• Washington Post

Iran Showcases Its Reach With Militia Attacks Across Middle East

Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS
An Israeli soldier operates in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this handout picture released December 30, 2023.

BEIRUT – The Gaza war has given Iran the opportunity to showcase the capacity of its newly restructured network of allied militias, demonstrating Tehran’s strategic reach while allowing it to keep a distance from the fight, according to members of the groups and military analysts.

On any given day since the Oct. 7 Hamas assault on Israel, one or other of these militias has carried out an attack somewhere in the Middle East – and on some days several in different places. The Houthis in Yemen are targeting ships in the Red Sea; Kataib Hezbollah and other Iraqi groups are hitting U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria; and Lebanon’s Hezbollah is engaged in daily exchanges of fire with Israeli forces across the Israel-Lebanon border.

The attacks can seem random, but they are the fruit of a carefully calibrated strategy forged in the wake of the 2020 killing of Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, to bring cohesion to the loosely formed alliance of militias – designated by Tehran as the “axis of resistance.”

Although the groups seem unrelated – a rebel organization in Yemen; a guerrilla movement in Lebanon; and militias formed to fight U.S. troops in Iraq – they all have one thing in common: their loyalty to Iran, which arms, finances and inspires them, the members of the groups and analysts said. Together with Hamas, they constitute the main components of the “resistance” axis.

“What these different elements have done, moving forward with these attacks, shows the strength of this proxy network Iran has established throughout the region and how much of a concern it is,” said Joseph Votel, the former Centcom commander who oversaw U.S. troops in the region at the time of the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani.

In interviews, officials associated with three of the main groups described a level of coordination previously unmatched in the nearly two decades since Iran began cultivating a variety of local allies as a way of extending its regional influence. Representatives of the militias collaborate and consult through a joint operations room that meets regularly, typically but not always, in Beirut, they said.

No one group is in control, the officials said, and each has a degree of autonomy over what attacks to carry out in their area and when, according to their capabilities and local agendas. The Houthis, for example, have taken on the task of attacking shipping, with a view to pressuring the international community to demand Israel adopt a cease-fire in Gaza. The Iraqi groups are targeting the U.S. bases in response to the Biden administration’s support for Israel. Hezbollah is firing at Israel to draw Israeli troops away from the Gaza front.

At the same time, officials with the groups said, all of the actions are calibrated to avoid a wider regional war – suggesting that while the militias have autonomy on individual operations, their actions are designed not to conflict with Iran’s strategic objectives.

“During the meetings we discuss updates and progress on all the fronts and how strategically the operations benefit each front,” said an official with Kataib Hezbollah, the biggest Iraqi group carrying out attacks. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Iran provides all kinds of support but when it comes to decisions and actions on the ground, the decision is ours.”

Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has played a leading role in cementing the alliance, as the most senior figure commanding the oldest, most successful and battle-hardened group, the officials say.

Soleimani’s death had left the axis leadership in disarray. As commander of the international wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Soleimani almost single-handedly cultivated the militias, and in the process achieved a mythical stature that far exceeded his formal rank.

Without Soleimani, rivalries erupted, especially among the Iraqi militias, whose overall leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was assassinated in the same strike as Soleimani.

Nasrallah stepped in to mediate and began implementing a new strategy, which he called “unity of fronts,” and all the groups pledged to go into action in their respective areas should any one of them be attacked. The Gaza war is the first time the strategy has been put into practice.

Nasrallah has emerged as a first among equals, the officials say. When he gave his first public address following the outbreak of the Gaza war, Iraqi militias gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to watch the speech live on giant screens.

“We regard Hasan Nasrallah as the official spokesman for the resistance, one of its basic pillars and most important symbols,” said the Kataib Hezbollah official. “He enjoys the respect and appreciation of all Iraqi sides and we consider him an umbrella for all of us.”

Votel recalls being concerned following Soleimani’s death that the Iraqi militias would lose the discipline imposed by their Iranian commander. Instead, he said, the restructuring appears to have strengthened their cohesion.

“That they have become horizontal rather than vertical seems to be a strength for them,” Votel said.

How much of a role Iran plays in directing the overall strategy “is the million-dollar question,” said Hamidreza Azizi, a former professor of regional studies at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University who is now a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “In a sense, Iran both is and is not behind these activities.”

Soleimani’s replacement, Ismail Qaani, has adopted a far lower profile than his predecessor, lacking Soleimani’s charisma and his history of personal relationships with the groups.

Iran, as a result, has changed the posture of the Quds Force, to allow greater autonomy to local groups, while remaining their benefactor. But Qaani is very active behind the scenes, shuttling among the capitals of the countries where the militias are based, Azizi said.

“Qaani is everywhere. He’s a planner,” he said. “But they deliberately want him to have a very low profile.”

An IRGC official is present at most of the joint operations meetings, according to a person associated with Hezbollah who is familiar with the proceedings. But Iran is only represented as “one of all,” without playing a leading role, said Nasruddin Amer, a spokesman for the Houthis in Sanaa who heads the Saba News Agency.

The strategy appears to be working well from Iran’s perspective. It has been able to assert its regional influence through the disparate attacks, without triggering the major conflagration that could put its militia allies at risk and potentially draw Iran directly into the fight, Azizi said.

“Iran feels quite comfortable,” he said. “These groups can come together to defend its interests and have shown their willingness to not allow one of its members, in this case Hamas, to be totally pushed out of the scene without a response.”

Whether the strategy will continue to work to Iran’s advantage is in question as Israel expresses growing anger at Hezbollah’s attacks along its northern border. “If the world and the Lebanese government don’t act to prevent the firing on Israel’s northern residents, and to distance Hezbollah from the border, the IDF will do it,” Israeli minister Benny Gantz said last week, in a warning that Israel might launch a full-scale assault on Lebanon.

Israel has also been stepping up its attacks on Iranian allies and assets in the region. On Dec. 25, an Israeli strike in Syria killed a senior IRGC commander, Razi Mousavi, drawing threats of direct retaliation from Iran.

An outright war, however, would throw Iran’s strategy into disarray. But the militia officials say they are confident that their attacks are providing sufficient deterrence to both to Israel and the United States without escalating beyond the current level of conflict.