Tehran. Influence over Iraq would provide Tehran with strategic depth and some purchase over Iraq’s Kurds, as well as new opportunities to pressure Iraq’s neighbours – Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Although most Iraqi Shi’ites were not adherents of Khomeinism,24 a sufficient number were committed to (and had been trained by) Iran to allow Tehran some confidence that it would have powerful Shia allies in the social and political chaos that followed the 2003 invasion. Iran could gain additional partners through financial inducements or political pressure.

In 2001–03, Tehran watched as Washington’s relationship with Baghdad worsened, and the likelihood of war grew. Iran undertook preparations that reflected its strategic drivers and many of the extraterritorial elements of its military doctrine.

Tehran positioned the Badr Corps (later the Badr Organisation), an Iran-based Iraqi exile force, at the Iraqi border with Iran with orders to return to Iran as soon as conditions permitted.25 Established in 1982 as the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Badr Corps was formed first from Iraqi Shia prisoners of war and later those Iraqi Shia who fled to Iran to escape persecution in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.26 By 2003, the group – entirely dependent on Iran – could be considered to be a somewhat well-trained, ideologically sound and disciplined unit that could be deployed into Iraq’s Shia population to establish nodes of Shia authority sympathetic to Iran.27 The Iranian plan also called for the Badr Corps to disrupt the post-invasion American occupation using political, military and social means to supplant US influence.28

By 2005, US commanders accepted that the Quds Force had initiated a large-scale unconventional military campaign aimed at Iranian domination of Iraq’s emerging government and deeper influence over Kurdish groups in the north. As part of this campaign, Iran enabled, and sometimes directed, attacks on US personnel using Iranian-manufactured explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and improvised rocket-assisted munitions.29 Tehran’s introduction of these highly effective weapons resulted in a significant increase in coalition dead and wounded. Their use also marked the first of many examples of the Quds Force empowering third-party groups with more advanced weapons technology tailored to a specific battlefield.30 But their introduction also underscored a second lesson: Iran’s provision of lethal weapons to surrogates allowed it to damage adversaries without concern that its targets would retaliate against Tehran.

During 2007 and 2008, Iraqi officials served as intermediaries between the US commander General David Petraeus and Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani sent the following message:

General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Qods Force member.31

Although such dialogue would periodically continue, Soleimani avoided Iraq during Petraeus’s time, likely believing that the American commander would not hesitate to order his detention.

The inability of Quds Force leaders to travel freely in Iraq did little to impact Iran’s growing influence. By 2011, Iran’s influence over Baghdad’s political, security and media architecture was significant. The Quds Force ensured that it had sufficient funds, weapons and political guidance to be successful and those who opposed Iran’s interests were either side-lined or threatened into compliance. Soleimani played an increasingly open role in Iraq’s political process, resolving factional disputes among the Iranian militias and Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as seeking the election of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister, who was considered sufficiently compliant that he would neither challenge Shia militia influence nor aggressively oppose Iran’s activities in Iraq.32

Iran’s experience in Iraq provided important lessons. Just as Iran had escaped international retaliation for its years of support for terrorism, its overt challenge to Western powers in Iraq demonstrated that there were few actual red lines regarding Tehran’s use of unconventional forces and surrogates in its near abroad. Iran paid no price for its repeated lethal attacks on coalition forces or its interference in Iraqi affairs.

By 2011, Tehran had achieved its strategic goal of a relatively stable Iraq that no longer posed a military threat to Iran. By relying on a small footprint of forces and using third-party militias to confront British and US forces, Iran had minimised its own losses. While US domestic support for its involvement in Iraq had plummeted, there was little visible dissent from Iranians for their government’s role, even during election unrest in 2009.

Map 1.2: IRGC Quds Force Major-General Qasem Soleimani: reported presence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Russia, 2012–18Source: IISS

The Iraqi conflict also helped to transform the role and stature of the Quds Force. Soleimani’s relationship with the Supreme Leader considerably deepened during this period. As a result, the Quds Force’s domination of Iran’s policy in Iraq stood in stark contrast to the limited role played by Iran’s foreign ministry, especially as the Quds Force assigned its senior officers as Iran’s ambassadors to Baghdad.33 A new generation of the Quds Force cadre acquired valuable experiences in working with Arab militias against Western forces in Iraq and saw that they could undertake indirect threats against them without incurring any direct response against Iran.

Iran had also created a new generation of militia allies who offered political and military support for its interests.34 Tehran gained loyal partners in such Iraqi Shi’ite figures as Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organisation; Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq; Jamal Jaafar Mohammad al-Ibrahimi (otherwise known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or PMU); and Abu Mustafa al-Shaibani, one of the founders of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.35

A significant challenge to Iran’s success came with the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The dramatic initial success of ISIS forces in Iraq in June 2014 compelled Soleimani to play a more significant role in the direction of Iraqi militias in combat to sustain Iraqi allies, and to prevent the collapse of Iraq and establishment of an ISIS state on Iran’s western border. Iran transferred hundreds of advisers to the Iraqi government, shipped tonnes of weapons to the Kurds and recalled Shia militias from Syria to confront ISIS forces, which seemed at one point close to threatening Baghdad.36In an unprecedented example of its new regional assertiveness and willingness to operate militarily near Western forces, Iran provided close air support to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Badr Organisation militia forces and Iraqi special-operations units. The operations also enabled Iran to test indigenous guided ordinance.37

As part of its effort to enhance the effectiveness of Iraqi militias against ISIS during this period, Iran aggressively supported the creation of the PMU in June 2014. The PMU was initially composed largely of Shia militias, as well as Christian, Sunni and Turkmen forces. Although some of the Shia were loyal to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, the majority of these militias fell under Iran’s influence. In an attempt to place these forces under greater central-government control, the Iraqi government adopted a December 2016 law that incorporated them into Iraq’s armed forces. The effort had mixed results and little genuine Iranian support.38 A March 2018 decree provided PMU fighters with the same benefits as their defence-ministry counterparts, seemingly strengthening the militia’s separate identity. Iran’s significant influence over the Shia elements within this force and Iraq itself remained unchallenged.39

The Arab Spring and Syria

The 2011 Arab Spring unleashed a region-wide wave of political and economic turmoil. Having survived domestic unrest in 2009, Iran looked well positioned to exploit such events. The Sunni Gulf states no doubt appeared attractive targets, given their large Shia populations. However, Tehran’s failure to instigate any pro-Iranian unrest revealed both that its long-feared influence over Gulf-based Shia was overblown and that the Quds Force could not overmatch the Gulf states’ security services. Public and private rhetoric between the Gulf states and Iran became increasingly hostile.

Any disappointment Tehran might have felt at this failure was no doubt forgotten at the alarm that accompanied the political collapse of Syria, despite thousands of arrests by Damascus’s increasingly outmatched security services. More and more, it looked as if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would unravel as had those of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. The amount of territory under the control of its fatigued military and security services, which were designed to fight a conventional war against Israel or to serve as a check against other Syrian institutions that might move against the regime, seemed to shrink daily.

For Tehran, the loss of Syria would cost it its only state ally and dramatically reduce its ability to support Lebanese Hizbullah, as well as impede its ability to work with Palestinian militants. Assad’s Syria also provided Iran with access to the borders of Israel and Jordan, along with some protection to Iraq. For these reasons, Tehran considered the survival of Assad as a high priority.40

The Syrian conflict would serve as a powerful test of Iran’s external military doctrine. The conflict demands were a mirror opposite to those in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. In Iraq, the Iranians used insurgents to attack the regular US Army; in Syria, Soleimani would need to bolster a regular army fighting against multinational insurgents supported by the US.

Quds Force in the lead

As in Iraq, the Quds Force took the lead, shaping Iran’s operations to protect Shia shrines from Sunni militants and to sustain the Assad regime itself.41 Within months, the Quds Force would also see the war as an indirect conflict against the Gulf states and the US. In early 2011, Tehran dispatched a small group of senior Quds Force officials to Syria to assess the situation. The group included Soleimani and Hossein Hamadani, the commander of the IRGC’s Mohammad Rasulullah Corps of Greater Tehran. A close associate of Soleimani, Hamadani had helped put down the 2009 Green Movement and some in Tehran likely believed Damascus would benefit from this experience.42 The state of Syria’s military capability and its eroding fighting capacity were immediately apparent.43

More than any other element, the air-transport links between Iran and Syria would prove critical to Tehran’s success in that theatre. This link enabled the Quds Force to import advisers and technical support to allow Assad to monitor opposition communications, crowd-control equipment, UAVs and ammunition. Tehran reportedly used a variety of military, civilian and charter aircraft, as well as Syrian military aircraft, to sustain this supply line.44 Its use of Iraqi airspace was enabled by allies in Baghdad who accepted the fiction that the flights carried humanitarian supplies.45 Despite widespread reporting of Iran’s growing military involvement in Syria, the international community did not attempt to cut Iran’s air link with Damascus.

Tehran was concerned as to how its people would respond to this campaign. While they would support an Iranian effort to protect important Shia shrines and the Shia community, there would likely be little support for an expenditure of blood and treasure to sustain an Arab dictator. Iranian statements either downplayed or outright denied involvement, such as that of Jafari, in which he insisted that the IRGC provided ‘assistance in planning, as well as financial help’, but did not have a military presence in Syria.46 The involvement of hundreds of Quds Force and Lebanese Hizbullah personnel, who provided intelligence, training and battlefield support in Syria, made this narrative increasingly difficult to sustain.47

The presence of Iranian military officials in Syria was exposed in August 2012, when Syrian opposition forces captured 48 Iranian ‘military pilgrims’ allegedly visiting the Shrine of Sayyida Zainab in Damascus. The detainees included IRGC Ground Force commanders with experience in counter-insurgent operations, providing the first evidence that non-Quds Force personnel were also operating in Syria. The Quds Force and Syrian government worked to gain their release, eventually doing so on 9 January 2013 in exchange for 2,130 opposition prisoners.48

Gradually, Iran admitted that a number of Iranian volunteers were fighting in the conflict, but insisted they did so only to protect Shia shrines.49 Hizbullah similarly denied its involvement until a growing number of combat-related obituaries and the October 2012 death of a senior Hizbullah official made it impossible to continue denials.50

By early 2013, the growing number of military funerals of war casualties demanded a more compelling narrative. The February 2013 ceremony that commemorated the death of IRGC Major-General Hassan Shateri (otherwise known as Hesam Khushnevis) came with the claim that he had died not in combat, but at the hands of Israeli agents.51 Iran’s domestic narrative shifted to highlight the importance to Iran itself of victory against the opposition forces. In February 2013, hardline Iranian cleric Mehdi Taeb stressed the significance of Iran’s role in Syria to a group of Basij paramilitary militia students, describing Syria as ‘the 35th province’ of Iran and exclaiming that if ‘we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran’.52

By early 2013, Iran’s involvement appeared to be only slowing what then seemed to be the inevitable collapse of the Assad regime. Iran responded with four initiatives. Firstly, Soleimani discouraged Assad from confronting opposition forces throughout Syria and instead urged him to stabilise the southern and western fronts, which were most important to the regime’s survival.53 Secondly, the Quds Force undertook a reorganisation of Syria’s various paramilitary forces into a new 50,000-strong unit called the National Defence Forces (NDF).54 Thirdly, Iran increased the number of Lebanese Hizbullah and Iraqi militia forces in the country. Members of Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr Organisation and Kataib Hizbullah (named collectively the Haidariyoun) soon highlighted their Syrian operations on social media.55 Finally, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif undertook an aggressive diplomatic campaign that criticised US and Sunni involvement in the conflict, while simultaneously urging a political settlement with the opposition that would keep Assad in power and Iran’s interests intact. Iran was excluded from peace talks in Geneva, but its diplomatic voice on Syria was growing.56

Gradually, the situation stabilised.57 On 19 May 2013, Iran joined Syrian forces in a major battle to capture the city of Qusayr, which had been under opposition control since early in the conflict. Restoration of government control was an essential element in the Quds Force’s strategy: the city enjoyed a strategic location, sitting along the supply route for opposition forces in Homs, as well as splitting Damascus from Assad’s traditional Alawite stronghold on the Syrian coast. The city also sits near the entrance to the Bekaa Valley, the traditional channel for Iran’s movement of personnel and weapons to Lebanese Hizbullah. Soleimani reportedly took personal charge of a large body of Lebanese Hizbullah, NDF, Quds Force and Syrian military personnel in the battle.58 After severe fighting, the city fell to Assad’s government on 5 June.59 By the end of 2013, Iran’s increasingly dominant role in directing Syrian battlefield operations was widely known, and opposition elements began to claim that Soleimani had more power in Syria than Assad.60

An increasing Iranian and Iranian-backed group presence

Despite these successes, the intensity of the conflict and weak morale were attriting Assad’s overstretched forces. In addition, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and the fall of Mosul in June 2014 required the return of Iraqi militia personnel from Syria. Lacking any other local resources and constrained by a doctrine that limited substantial deployment of Iranian forces but had no such prohibition against third-country nationals, the Quds Force introduced Afghan Shia fighters to the conflict.

Drawing first upon a small number of Afghans who had fought with the Quds Force during the Iran–Iraq War and later against the Taliban, Iran recruited a new force from the large pool of Afghan refugees resident in Iran, as well as Hazara Shi’ites from Afghanistan itself.61 Named the Fatemiyoun, the Afghans were soon joined (albeit in smaller numbers) by Pakistanis (called Zainabiyoun). These fighters generally received only basic combat training and consequently suffered high casualties.62 Iran would have no choice but to increase its presence in Syria if the Assad regime was to survive.

By late 2014, Iran was sending hundreds of military personnel, as well as increasingly advanced missiles and UAVs, into the conflict with diminishing impact. Syrian forces were also increasingly operating under Iranian direction.63 Tehran was now immersed in a conflict that it could not unilaterally win militarily, but from which withdrawal or defeat was unacceptable politically and strategically. Furthermore, Iran’s growing presence in Syria suggested a new relationship with Damascus that offered long-term advantages in terms of power projection that Iran could not afford to lose.

The year 2015 began badly for Iran and its Syrian allies. Attempts to recapture Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had stalled. The Syrian opposition was increasingly well armed, battle hardened and showing signs of improved inter-factional coordination. Idlib fell to the opposition and ancient Palmyra to ISIS.64 By August 2015, Assad’s forces controlled only about one-sixth of pre-conflict Syria.65

Iranian losses were also spiking. Iranian media reported that 18 high-ranking IRGC officers and at least 400 Afghan and Iranian ‘volunteers’ had died in Syria since 2012.66Funerals for high-ranking officers killed in fighting came at a pace not seen since the Iran–Iraq War. Some, such as Hamadani, were close friends of Soleimani and received state funerals.67 The reported locations where these generals died show how widespread senior Iranian personnel were operating in Syria. Hamadani died near Aleppo. Brigadier-General Mohammad Allahdadi was killed along with Hizbullah fighters in an airstrike in southern Syria. Major-General Hadi Kajbaf and three other Iranians were killed south of Damascus. Brigadier-General Reza Khavari died near Hama in central Syria. Surrogates were killed as well, although their losses were seldom reported.68 For example, the commander of the Fatemiyoun Division, Ali Reza Tavassoli, died at Deraa. The Quds Force responded to these reports with an aggressive media campaign (in which Soleimani prominently appeared) highlighting Syrian successes and reminding audiences of the need to protect Shia shrines. However, this trend could not be sustained.69

Enter Russia

Soleimani’s battlefield weaknesses included a lack of combat air support, advanced artillery, missile coordination and sophisticated special-operations partners. Given Moscow’s long history in Syria, President Vladimir Putin’s animosity towards US President Barack Obama, concerns that the Arab Spring would diminish Russian regional influence and Russia’s traditional lack of objection to Iran’s activities in Syria with Hizbullah, Russia was an obvious choice.

Map 1.3: Iranian regional missile reach: selected ballistic and cruise missilesSources: IISS. Note: Maximum missile ranges assuming standard payload and most forward deployment. Distances shown are approximate.

Such an expansion of Russo-Iranian military cooperation would be a dramatic shift in what had been a complicated historical relationship. The years following the collapse of the Soviet Union witnessed deepening relations. Moscow’s willingness to sell Iran weapons and nuclear technology, and Russian support for Iran at the UNSC, as well as its attempts to build a relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gradually made Russia seem less hostile.70 In July 2015, Soleimani flew to Moscow and met President Putin to negotiate joint military involvement in the conflict.71 On 30 September, Russia’s parliament approved Putin’s request to launch airstrikes in Syria. Russia’s presence and the intensity of its operations quickly escalated.72

In mid-April 2016, Russia launched bombers from Hamadan air base in Iran, which enabled it to strike multiple targets in Syria, the first time a foreign state had operated in Iran since the Second World War.73 Russian use of Iranian bases was significant given Iran’s constitutional prohibition forbidding the establishment of ‘any kind of foreign military base in the country, even for peaceful purposes’.74 A significant victory came with the fall of Aleppo to Syrian government control on 26 December 2016.75 Although the ferocity of the war would continue unabated, the Assad regime’s survival appeared increasingly assured.

IRGC–Artesh collaboration

In June 2016, Iran’s Supreme Leader replaced Major-General Hassan Firouzabadi, who had been the Chief of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff since 1989, with IRGC Major-General Mohammad Bagheri, a close friend of Qasem Soleimani.76 Bagheri promptly selected a prominent Artesh commander, Major-General Abdolrahim Mousavi, as his deputy. In July the same year, IRGC Major-General Gholam Ali Rashid was assigned command of the Khatam al-Anbiya Central Headquarters, the element responsible for actual command and control of Iran’s combat forces.77 These changes augured increased emphasis on IRGC–Artesh extraterritorial collaboration.

Increasing cooperation between the IRGC and the Artesh had been apparent since at least 2011 and 2012, when they conducted large joint exercises, the first such manoeuvres since the 1979 revolution.78 Joint domestic mosaic defence exercises have also taken place.79 As Iran’s involvement in the Syria conflict entered its fifth year, reform appeared to be spurred by battlefield demands, as well as shifts in Iran’s perception of its strategic threats. Such joint exercises continued through 2018.80

The involvement of Artesh ground forces in Syria marked a profound shift from its traditional and constitutionally mandated defence-focused paradigm and the first time the Artesh had fought abroad since the end of the Iran–Iraq War.81 Iran’s public learned of this growing involvement much as the IRGC first disclosed its role: funeral announcements. In April 2016, Iran announced the deaths of three junior Arteshpersonnel, likely from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade. Artesh forces also suffered casualties in fighting near Aleppo.82

Iran’s use of ballistic missiles

It was likely that with the involvement of so many other Iranian military elements in Syria, Iranian missiles would also play a role.83 On 18 June 2017, the IRGC fired six medium-range surface-to-surface missiles at ISIS forces in Syria in response to an ISIS attack in Tehran earlier in the month.84 On 30 September 2018 and in response to a terrorist attack by Sunni militants against IRGC personnel that month, Iran again fired six medium-range ballistic missiles across Iraqi airspace against ISIS strongholds in Syria.85 The attacks also demonstrated Iran’s capability to Israel and the Sunni Gulf states.

By 2017, Iran’s operations in Syria represented a blend of conventional and unconventional forces and surrogate and allied actors. Personnel costs in the conflict had been significant. The number of Iranians killed in Syria had reached hundreds, perhaps more than 2,100, and with many more wounded.86 Casualties among Iran’s multinational militias were undoubtedly several times higher.87

However, Iran’s sacrifices had salvaged an ally, extended regional power projection and provided valuable battlefield experience to its forces. The death of at least one student from the IRGC’s officer-training Imam Hossein University may be evidence that Iran incorporated the conflict into its force training.88 Tehran’s forces also acquired significant military experience (especially concerning air support of combat operations and the combat integration of surface-to-surface missile capabilities) through joint operations with Russia.

Much as it did in Lebanon and Iraq, Iran has sought to sustain the paramilitary structures it created in Syria. In 2017, Iran’s IRGC Commander-in-Chief Jafari called upon the Syrian government to formalise the existence of Syria’s National Defence Forces and allow it to remain in existence following the end of the conflict, much as Iraq had formalised the existence of the PMU.89 It is likely that Iran’s political allies in Syria will be encouraged by Tehran to pursue positions of authority, much as their counterparts have been in Iraq and Lebanon.

Cyber

Iran’s approach to the new threats and opportunities presented by cyberspace and cyber operations is inherently bound to its strategic outlook. This applies particularly to its doctrine of strategic depth, both as it opposes its traditional regional adversaries (the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia; and Israel) and as it sees a new and unique opportunity to reach into the homeland networks of the global superpower ally of those adversaries, the United States. As with other levers of power, Iran’s cyber capabilities are born of internal organisational rivalry and are sometimes ‘outsourced’ to non-state actors. As with Iranian strategy in general, its use of cyberspace has an innate duality, with pragmatic regional defence partnering uncomfortably with a more dogmatic attempt to protect and export Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

The context for Iran’s approach to cyber is provided by its comparatively well-educated and computer-literate young population, and two strategic shocks. The first shock was the role the internet played in the flow of ideas that fuelled the Green Movement in 2009. This led to the IRGC being given a mandate and large investment to improve Iran’s domestic-information security; essentially, to protect the Iranian Revolution in cyberspace. This included the use of non-state cyber ‘proxies’ – the Gerdab.ir hacker group was reportedly tasked with hacking internal opponents of the regime, while the IRGC-affiliated Iranian Cyber Army hacker group markedly increased its activity from 2009 onwards. The second shock was Iran’s realisation that in 2010 its adversaries had successfully used a cyber capability (Stuxnet) to impede its development of a nuclear-weapons capability. Iran seemed to draw two main conclusions: the need to continue to strengthen its own cyber defences and an appreciation of the ‘offensive’ reach Iran itself might be able to achieve across cyberspace.

In 2011–12, and in addition to the similarly tasked IRGC Cyber Defence Command already in place, Iran established its Joint Chiefs of Staff Cyber Command, tasked with thwarting attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities and coordinating national cyber warfare and information security. In 2015, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed a Supreme Council for Cyber Space, reportedly a policymaking and supervisory body. Between 2009–10 and 2019, and often via non-state proxies such as the Iranian Cyber Army, Iran has invested heavily in developing and using cyber capabilities, for propaganda, intelligence exploitation and disruption. This appears to be an attempt to offset its conventional military weakness when compared with Saudi Arabia and the US, with an IRGC general claiming in 2013 that Iran was the ‘fourth biggest cyber power among the world’s cyber armies’. Of particular note has been Iran’s development of the Shamoon ‘wiper’ virus in imitation of Stuxnet, and its use against (among others) the Saudi oil industry and Western (including US) financial services. But reportedly Iran’s main cyber priority remains the need to identify the ‘vital points of vulnerability’ in its own infrastructure, to boost its own cyber defence. A report by the British Technology firm Small Media indicated that in 2015 Tehran had increased its spending on cyber security by 1,200% over a two-year period.

There is ample evidence from the last decade that Iran has provided cyber tools and training to its favoured proxy militia, Lebanese Hizbullah, helping to improve the latter’s capability as a cyber actor. The degree to which Iran may have shared some of its more advanced cyber capabilities is an open question, as is the degree to which Iran’s own cyber capabilities may have benefited from greater cooperation on intelligence matters with Russia in the wake of the war in Syria.

As of 2018, reporting from cyber-security companies (e.g., the 2018 Cloudstrike report) revealed ongoing Iranian cyber operations across the Middle East, but also against Western companies that do business or maintain infrastructure in the region, in some cases reaching into infrastructure provided by those companies in Western countries. The 2011 DigiNotar attack, the 2013 attack against the US Navy, the 2014 attack against the Las Vegas Sands Casino, the 176 days of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against US banks (which took place as US sanctions were being ratcheted up on Iran), and the attacks on the British and Canadian parliaments illustrate the range of Iranian cyber attacks. New tactics have also been reported, with a greater prevalence of information operations conducted on Western social-media platforms. Overall, Iran’s current cyber activity seems designed to conduct espionage against regional rivals, to control dissident activity and to further hybrid-war campaigns internationally. Cyberspace has given Iran a new international reach. The Shamoon wiper has re-emerged as a destructive threat, as part of the Iranian response to the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal) and the renewal of sanctions.

Yemen

Yemen’s Houthis had maintained a relationship with the Islamic Republic since the earliest days of the revolution, and some of its leadership had spent years in Iran.90During the 2000s, Sanaa would routinely complain of Iran’s relationship with the Houthis, but outside observers discounted much of this as propaganda. In 2007, the Yemeni government expelled Tehran’s ambassador reportedly over Iranian efforts to destabilise the fragile country.91 In 2009, Yemeni authorities intercepted two Iranian arms shipments bound for the Houthis.92 Nonetheless, the relationship did not appear to be a priority for either side until after the Yemeni government began to unravel in 2011. Even then, Iran’s security services had more urgent demands in Iraq and Syria.93

The situation changed dramatically when the Houthis captured Sanaa on 21 September 2014 and expelled the Yemeni government. Shortly thereafter, the Houthis moved to seize the port of Aden and Saudi Arabia and the UAE formed an Arab coalition to restore the Yemeni government to power.94 Iran realised that the conflict offered an opportunity to injure Riyadh and perhaps gain a partner with the capability to threaten commerce in the southern Red Sea and the strategic Bab al-Mandeb choke point. Iran’s influence over that geography, along with its existing control of the Strait of Hormuz, would allow Tehran to respond to any US action with an asymmetric threat to global energy and trade shipments. Tehran also likely recognised that the international community – which did little to challenge its actions in Iraq and Syria – would have no appetite to obstruct it.

As in the case of Syria, Iran’s first response involved the transfer of advisers and weapons via an air bridge managed by its civilian airlines, and later maritime smuggling from civilian ports and small boats.95 A small contingent of Lebanese Hizbullah military specialists were active on the ground. The Arab coalition quickly ended Iran’s ability to conduct flights and open naval shipments, but smuggling via Oman and the Arabian Sea coast enabled Iran to introduce increasingly sophisticated missile and UAV technology, advanced anti-tank guided missiles, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and ammunition at a sufficient pace to allow the Houthis to maintain the initiative.96 The Houthi capture of Yemen’s main port of Hudaydah in 2014 further enabled Iran to ship ballistic missiles and advisers to its new partner.97

Despite this success, Tehran’s engagement with the Houthis was challenging. Iran’s arrival in Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon in the 1980s relied heavily on the support of Iran-based allies or local contacts Tehran had dealt with for years, if not decades. No such architecture existed in Yemen. The Houthis had few advanced technical skills and rejected domination by any outside party, including Iran. The ideological grooming and technical training of the Houthis required working with them in Iran as well as Yemen. Nonetheless, the Houthis were tenacious and possessed a deep antipathy towards Saudi Arabia and the West. It soon became clear that Iran could sustain a conflict with Riyadh at a low cost: a limited number of advisers and weapons, training in Yemen and Iran, and sufficient funds to help the Houthis buy influence among other tribes.

The gradual improvement of Houthi missile and UAV skills, as well as their ideological harmony with Hizbullah, likely indicates that Iran has achieved some degree of success in both areas. Houthi rhetoric (and the group’s flag) share Hizbullah’s tone and language, and Houthi leaders met Hizbullah leader Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in August 2018.98

By 2016, Iranian weaponry in Yemen was visible on every front. The Houthi’s use of Iranian explosive remote-controlled boats enabled attacks on Emirati, Saudi and US military vessels, oil tankers and oil terminals in the Red Sea.99 With Iranian technical assistance, the Houthis were able to increase the range of pre-conflict missiles to target first Jeddah and by 2017 Riyadh itself. On 6 November 2017, an extended-range Houthi missile struck close to Riyadh International Airport. The Saudi foreign minister issued a statement that his government saw Iran’s role in the attacks as ‘an act of war … Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps.’100 The comments were ignored, and a month later, the Houthis launched a missile at King Salman’s Riyadh palace.101

Western observers routinely acknowledge Iran’s role in exacerbating the conflict and the extent of the civilian disaster, but Tehran has faced no specific consequences for its actions in Yemen. Emirati and Saudi leaders reportedly remain convinced that Iran intends to establish the same missile and UAV programme in Yemen targeting them as it achieved in Lebanon against Israel after 2006.102 This argument failed to sway the international community, although Iran-enabled missile attacks also threaten expatriates in Saudi Arabia. As in Iraq, Iran has not only injured an adversary but has been able to use the conflict itself to do additional damage to that adversary’s international reputation.

Table 1.2: Iranian assistance to Shia groups
Nationality Location of recruitment Location of training Critical enablers IRGC commanders deployed on battlefield Level of direct battlefield involvement Level of funding Known location of operations
Afghan Mostly in Iran – Iran
– Syria
– Direct recruitment
– Training
– Organisation
– Funding
– Command
Yes Syria
Bahraini BahrainIranIraq – Iran
– Iraq
– Explosively formed penetrators No Bahrain
Iraqi Iraq – Mostly Iraq
– Iran
– Explosively formed penetrators
– Training
– Mentoring
– Organisation
Yes ●● ●● Iraq
Syria
Lebanese Lebanon – Mostly Lebanon
– Iran
– Training
– Organisation
– Funding
– Rockets
– Missiles
– Uninhabited aerial vehicles
– Anti-tank guided missiles
Yes ●●● Lebanon
Syria
Iraq
Yemen
Pakistani Pakistan – Iran
– Syria
– Direct recruitment
– Training
– Organisation
– Funding
– Command
Yes Syria
Syrian Syria – Mostly Syria
– Iran
– Direct recruitment
– Training
– Organisation
– Funding
– Command
– Rockets
– Uninhabited aerial vehicles
– Anti-tank guided missiles
Yes ●●● ●●● Syria
Yemeni N/A – Yemen – Funding
– Missiles
– Missile training
– Uninhabited aerial vehicles
Yes Yemen
Source: IISS     ●●● High  ●● Medium ● Limited ○ None

Iran’s regional success: the enabling framework

The success of Iran’s military doctrine relied on a series of components:

Consistent application of hybrid-war techniques

Iran’s regional success was not guaranteed, but its refusal to involve large numbers of its forces did protect it from the risks of overextension. Tehran’s operations displayed similar activity profiles, with deployment pace and intensity dependent upon battlefield requirements and the level of sophistication of its surrogate militias. All of these tools were used in Iraq and Syria, and most apply to Yemen as well:

  • The deployment of senior Quds Force officers as advisers.
  • Financial, materiel, communications and cyber support.
  • The training of third-party militias – locally and in Iran – aimed at enhancing their sophistication, effectiveness and ideological reliability.
  • The deployment of small numbers of IRGC or Lebanese Hizbullah specialists.
  • The provision of advanced weaponry tailored to battlefield requirements (e.g., EFPs, advanced surveillance and armed UAVs, advanced ballistic-missile technology, explosive remote-controlled boats) to increase the power of surrogate and partner militias.
  • The gradual involvement of non-IRGC Iranian elements, including the Artesh, the foreign ministry and other civilian ministries.
  • Initial denial of involvement in the conflict, followed by gradual admission of activities as losses become undeniable.
  • The development of militias into Hizbullah-like organisations, with local security and political roles, under Iran’s influence.
  • The exploitation of soft-power potential.

The main advantage of this profile is that it has allowed Tehran to test (and successively breach) perceived international red lines. The absence of red lines risked Iran and the West stumbling into conflict as a result of increasingly aggressive Iranian and Iranian-proxy actions. Instead, regional states have seemingly grown accustomed to conventional military operations instigated by Iran, but limited to front-line states.

 

fig13pop

Figure 1.3: Ideological affiliation with key allies/proxies
Sources: IISS

 

Significant expenditure of financial resources

Despite the demands of the regional conflicts in which it has been involved, Tehran has limited the numbers of Iranian personnel deployed in theatre, instead deploying only senior personnel and specialists. In contrast, its expenditure of financial resources faced few constraints. However, it is difficult to estimate the costs of Iran’s regional interventions. Its expenditures include not only billions of dollars in direct cash payments and oil deliveries, but also weapons and equipment from national stockpiles. Funding for its allies and surrogates in the region includes payments and training expenses for thousands of militia fighters, as well as the costs of operating Iranian military and civilian airlines.

Expenditures in the Iraq, Syria and Yemen conflicts are estimated to have cost the Iranian economy as much as US$16bn.103 These costs are in addition to as much as US$700 million reportedly paid annually to Lebanese Hizbullah, as well as millions of dollars to various Palestinian militants.104 The strain of such expenditures on Iran’s flagging economy has been considerable, although the impact has been eased by the fact that the cost has been spread over more than eight years. In terms of specific conflict costs, Iran’s support to Syria since 2011 has been the most significant expenditure of foreign aid in its modern history. In 2015, a UN envoy estimated that Iran was spending as much as US$6bn per year on its Syrian operations, although it is unclear how much of this aid came in cash and oil as compared to excess materiel Iran had already produced for its own armed forces.105 According to IMF figures, Iran also provided Syria with credit lines totalling US$1.9bn in 2013, US$3bn in 2014 and US$0.97bn in 2015.106 In addition, Iran reportedly transferred about 60,000 barrels of oil per day to Syria.107

Reliance on third parties to fight conflicts

Since 2003, the Quds Force has created or nurtured, armed, funded, trained and transported an increasingly seasoned transnational Shia (and sometimes Sunni) militancy capable of fighting against different opponents on disconnected battlefields simultaneously. Iran’s militia partners – some of whom only came into existence after 2011 – may number as high as 200,000.108 However, Iran’s control over surrogate operations varies. In some cases, Iran seeks only to influence their actions (e.g., elements of the Taliban). In others, its goal is to enable partners with parallel interests (e.g., the Houthis, and to an extent Lebanese Hizbullah). But in many cases, Iran’s control has been routine and direct (e.g., the Shia militias in Iraq and Syria). The Sunni components of this militancy (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Taliban elements) underscore that Iran’s interests are also geopolitical.109

The loyalty of these militias – when considered collectively – has been enough to achieve Iran’s regional goals, whereas cohesion among Iran’s regional adversaries is weaker. The fact that thousands of Arabs have fought for years under Iranian command has also shown that Tehran had eroded at least some of the traditional Arab–Persian hostility that had long confounded its ability to build pools of influence in the region.

Iran’s surrogates and partners are also evolving. Iraqi and Lebanese surrogates have undertaken expeditionary operations that would have been deemed improbable only a decade ago, providing Iran with further opportunities to evade responsibility for its regional interventions. As Iran’s proxy partners in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen assert themselves politically, it is likely that they will allow Iran to maintain its influence in the political development and decision-making of Arab states.110

An assertive foreign policy

The lack of international reaction to Iran’s adventurism resulted from a mixture of crisis fatigue, competing priority issues, a decline in direct US involvement in the region and Russian obstructionism in the UNSC. But Iran’s willingness to undertake an assertive foreign policy to exploit fissures in the international community did deflect pressure from Tehran, allowing the Quds Force to create facts on the ground. This foreign policy has been directed by the Supreme Leader but dominated by two actors: Major-General Soleimani, who engaged directly with Iraqi, Russian and Syrian leaders, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, who focused on communicating with the broader international community. In their engagement with foreign officials, and despite differences in style and personality, they displayed common qualities:

  • Both represent Iran’s incoming generation of leaders: assertive, pragmatic and committed to the revolution’s principles. They are unwilling to compromise on Iran’s claimed role as a regional hegemon, and are committed to the sustenance of the Axis of Resistance against Israel and the need for the US to leave the region.
  • Each has relied on powerful patrons, whom they are likely to influence. Soleimani’s ties to the Supreme Leader are as well known as Zarif’s relationship with President Hassan Rouhani. Soleimani is likely to survive under future hardline supreme leaders, but Zarif’s position may not survive the end of Rouhani’s term in 2021.
  • Their stature is in part due to their longevity. Soleimani has led the Quds Force since 1998 and had considerable experience with Afghan and Kurdish issues before taking command. Zarif became foreign minister in 2013, before which he had periodic interaction with US officials and long service at the UN.
  • Their status has been elevated by significant US foreign-policy decisions: Soleimani’s operational world burgeoned after the US-led invasion of Iraq; for Zarif, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal provided unprecedented engagement with China, Russia, the US and major European leaders.
  • Each has been the target of Western outreach. Zarif used the discussions to build a working relationship with the US secretary of state and other leaders. Soleimani rejects direct contact, but periodically, if only briefly and through intermediaries, has engaged with the US. These engagements may have allowed each an understanding of Western negotiating style to a degree not shared by their Western intermediaries regarding Iran.
  • Each exploited the West’s willingness to negotiate at times of weakness or geopolitical necessity. Examples include Soleimani’s indirect outreach before the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and his willingness to authorise discussions following the US crackdown on Iranian forces in Iraq. Zarif’s engagement during pre-invasion discussions, support for nuclear talks as sanctions pressure reached its height, and engagement of the Geneva process on Syria when Assad was at his weakest, were similar.
  • Each is adept at using the media and social media. Zarif routinely engages Western press and social media, while Soleimani appears on social media and makes widely reported anti-Western speeches.

Strategic assessment

Iran’s interventions have validated an external military doctrine emphasising hybrid-war techniques and cooperation with state and sub-state actors. Iran has been able to threaten international energy and shipping arteries in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, and to some extent the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb. A large number of Iranian military personnel have fought difficult and multi-year conflicts in which they may believe they not only achieved strategic objectives but did so at the expense of Arab regional powers, Israel and the US. This confidence will likely guide Tehran’s view as to how it will manage future conflicts.

The conflicts in Syria and Yemen are far from over, but as they do wind down, Iran will be faced with a series of challenges. Iran’s clients are well positioned to protect its interests, and the international community has yet to develop a strategy capable of dismantling Tehran’s militias. However, Iran will also be challenged to produce the resources required to sustain post-conflict reconstruction. Failure to do so could easily erode Iran’s influence at the expense of external powers. Tehran’s execution of its military doctrine has won it unprecedented regional influence during periods of equally unprecedented conflict. Whether this doctrine can deliver substantive returns in times of peace, as it did in Lebanon, will be tested in Syria and elsewhere.