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EDITORIAL

Iran’s Strategy: Empowering Proxies in the ‘Axis of Resistance’

Iran and its proxy ‘Axis of Resistance’ − Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis

Iran’s Expanding Regional Influence

Iran refers to this network as the “Axis of Resistance” overseen by the Revolutionary Guards to counter U.S. and allied influence, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, simply calling these groups “proxies” overlooks the nuances. They operate more as strategic partners with varying autonomy.

Hezbollah

Hezbollah, established in the 1980s with Iranian support, emerged in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Over the years, Iran has extensively backed Hezbollah with training, funds, and weapons, transforming it into a major force. Despite deep ties, Hezbollah maintains significant autonomy in Lebanese politics and social services.

Hamas

Hamas, formed in 1987, forged ties with Iran in the 1990s despite ideological differences. Iran’s support for Hamas includes finances, military training, and rocket technology, bolstering Hamas’s capabilities against Israel. Though their relationship has experienced strains, Iran’s backing for Hamas remains robust, enhancing its military capacity.

The Houthis

The Houthis, originating as a Yemeni Shia Islamist group, eventually aligned with Iran due to shared religious beliefs and opposition to Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Iran’s support for the Houthis has included sophisticated weaponry, military training, and funds, empowering them to challenge Saudi Arabia and target vessels in the Red Sea.

Despite Iran’s influence, these groups retain autonomy in pursuing their own agendas. While Iran provides resources and coordination, each maintains its own objectives and local support base, functioning more as partners than proxies. This nuanced understanding underscores the complexity of Middle East geopolitics and highlights the broader implications of Iran’s expanding regional influence.

The influence exerted by Iran over its allied groups has come under scrutiny, but the extent of Tehran’s direct involvement remains unclear. However, Iran’s strategy of aligning with violent nonstate actors shapes regional dynamics.

Empowering Hezbollah: Iran’s Pivotal Partner

Of Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah remains the most strategically significant. Since its inception, Iran has provided extensive support to strengthen Hezbollah’s military and political capabilities in Lebanon. This includes funds, training, and weapons, enabling Hezbollah to become a dominant force that challenges both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Military and Financial Backing

Iran’s backing has been instrumental to Hezbollah’s emergence as a powerful militia. Iran provides sophisticated weapons, funds, and training to Hezbollah fighters. This support has enhanced Hezbollah’s military capacity, including its rocket arsenal and naval forces. Iran’s financial support also funds Hezbollah’s social services in Lebanon, boosting its political influence. Despite such support, Hezbollah still maintains autonomy in its military and political decision-making.

Countering Israel and Saudi Arabia

A shared opposition to Israel and Saudi Arabia has long united Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s military strength deters Israel from invading Lebanon again after its withdrawal in 2000. Hezbollah also aids Iran in challenging Saudi Arabia’s dominance, undermining Riyadh’s agenda in Lebanon and the region. However, Hezbollah’s focus remains on empowering Shias in Lebanon and confronting Israel, not directly serving Iranian interests.

An Evolving Partnership

While Hezbollah relies on Iran’s backing, it is not a proxy in the traditional sense. Hezbollah emerged independently and maintains its own objectives, popular support base, and military/political power in Lebanon. Despite periods of strained ties, this interdependence continues to shape their strategic partnership. Iran provides critical support but lacks full control, as Hezbollah retains significant autonomy. This nuanced dynamic is crucial to understanding Iran’s influence and Hezbollah’s role as an empowered partner, not just a proxy.

In summary, Iran’s military, financial and political support has been instrumental to Hezbollah’s rise as a dominant force in Lebanon. However, despite deep ties, Hezbollah operates as an autonomous strategic partner that pursues its own agenda, not just as a proxy under Tehran’s control. This complex relationship underscores Iran’s strategy of empowering violent non-state actors to expand its influence, while still facing limitations in directly controlling them.

United Against Israel: Iran’s Ties With Hamas

Iran’s relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, highlights Tehran’s strategy of cultivating ties with violent non-state actors to counter Israeli and Western influence. Formed in 1987, Hamas initially aligned with Iran in the 1990s despite differences in religious ideology. Iran’s backing of Hamas includes financial support, military training, and sophisticated weapons and rocket technology that have enhanced Hamas’s capabilities against Israel.

While strains have emerged in the Hamas-Iran relationship at times, Iran’s support for Hamas remains strong. By providing resources and coordination, Iran has empowered Hamas to challenge Israel, even as Hamas maintains its own objectives and base of support within Gaza. For Iran, ties to Hamas serve to threaten Israel while expanding Tehran’s influence, even over groups with which it has limited ideological kinship.

Iran’s sponsorship of Hamas showcases how Tehran leverages partnerships with militant groups to shape regional politics in line with its interests. Despite their differences, Iran and Hamas are united in their opposition to Israel. By enhancing Hamas’s military capacity, Iran aims to counter Israeli power and create a constant threat against its arch-enemy. At the same time, Iran’s backing of Hamas has allowed the group to become a significant force in Gaza, even as it pursues its own agenda.

The Iran-Hamas relationship thus highlights the complexity of Middle East geopolitics. While Iran exerts influence over Hamas through financial and military support, Hamas operates with a degree of autonomy to govern Gaza and attack Israel as it sees fit. This nuanced dynamic between state sponsor and proxy group underscores how Iran cultivates ties with violent nonstate actors to expand its regional clout and threaten its adversaries. Though the level of direct control Iran exerts over Hamas’s actions remains ambiguous, Tehran’s empowerment of the group significantly impacts the region’s balance of power.

The Houthis in Yemen: Iran’s Proxy War Against Saudi Arabia

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, are a Zaidi Shia group based in northern Yemen. Iran’s backing of the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war represents a crucial front in its proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia.

Weapons and Funding

Iran has provided the Houthis with sophisticated weaponry, funds, and military training that has enabled them to challenge the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, including strikes on oil infrastructure and civilian airports. They have also targeted naval vessels in the Red Sea, threatening international trade routes.

Shared Interests

The Houthis and Iran share a number of key interests, including opposition to Saudi influence in Yemen and the wider region. They also share a Shia religious identity, despite the Houthis following Zaidism rather than the Twelver Shiism dominant in Iran. Iran sees support for the Houthis as a way to counter Saudi Arabia and expand its regional influence at Riyadh’s expense.

The Houthis’ Autonomy

However, the Houthis are not directly controlled by Iran and maintain a high degree of autonomy. They have their own political and military agenda focused on controlling north Yemen and operate independently of Iranian direction. While Iran’s backing has been crucial to the Houthis’ rise, the group functions more as a strategic partner than a straightforward proxy under Tehran’s control.

Iran’s support for the Houthis underscores its willingness to empower violent militias to counter and destabilize its regional rivals. Although the Houthis are autonomous actors, Iran’s military and financial backing has been instrumental to their gains in Yemen’s civil war and ability to threaten Saudi interests. The conflict in Yemen represents a key arena for competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the Houthis serving as a useful proxy for Iran to challenge Saudi power.

The Future of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’

Iran’s cultivation of strategic partnerships with violent non-state actors has allowed Tehran to exert influence across the Middle East at a relatively low cost. Going forward, Iran will likely seek to maintain – if not expand – its network of proxies in the region to counter its adversaries, including the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Hezbollah in Lebanon

Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah, its oldest and closest proxy, will probably remain the centerpiece of its ‘Axis of Resistance.’ Hezbollah’s military and political power in Lebanon affords Iran strategic depth along Israel’s border. Despite financial strains from U.S. sanctions, Iran will probably continue supplying Hezbollah with funds and advanced weapons to maintain its deterrent against Israel.

Hamas in Gaza

While Iran’s relationship with Hamas has experienced strains, Tehran still provides military and financial aid to the group. Iran will likely sustain this support to keep pressure on Israel from Gaza. However, Iran’s backing for Hamas may weaken if the group pursues rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Houthis in Yemen

Iran’s support for the Houthis, including sophisticated weapons and funds, has allowed the group to threaten shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Iran will probably continue arming the Houthis to bleed Saudi Arabia, expand its influence in Yemen, and gain strategic depth along key maritime checkpoints. However, Iran’s support may decline if the Houthis negotiate an end to Yemen’s civil war.

In sum, while Iran’s relationships with its proxies are often portrayed simplistically, they operate more as strategic partnerships. Going forward, Iran will likely work to sustain these partnerships to counter its regional adversaries, even as the proxies themselves maintain a degree of autonomy to pursue their own objectives. The future of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ will shape the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East for years to come.

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