Tehran’s ‘proxy model’ faces new constraints
Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Tehran’s leaders have employed proxy forces — often insurgent groups and terrorist organisations — to advance the Islamic Republic’s regional objectives. Initially, the Iranian Revolution advocated “Muslim unity” and attempted to position itself as the leader of all Muslims in the anti-US and anti-imperialistic struggle.
However, Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute, said that following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Iran’s subsequent involvement in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Tehran increasingly has pursued a sectarian agenda by supporting primarily Shia proxies. Vatanka details his findings in “The Emergence of Iran’s ‘Proxy Model,’” a study released by the Middle East Institute.
Iran’s use of proxy forces since 1979 has not been a consistent practice. Vatanka said that after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Tehran reconsidered the proxy model and the 1990s saw an Iranian retrenchment in the region.
Then, in 2003, came the US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which “catalysed a sudden power vacuum in that country.” This created a tempting opportunity, especially for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). “After 2003,” Vatanka writes, “Iran’s IRGC stepped quickly in to identify and cultivate what is in Persian referred to as the ‘goro-haaye vije,’ or ‘special groups’ — Arabs and other non-Iranians — who would become the Islamic Republic’s foot soldiers.”
When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Tehran applied the template it developed in Iraq as it “bolstered local non-state militant actors as its foot soldiers in the broader fight for influence,” Vatanka said. In Syria, Tehran also had the advantage of being on the same side as the regime and, later, of Moscow.
There was one key difference in Iran’s involvement in Syria compared to Iraq, writes Vatanka: “The major departure in Syria, when compared to the situation in Iraq, was the need for Iran to bring in droves of non-locals — such as Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and Hezbollah from Lebanon — to fight under Iranian leadership to keep the Assad regime from collapse,” he said.
Vatanka suggests that Tehran has had a harder time selling to the Iranian people why Syria is a national security issue, which was a much easier argument to make when the fighting was in neighbouring Iraq. As a result, Iranian leaders have been careful to limit Iranian casualties and rely even more on proxy forces to do the fighting.
Because both the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars quickly took on a sectarian nature, Iran has found itself no longer posing as the revolutionary vanguard for all Muslims. Its proxies are almost solely Shia forces or at least non-Sunni forces such as the Houthis in Yemen.
As a result, Iran’s broader revolutionary message has diminished. Tehran is no longer viewed, for example, as a key supporter of the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel.
Vatanka said he does not believe that Iran purposefully chose to express its revolutionary fervour in sectarian terms. Rather, the situations in Iraq and Syria, along with broader instability throughout the region after the “Arab spring,” created an environment in which “Tehran’s reliance on Shia militant groups is where it has found the most return for its investments.”
Vatanka argues that “Tehran will continue to look for ways to break its image as a ‘Shia power,’ which inherently limits its ability to manoeuvre.” However, outside of on-and-off again support for Hamas, it is hard to see how Iran can retreat from the sectarian fight.
The forecast, Vatanka said, was for more of the same: “The proxy model approach has overall been successful for Iran. Unless its costs outweigh the benefits, no major shift in this policy can be expected while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the decisive voice in policymaking in Tehran.”
It is yet to be seen whether the Trump administration’s resumption of harsh sanctions on Iran will put a brake on its ability to conduct war by proxy.
If Vatanka is correct, the sectarian dimension of regional conflicts in the region will continue and perhaps even grow. In the meantime, Vatanka counsels Iran’s Sunni competitors, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, “to continue to appeal to non-Islamist Shia Arabs. The policy of treating all Shia, regardless of their political persuasions, as Iranian proxies badly backfired.”