A world without the Islamic Republic of Iran

Iran’s network of proxy groups is real and conducts the vast majority of the violent activity in the current Middle East conflict.

By Jim Hanson and Johnathan Spyer, Middle East Forum

Iran has operated a network of proxy terrorist and militia groups across the Middle East and beyond for decades.

They recently activated many of them and sparked the conflagration engulfing much of the Middle East and wreaking havoc on global commerce.

These mark only the latest examples of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s malign activities across its 45-year reign of terror.

Nothing will change until the free world adopts as its goal the overthrow of the world’s number one sponsor of state terrorism.

Iranians, other Middle Easterners, and people throughout much of the world cannot enjoy peace and prosperity until the mullahs’ regime in Tehran is replaced with one that respects human rights and seeks peace with its neighbors.

Iran’s leadership defines redlines that proxies should not cross but allows them to conduct actions that Tehran has not expressly forbidden. ‘

This provides the Islamic Republic plausible deniability that it uses to escape accountability, but it does not mean the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has clean hands.

Diplomats may dismiss those conducting terrorism as rogue actors, but the fact that they receive honors and promotions after the fact belies this.

Over the past two decades, Iran’s political and religious leadership has shifted from describing the Islamic Republic as a regional power in the Persian Gulf to a pan-regional power to include the northern Indian Ocean and now describe Iran’s strategic boundaries as extending to the Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf of Aden.

In the wake of the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel, Iranian officials brag about their “Axis of Resistance” which now fights throughout the region.

While there have been reports, including one purporting to represent the opinion of the U.S. intelligence community, that Iran’s level of influence over these entities is exaggerated, this does not match the current and historical reality.

This dossier details the main Iranian surrogates and the command-and-control Iran exercises over them. It suggests that Iran has orchestrated the current conflagration in the region and that any solution that does not account for that malign influence confuses treatment of symptoms with the disease.

Information comes both from open sources and the network of Middle East Forum (MEF) contacts across the region.

Shared Goals Among the “Axis of Resistance”

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has either created or coopted a multitude of surrogates that span from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Mediterranean. Within the core Middle East, the Islamic Republic relies on Hamas and smaller associated groups in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, various Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, government and pseudo-governmental militias in Syria, and Houthi forces in Yemen.

In December 2015, Ali Shirazi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s personal representative to the Qods Force, admitted coordination with the Axis of Resistance.

“Today in the world, we benefit from the support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Ansarullah, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization, Heidaryun, Zainabiun, and Fatemiun, the Syrian national defense, and the strength of the Palestinian Mujahideen,” he declared.

Iran remains the largest state sponsor of terrorism, a position it has held for more than three decades, even as it embraces strategies to avoid accountability.

This was the reason for Khamenei’s recent statement that “The entire Islamic world is obliged to support the Palestinians and, God willing, they will support them. But this action was carried out by the Palestinians themselves.”

Such a double game allows the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to pursue their statutory imperative to “export revolution”; keep adversaries off balance; disrupt counter-Iran alliances; and, among those deeply indoctrinated in Twelver Islam, to set the stage for the return of the Hidden Imam.

Why would Iran employ so many of its proxies simultaneously?

There are five converging reasons. First, Iranian leaders sense weakness in the United States. Second, there is both distraction and overextension in U.S. foreign and defense policy. Third, the Iranian leadership needs to deflect from internal dissident activity. Fourth, although individual proxies also have local goals, these also suit Iran’s larger strategy of destabilization.

Finally, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recognizes his own mortality and wants to see Iranian victory over Israel and the West prior to his own demise. He has long been clear in his antipathy toward Israel. In 2012, he stated:

“We intervened in anti-Israel conflicts, resulting in the triumph of the 33-day war [Hezbollah 2006] and the success of the 22-day war [Gaza 2008]. From this point forward, wherever any nation, any group combats the Zionist regime, we unequivocally stand by them, offering our unwavering support, and we have no qualms about saying this.”

Understanding the Hamas Invasion of Israel in the Context of Iran

Israel’s failure to detect and disrupt the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack represents a massive intelligence failure. Still, Hamas did not have the capabilities and resources to plan and execute the attack alone.

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Hamas leaders may not have shared their exact timing in advance for operational reasons and Iran’s plausible deniability, but it is unrealistic to believe Iran was unaware of such a massive operation brewing.

After all, U.S. and Israeli officials estimate Hamas receives between $70-100 million annually from Iran.

From Iran’s standpoint, it was willing to use Hamas as a fire-and-forget munition in a broader operation to rally the broader Islamic world against Israel. But it is highly likely operational aspects of this attack were known to and likely worked out with Iranian leadership.

Hezbollah calibrated its posture to draw Israeli forces away from Gaza but not drag Lebanon into open war. On November 3, 2023, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah dashed its followers’ hope of a two-front war against Israel, at least temporarily.

Hezbollah feared they might suffer the fate of Hamas forces in Gaza, and Iranian officials also likely urged them to constrain their fire so that Hezbollah’s missile arsenal could continue to serve as a deterrent against any direct Israeli strike on Iran.

Israel always fights an uphill battle against bias in the media, international organizations, and broader antisemitic anti-Zionism. Iranian leaders knew they could count on that.

Pushback from these sources began as soon as it became apparent that Israel was going for a decisive victory to extirpate Hamas from Gaza.

The purpose was to make it difficult for Israel to conduct its operation and to obscure Iranian responsibility for and any involvement in the Hamas attack.

Reports claim Iranian strategists forced a delay from April 2023 on a date that would coincide with the Jewish Passover holiday and the Islamic Republic’s annual anti-Israel Qods Day rallies to allow Tehran to conclude ongoing negotiations with the United States and unfreeze oil revenues.

Only after the Biden administration freed $6 billion for Tehran in September 2023 did Tehran apparently give the green light. However, after the October 7 attack, the U.S. asked Qatar to halt any release of this money.

Additional Iranian proxies using Iranian munitions and trained by the Qods Force soon entered the fray with attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq and Syria. Next came Houthi-led attacks on commercial vessels and U.S. Navy ships.

Again, weaponry used originated in Iran, with Qods Force personnel assisting with training and targeting. The Iranian spy ship Behshad reflected direct command-and-control culpability as it provided targeting information. On December 23, 2023, a drone launched from Iran struck an Indian merchant vessel, according to a U.S. military spokesman.

Qods Force

The Qods Force is the external operations wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Founded in 1988 as a successor to the Office of Liberation Movements, its lethality expanded under Qassem Soleimani, who took its helm in 1998.

His expansion of the Qods Force enhanced Iran’s ability to foment chaos and derail the plans of others. In 2007, the United States designated the Qods Force as a terrorist entity, and Soleimani himself was listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

By the time of Soleimani’s 2020 demise, the Qods Force was perhaps eclipsed as an agent of illicit international violence only by Soviet Union’s Active Measures efforts.

One of the Qods Force’s deadliest campaigns was the production and provisioning of Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) to terrorist forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

EFP’s mimicked the capabilities of a shaped-charge projectile and enabled attacks on up-armored vehicles.

Iran produced tens of thousands, killing and maiming more American troops than any other enemy activity. In April 2019, the United States designated the entirety of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

The January 2020 drone strike on Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of Kata’ib Hezbollah, departed from previous responses to such attacks as the United States directly targeted an Iranian leader

Soleimani’s replacement, General Esmail Qaani, promised to avenge Soleimani’s killing and attempted to enhance many of the proxy forces assembled by his predecessor, but he lacks both the political heft and personal connections Soleimani had built over the years.

The recent spate of terrorist acts and violence by Iran’s proxies show a revitalized and reactivated network. The October 7 attack suggested a willingness to void existing redlines and elevate violence against Israel and the United States to a new level.

An anti-Iran hacking group called “LabDookhtegan” revealed information about the Qods Force “Division 8000,” commanded by Hassan Habibi, charged with technologies and weapons transfers to Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Subordinate divisions include Unit 8030, commanded by Ali Hadami, which enhances Hezbollah naval power; Unit 8040, commanded by Kadratullah Fatmi, that operates air defense and electronic warfare systems; Unit 8050, commanded by Hadi Kamali, that operates drones; and Unit 8090, commanded by Mehdi Afari, responsible drone production and supply to Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Russia.

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Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are creations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). These cross religious lines and include both Sunni and Shia groups. They have an identifiable command structure and are part of a strategy by which Iran seeks to hollow out and take control of Arab states.

Iraq

Many pro-Iran militias in Iraq are organized in the framework of the legally constituted Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). These are part of the Iraqi armed forces.

Forty of the estimated 67 PMU militias share close links with the Qods Force, the largest being Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbollah.

The total manpower of Qods Force-associated militias in Iraqi is around 50,000. Kata’ib Hezbollah is the force at the center of recent attacks on U.S. forces and the drone attack that killed three American troops in Jordan on January 28, 2024.

Another major group is Harakat al-Nujaba (Movement of the Noble Ones), an Iraqi Shi’a militia organization that first came to light in 2013 and has deployed to both Syria and Iraq, the former as part of aiding Assad regime forces against rebels and the latter to fight the renewed Sunni Arab insurgency. Harakat al-Nujaba shows affinity with both Iran and Hezbollah.

Iran created the core of its current militias structure prior to or in the immediate run-up of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many predate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s mobilization call for Iraqis to fight the Islamic State.

Some of the Iran-backed PMU leaders falsely seek to assume the mantle of legitimacy that Sistani’s call bestowed upon those volunteering to fight the Islamic State.

Muhandis made no secret of the PMU’s dependence on the Qods Force. He described himself as a “soldier of Soleimani” in interview with Iranian TV in April 2017.

In an interview with MEF Research Director Jonathan Spyer in June 2015, he said that that PMU depended on “capabilities and capacities supplied by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Since Muhandis’s death, Abu Fadak al Mohammadawi (Abdulaziz al-Mohammadawi, nicknamed “al-Khal” – the uncle) has assumed leadership of Ktaeb Hizballah.

A veteran of Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War, Abu Fadak is a long time Ktaeb Hizballah militant. The militias’ political fronts form a vital component of the current Iraqi ruling coalition, the so-called “Coordination Framework.”

Syria

The Qods Force organized militias to ensure the Assad regime’s survival. Today, Iran-associated militias such as Liwa al-Bakir, Quwaat al-Ridha, and the 313 battalion operate through the Assad regime’s Local Defense Forces.

They and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps directly control southeast Syria and the Albukamal border crossing between Syria and Iraq. Qods Force-organized militias such as the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade and the Pakistani Zeinabyoun also operate on Syrian soil.

Iranian support for Hezbollah now approaches $800 million annually.

Bassam Al-Hasan coordinates these matters on behalf of the Syrian regime, while Yusuf Sharara and Hassan Ibrahimi do so on behalf of Lebanese Hezbollah, Mohammad Qaidi and Ali Haji on behalf of the IRGC, and Ali Hamdani (commander of the Iraqi Ali al-Akbar Brigade) and Abu Fadak (chief of staff of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces) do so the same on behalf of the PMFs.

They act together as important cogs in a broader Iranian trans-national network.

Client Organizations

Unlike franchise groups, organizations which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps itself set up, client groups emerged independently but depend on Iran for much of their capacity.

Iran supplies a major portion of the operating budgets for these groups as well. Using almost exclusively military hardware provided by Iran, Hamas conducted a barrage of rocket attacks in 2008 that forced an Israeli intervention codenamed Operation Cast Lead.

Credible reporting from the Wall Street Journal shows Iran was involved in recruiting, funding, equipping, and training the Hamas forces that invaded Israel on October 7, 2023.

“Roughly 500 militants from Hamas and an allied group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, participated in the exercises in September, which were led by officers of the Quds Force, the foreign-operations arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the people said.

Senior Palestinian officials and Iranian Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, the head of Quds Force, also attended, they said.”

The Jerusalem Post stated:

Hamas’s mass infiltration and massacre of Israelis on October 7 was originally intended to take place during last Passover’s Seder meal. … As per the report, Iran decided to delay the organized assault on civilians to Simchat Torah due to reasons that are unclear. However, Caspit speculated, it could have been delayed due to informal negotiations with the United States which led to $6 billion being freed up for Iran in September.”

Houthis (Ansarallah)

Iran has long supplied, trained, advised, and directly assisted the Houthis in terror operations. Yemen has received some of the most advanced Iranian missile and drone technology.

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They used it against Saudi Arabia to attack oil facilities and civilian airports during the Yemen Civil War, launching more than 850 drone attacks and 400 ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis, official name Ansar Allah, have a slogan that is in Arabic in the sign on the left. It reads from top to bottom:

There is no telling how many shipments of arms and personnel entered Yemen via this Houthi-friendly port, but the January 2013 interception of the Jihan-1 dhow suggests a powerful post-2011 effort by Iran to arm Ansar Allah in the same manner Iran has armed Lebanese Hezbollah.

Intercepted by the USS Farragut off Yemen’s coast, the Jihan-1 carried the same kinds of Iranian-provided arms that Israel had previously intercepted off the coasts of Lebanon.

These included 122-millimeter Katyusha rockets; Iranian-made Misagh-2 man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) rounds and battery units; 2.6 tons of RDX high explosive; and components identical to Iranian-provided Explosively-Formed Penetrator (EFP) mines used in Iraq and Lebanon.

The vessel also carried Yemenis covertly moved in and out of Iran (i.e., not having gone through any immigration procedures). The United Nations Panel of Experts on Iran, which investigated the incident, found that “all available information placed the Islamic Republic of Iran at the center of the Jihan operation.”

The report also found that Iran and the Houthis collaborated to upgrade some Iranian weaponry, making it more capable for terror attacks.

Alongside tactical evolution influenced by Lebanese Hezbollah, the Ansar Allah movement has debuted a range of advanced weapons systems since 2015 with direct assistance from Iran.

The clearest example of this is the Burkan 2-H medium-range ballistic missile, which the Houthis have used since May 2017 to strike Riyadh and Yanbu, around 600 miles distant from launch points in northern Yemen. In January 2018, the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen found conclusively that Iran produced the Burkan-2 missiles fired from Yemen. …

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah were instrumental in upgrading the Houthis’ arsenal.

The accumulated balance of evidence strongly suggests that Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have developed powerful military and technical advisory missions in Yemen since 2014.

According to Yemeni leaders present in Sana’a between 2014 and 2017, IRGC advisors were confined to Sana’a and to a missile construction site in Sa’ada.

These advisors were “like a diamond to the Houthis” and were “kept in safe places to help give operational and strategic advice and guidance on tactics and procedures.”

Lebanese Hezbollah operatives were more numerous and were not only kept in Sana’a and Sa’ada but also allowed forward as far as command posts and the Red Sea coastal defense sites.

Middle East Forum sources in the region have confirmed that the Iranian spy ship Behshad has provided command and control and targeting information to the Houthis in their recent spree of maritime attacks. This has allowed them to locate and launch dozens of attacks on U.S. Navy ships and commercial shipping.

While U.S. defenses have thus far been able to shoot down all of these drones and missiles, at least one close call gives cause for concern when a Houthi missile penetrated into the range of the Phalanx CIWS, the ship’s last line of defense.

Conclusion

Iran’s network of proxy groups is real and conducts the vast majority of the violent activity in the current Middle East conflict. It is accurate to say that Iran has orchestrated and operated them to start the current conflagration.

It is possible to quibble that Iranian representatives are not personally controlling the individual acts of terror and violence perpetrated by their puppets. But they are pulling the strings and none of the major attacks on Israel, the U.S., or international shipping occurred without the knowledge and tacit approval of the mullahs and their IRGC commanders.

In a message relayed to U.S. General David Petraeus in 2008, the late Qods Force chief Soleimani, for example, declared “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassam Soleimani, control policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.”

This situation calls for the United States and its allies, especially those in the Middle East, to work together to end the 45-year regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranian people – and the rest of the world – deserve a decent political order in Iran that neither represses its own population nor acts aggressively toward others.

This has many benefits: it supports the aspirations of the Iranian people; improves regional stability and security; assures freedom of navigation; shuts down the network of belligerent Iranian proxies; removes an ally of Venezuela, Russia, and China; and undermines the power of the Islamist ideology.

MEF is conducting an in-depth investigation of the funding and operations of Tehran’s terror syndicate and will provide this information to government and law enforcement entities to facilitate appropriate actions.

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