Understanding Iran’s Non-State Network

Yves here. This offering is a reader critical thinking exercise. On the one hand, unlike many articles about The Resistance, it provides useful detail about history and funding. But on the other, as we see with Israel and Ukraine (where Zelensky defied US instructions as to how to conduct various operations), funding does not necessarily equate to control even when there is a desire to bring proxies to heel. In keeping, the article starts with the Houthis, as if their campaign against Israel was somehow at the instigation of Iran. The slippery phrase “Iran-backed” does not equal “Iran-controlled.” There is separate evidence that Hezbollah is autonomous, even though it no doubt also communicates and coordinates with Iran.

It’s instructive to see how Western commentators are uncomfortable with influence networks when the US routinely operates that way. But somehow it’s OK when the money is laundered through NGOs like the National Endowment for Democracy.

By John P. Ruehl, an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C., and a world affairs correspondent for the Independent Media Institute. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas’, was published in December 2022. Produced byEconomy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

During a three-day period in January 2024, Iranian-supported militant groups employed an anti-ship missile to attack an oil tanker in the Red Sea, launched rockets into northern Israel from Lebanon, and used a drone strike to kill three U.S. soldiers in Jordan. These incidents marked the extension of attacks by Iranian-backed groups in the Middle East into the fourth straight month since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7, 2023.

Largely diplomatically isolated since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, unable to challenge U.S. military power, and lacking the nuclear brinkmanship card held by North Korea, Iran has evolved its strategy of utilizing militant groups for decades. Iran’s Quds Force has provided training, funding, and weapons assistance to various militant groups in the region, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. This strategy has advanced Iran’s geopolitical interests and afforded it plausible deniability, but not all of its associates march in lockstep with Tehran.

Part of Iran’s approach involves transforming militant forces into powerful political actors. Hamas, founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, gained prominence during the First Intifada against Israeli forces. Hamas grew closer to Iran during the early 1990s after the Oslo Accords initiated an ultimately failed peace process, with Iran providing financial and weapons support during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. When Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas established administrative control over the territory after winning elections the following year, and has forbade elections since.

Consolidating armed Palestinian opposition under Hamas allows Tehran to challenge Israel directly. But as a Persian and Shia Muslim country operating in a predominantly Arab and Sunni Muslim peninsula, Iran has offset its diplomatic and cultural isolation by using the Palestinian cause to criticize Arab governments growing closer to Israel in recent years. Supporting Hamas against perceived inaction from Arab leaders has been a constant feature of Iranian public messaging. Further normalization between Israel and Arab states is now paused due to the Israel-Hamas war.

While Iran denied prior knowledge of the October 7 attack, it has expressed public support for Hamas since. Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh has meanwhile stated that Iran provides $70 million annually to the group in addition to ongoing logistical and weapons assistance, largely through smuggling operations. However, relations between Iran and Hamas are largely limited to opposition to Israel and the West, and Hamas also receives financial support from Turkey, Qatar, and other sources.

Instead, Hezbollah has emerged as Iran’s most important non-state ally. Established as a Shia militia in 1982 during the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah’s significant military forces have been utilized to target Israeli and Western forces in the Middle East. Since the recent conflict’s onset, Hezbollah has launched hundreds of missiles into northern Israel, but the destruction caused by the 2006 Lebanon War against Israel has made it cautious of further escalation.

Hezbollah is also strategically valuable in its role as an envoy to other militant groups. Hezbollah has historically trained Hamas militants in weapons systems and military exercises in Lebanon and Syria. Like Iran, Hezbollah also denied knowledge of the Hamas attack on October 7, but Iranian, Hezbollah, and Hamas officials have since met regularly to discuss strategy and cooperation.

Beyond its military role, Hezbollah has evolved into Lebanon’s political powerbroker. Eight of its members were first elected to the Lebanese parliament in 1992, it joined the government for the first time in 2005, and in 2018, a Hezbollah-led coalition gained the majority of Lebanese parliamentary seats. Despite losing its majority in 2022, its lingering influence over Lebanese politics indicates that Iran remains close to a state capture-like situation, where external forces and interest groups gain systematic control over a country’s decision-making process.

Additionally, Hezbollah operates clinics, schools, banks, businesses, and other entities that have shielded it from Lebanon’s economic collapse and political stagnation since 2019, maintaining its “state-within-a-state” structure. In addition to weapons and logistical support, Iran is believed to provide $700 million to Hezbollah every year. And when sanctions diminish Iranian assistance, Hezbollah also secures funding from legal businesses to criminal enterprises, activities which span across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the U.S.

Iran’s militant network in Syria meanwhile surged after the civil war broke out in 2011, threatening Iran’s long-term ally President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah and Iran recruited from Syria’s Shia community to form groups like the Mahdi Army and al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi Brigade, as well as some Sunni groups like Liwa al-Quds, to aid the Syrian armed forces against ISIS and pro-Western forces. The Zainabiyoun Brigade and Fatemiyoun Brigade, largely consisting of Shia Muslims from Pakistan and Afghanistan, have been used by Iran in Syria.

As the Syrian government’s position has stabilized, Iran has attempted to integrate pro-Iranian militant groups into the Syrian armed forces and has used them to increase Iran’s political and economic influence in Syria as it competes with Russia. Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, they have launched numerous strikes against U.S. and allied forces within Syria.

Pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militant groups have similarly increased rocket attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq since October 7. Their growing strength goes back to the U.S.-led occupation after 2003 that allowed Iran to bring groups like the Badr Organization, funded and trained in Iran, back into Iraq. Iran also organized with other developing “Special Groups” of Shia militias to attack U.S. forces.

After the departure of most U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, Iranian-backed groups sought political integration into Iraq’s fragile democracy. Alongside the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba in Iraq (both distinct from Lebanese Hezbollah), and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) became some of Iraq’s most prominent political and militant forces. In 2014, numerous pro-Iranian militant groups in Iraq were consolidated into the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to combat ISIS, playing a crucial role in liberating much of the country and elevating their status.

In Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections, the PMF became the second-biggest bloc and “achieved one element of state capture” by securing government funding for itself the following year. PMF members now directly or indirectly control crucial government institutions like the Interior Ministry and Supreme Court, and December 2023 elections saw the coalition win 101 out of 285 provincial council seats.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI), a leading group of PMF militias, has taken the initiative in attempting to push remaining U.S. forces out of the country. Their attacks since October 7 have intensified discussions within Washington over whether to do so, while Iran denied knowledge of the drone attack which killed three U.S. soldiers in January 2024.

Washington has similarly been confronted by the Houthis since October 7. Emerging in Yemen in the early 1990s as a Shia Islamist group amid the country’s civil war, the Houthi movement initially focused on religious and cultural revivalism and combating corruption. Hezbollah performed early outreach to the Houthis before Iran increased its financial, logistical, and weapons support in the 2010s as Yemen’s civil strife escalated. Iranian support increased further after Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen to fight the Houthis in 2015 until Saudi forces pulled out of the country in defeat in 2023.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the Houthis have fired several missiles into southern Israel. But their principal distraction has been attacks on shipping in the Red Sea in support of Hamas and the Palestinians. Acting in coordination with Iranian and Hezbollah officials, the Houthis have completely disrupted global trade and raised doubts over the U.S. ability to ensure open sea lanes.

Doing so has enhanced their domestic support and expedited Yemen’s peace process, the conclusion of which would give the Houthis significant political control over the country. Iran has continued to offer support, providing data from an Iranian surveillance vessel to direct Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and ongoing weapons shipments to the group.

While the more prominent pro-Iranian militias have been mentioned, smaller cells also exist. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad complements Iranian influence in Gaza. In Bahrain, the Al-Ashtar Brigadesand Saraya al-Mukhtar have been responsible for numerous attacks on security and government targets in promotion of Shia interests, and Kuwait has witnessed several scandals involving the surfacing of pro-Iranian Shia militant cells over the last decade.

But Iran’s cultivation of militant groups and political exploitation is not without risk. The ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict has put Hamas’s rule in Gaza to the test, potentially undoing decades of investment. And Iran has only varying degrees of control over all these groups. Hamas’s open support for Sunni militant groups in the Syrian civil war conflicted with Iran’s support for Syria’s Shia-dominated government, resulting in a temporary withdrawal of Iranian funding. Despite resuming in 2017, the affair highlighted Hamas’s and Tehran’s ideological divisions.

Iran is also alleged to have advised against the Houthis seizure of Yemen’s capital in 2014 and Iraqi militia leader Qais al-Khazali’s attack on U.S. forces in 2020. Control over Iraqi militants has similarly weakened since 2020, and even Hezbollah military officials have reportedly refused orders from Iran in Syria. Yet voicing public dissatisfaction with these groups would undermine Iran’s portrayal of leadership and unity against Israel and Western powers, limiting its ability to rebuke them or reign them in.

Iraq’s Iran-aligned groups meanwhile have “fierce internal rivalries” that inhibit greater coordination, and Iran’s interference in Iraq has resulted in significant consequences. In the 1980s, Iran’s support for Iraq’s Kurds saw Iraq support Kurdish separatists in Iran, which continue to attack Iran from Iraq to this day. The January 2024 exchange of fire between Iranian forces and Balochistan militants in Pakistan, followed by retaliatory strikes by Pakistan against groups in Iran, revealed the challenges Iran faces in managing militant groups both internally and with its neighbors.

Iran, however, will likely persist with its strategy, even if it obtains nuclear weapons. Its proxy groups’ amassed military and political power have helped Iran challenge its enemies and inch close to state capture (or state failure) in several countries. As the U.S. continues its gradual pullout from the Middle East, there is no telling how these groups may continue to evolve—with or without Iranian assistance.

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  1. Samuel Conner

    unclosed italics tag?

    Re: > Iran has continued to offer support, providing data from an Iranian surveillance vessel to direct Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and ongoing weapons shipments to the group.

    I couldn’t help but notice the symmetry with Western assistance to its proxy/client/ally Ukraine. I get the impression that US leaders regard this kind of assistance, when directed against US hegemony, to be somewhere on the spectrum from “overt hostility” to “war”. But we seem to not appreciate (or at least not publicly acknowledge) that this kind of assistance looks the same when directed against our competitors.

    1. digi_owl

      A double think as old as the cold war. After all, there had been missiles in Turkey aimed at the USSR for some time before there were even talk about setting up the same in Cuba.

  2. DJG, Reality Czar

    In the paragraph on the 2018 Iraqi elections, I clicked through to the underlying article, an analysis from West Point (yes, that West Point).

    To wit:
    “The country’s oil economy, its freedoms, and its intelligence services are being gutted by militias to ensure their rule is permanent. Yet unprecedented control has not moderated these militias: The Gaza war has shown that these armed factions are also still addicted to militant ‘resistance’ to the United States. The result is the emergence of a terrorist-run state with greater resources than any of Iran’s other proxy networks, hiding behind the façade of a sovereign country.”

    This is a one-sided analysis, messed up further by the psychobabble about addicted to ‘resistance’: One might ask: Given the history of U.S. and English meddling in the region, why wouldn’t Iraq and Syria be in a position of constant resistance?

    A brief description of U.S. meddling in Syria as early as 1948 or so, three years after Syrian independence:

    The unceasing meddling in the region is a reason for the rise of a militant Iran. I recall a comment by an Iranian-American writer that only the U. S. government through its studied ineptitude could have turned the most pro-American country in the Middle East (Iran) into an enemy. Likewise, the mess that is the history of Syria–under constant pressure from the U S of A and Israel. Likewise Hezbollah, which is there to keep the Israelis out of Lebanon (and, yes, it has had ambiguous effects on Lebanese domestic politics).

    And endless war footing leads to fewer civil rights and civil liberties. The horrific Assad government in Syria is not much of a surprise. We see this disregard for human rights in the U.S. of A. itself, with the current braying to criminalize protests against the U.S. proxy war in Gaza.

    The whole piece is an argument for the Brits (who drew the borders of Iraq in a masterpiece of nation-building, eh) and the U.S.A. to stay away from the Middle East. Reform cannot happen under external pressures–all of those fantasies about throwing away the hijab and outbursts of democracy cannot happen if the U.S. of A. is a major threat.

      1. JonnyJames

        Probably not, after the UK and US overthrew the democratically-elected Mossadegh govt. in 1953 and imposed the puppet regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a brutal dictator. Probably not fans of the UK either, having stolen their oil for years.

      2. hk

        To be fair, is any gov’t or movement pro-anyothercountry? Every government is out looking for itself: some have leaders who are trying to do something for their people’s; others are just looking out for themselves. Outside supporters, be they US or Iran, are, to these folks, tools to be exploited. We (generically speaking) have trouble understanding that and love to talk about puppets and proxies.

  3. The Rev Kev

    I don’t think that the author understands the concept of defence in depth. The Chinese are using this principal too with their forays into the South China seas. For Iran, just sitting there waiting for the US to surround them with bass on their borders would be a no-hoper of a strategy, Instead what they have done is to support fellow travelers in this region with finance, weapons and most important of all training. And by making sure that these groups are autonomous, they can claim deniability for any actions that any of those groups commit. Certainly the results are impressive. The IDF are breaking their teeth trying to route out Hamas fighters from their tunnel networks. Hezbollah is an organization that is not overawed by the Israelis and are ready to take it to them if attacked or their country invaded. Ansar Allah is showing the world that western navies are not the 800 lb gorilla that they tell everybody they are. And those Iraqi troops have shut down the remnants of ISIS. Or, using a convention from this article, ‘US-supported ISIS groups’. If the Collective West tries to militarily go after Iran, then there will be all those groups attacking at the same time which would wreck any normal military plans. So here I am going to have to say – well played, Iran.

  4. Synoia

    The US has a simple solution to these “Grievance Wars.” Listen to their grievances, and either put their needs first, and stop stabbing them in the back.

    The US is not in control of all the peoples of the planet.

  5. ilsm


    I am coming around to the conclusion that “Iran backed” means the Muslim faction is not lock step with USA, lined up to recognize/normalize Israel. This is more than my former view that is was the Sunni Shi’a millennial rift.

    “Israel-Hamas war on October 7, 2023”. Only problem with this statement is the collateral damage is all there is and that damage is to innocent Gazans.

    DJG; on West Point please know that one or more Kagan has been associated with the USMA for a number of years. It is not enough to prepare cadets to become board members of great arms dealers!

  6. Aurelien

    Yes, the problem with these by-and-large attempts at high-level analysis is that they degenerate into a parade of slogans and clichés. I’m not sure how much the author actually knows about the region, but he should at least be aware that politics in most of these countries is conducted at the micro-level of clans and tribes, and that most are extremely opportunist in their approach. There’s actually no such thing, I would argue, as a “pro-Iranian militia.” There are militias who have received Iranian funding and training, and from whom the Iranians might expect, and might even get, some degree of cooperation. But these militias split and reunite all the time, often because of decisions by tribal leaders who have found a better deal elsewhere. People recall the big stories – the acrimonious split between Al Qaida and the Islamic State for example – but not the ground level detail of individuals, militias and parties joining, splitting, renaming themselves, and opportunistically accepting help from foreign powers. This is how things are done in the region.

    This is obvious in the case of Lebanon which the author clearly doesn’t understand (mind you, few people really do). Hezbollah has not “evolved into Lebanon’s political powerbroker,” which is a concept that makes no sense give the structure of Lebanese politics. The Lebanese parliament has 128 seats, divided equally between Christians and Muslims, and the Shia have 27 seats, the same as the Sunni. Hezbollah is one of two Shiite parties contesting these seats, and currently has 15 of them. It only “leads” a government coalition at the moment insofar as all governments (and technically there isn’t one at the moment) have to be coalitions carefully balancing Christians and Muslim parties, and are made up of small “parties” which in practice are a mixture of electoral list and clan affiliations. The Prime Minister is constitutionally a Sunni. Hezbollah plays a very important role in Lebanese politics, but there are many other complications, not least the bitter infighting between Christian politicians, which is largely responsible for the current political stalemate.

    What the Iranians are trying to do is an old tactic, notably employed in Africa and the Middle East. It involves the supply of weapons, training and logistic support to one or more factions, hoping to buy their loyalty, at least temporarily. At one time or another, the Soviet Union, China, the US, Libya and South Africa among others played this game, with very ambiguous results, and, whilst Iran seems to be better organised and more focused, it’s not clear that it will have any more success imposing itself on its nominal allies. In this kind of situation, tail usually wags dog.

    1. zach

      “Yes, the problem with these by-and-large attempts at high-level analysis is that they degenerate into a parade of slogans and clichés.”

      I didn’t see much by way of slogan’s and cliche’s in this article. Though written from a “western” editorial position, the author was pretty even-handed in his treatment – there were some statements I’d identify as politically charged, but nothing jingoistic like what we’d usually see broadcast from the “western” megaphone regarding Iran.

      “I’m not sure how much the author actually knows about the region, but he should at least be aware that politics in most of these countries is conducted at the micro-level of clans and tribes, and that most are extremely opportunist in their approach.”

      I make no assumptions as to your country or culture of residence, and I certainly do not intend to challenge your encyclopedic knowledge of West and Central Asia, but here in the US and A we have this thing called a “good ol’ boy network,” an informal association of people (churchgoers, high school buddies, PTA members) who do things for each other often for personal, occasionally collective, gain. This “good ol’ boy network” exists in the smallest hamlet all clear the way up to the bright lights of… Metropolis.

      1. Em

        Yes, that line about “clans and tribes” caught my eye too. Particularly since Ansarallah and Hezbollah have been rather consistent and effective about their platform for decades. And they’ve been able to build up coalitions that go far beyond their original Shi’a base. And they’re doing it in shattered countries that were handicapped by bad government (like the ridiculous Lebanese system that was intentionally structured to promote sectarianism and poor governance), sanctions, and decades of brutal warfare inflicted by their wealthier neighbors.

        Meanwhile we in the West allegedly can’t have nice things because Joe Manchin or whoever the rotating villain du jour happens to be is just so obstructionist and can’t be reasoned with (nevermind how easily they could primary any mildly anti-Zionist congresswomen). Not only do we not have clans and tribes who might be able to get us some good things in life, but we’re constantly gaslit into voting for Kang and against Kodo and despise our Kodo voting relatives.

        And yet the donor class always gets what they want in the civilized West. And if they want genocide of 2 million Gazans, no amount of street protests will make a difference. That’s the civilized way.

  7. eg

    From my perspective what these various groups have most in common is that they all arose in response to bad behaviour across the region by either Israel or the US.

    Admitting as much apparently requires more honesty than is currently available among Western “analysts.”

  8. nippersdad

    “Iran, however, will likely persist with its strategy, even if it obtains nuclear weapons.

    The Ayatollah published a fatwa years ago that, in essence, said that nuclear weapons were an offense against God. If they wanted them they would likely have just gotten them from Pakistan decades ago. Instead they have built up an impressive array of non-nuclear missile and drone capabilities that could have just as devastating an effect in their locale without all of the fall out.

    Their nuclear program has been used as a prod for the West, but not one that has been particularly effective. That the author felt the need to even bring this up is a sign of just how wedded they are to the fear tactics used to maintain Iran’s image here as being a threat, rather than just trying to protect themselves from Western overreach.

    1. zach

      Thank you for pointing this out, the fatwa you refer to is an important limiting factor governing the state of play. By publicly stating a complete and total disinterest in nuclear weaponry, and from no less a person than the Supreme Leader, Iran has neutralized any possible pretense that an Israel or a US could devise in order to justify their use in a confrontation. In that same vein, I would argue that the only way a player like the US could hope to coerce Iran militarily is through standoff nuclear weaponry.

      Acts of industrial sabotage barely raise to the level of nuisance (except in the case of loss of life, that is tragedy), but in the event of extreme energy supply, materiel, or manufacturing disruptions, they have their good friends the Russians and Chinese (among others, there are cultural ties with the Central Asian states to their north and east also).

      To the question as to why the western bloc can’t allow other regional or global hegemon’s… I’d say it’s cuz they’re better at it than “we” are… lawlz…

  9. britzklieg

    Where is Danny Sjursen? Haven’t seen or read anything from him in years. I believe he once taught history at West Point and the author here would do well to seek out his informed opinion as this one is… uh… flawed. Has Sjursen been canceled over his heterodox approach to war and US foreign policy?

  10. Em

    I guess it’s probably better than 95 percent of Western analysis out there but I can’t help think that the author might have really wanted to insert the phrase “parasitic wasp” in there somewhere.

  11. David in Friday Harbor

    It is unbelievable how Ruehl simply ignores decades of 20th century Anglo-American meddling in Iranian affairs aimed at controlling Iran’s oil, culminating in the overthrow of Prime Minister Dr. Mosaddegh through a CIA-sponsored military coup in 1954.

    These machinations have contributed to the Washington Cold-War-Zombie consensus that relations with other nations are nothing but a battle of puppet-masters — denying agency and self-determination to most of the world’s population. Accepting Islamic charity from Iran is hardly submission to military control.

    The gratuitous mention in the final paragraph “even if it obtains nuclear weapons” appears to be no less than an invitation to a nuclear decapitation strike against the beautiful and historic cities of Iran. Chilling.

  12. Jorge

    You’d think Iran had as much oil money as the Saudis to fund their reputed octopus-like influence network across the Middle East. Or maybe they are really skinflint spymasters? Bin Laden taught a master class in that art.

  13. jrkrideau

    Washington has similarly been confronted by the Houthis since October 7.

    Well, Anser Allah has been confronted with a US-backed Saudi invasion for years.

    I am not sure when the last time was that I read such a dishonest analysis.

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