Will Curbing Iran’s Nuclear Threat Boost Its Proxies?

Tehran's allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen could reap the benefits of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers.

Fighters from Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah carry the coffins of fellow militants, Ahmed Hareb (R) and Adel Hamidi during their funeral on June 6, 2015 in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut after they were killed in combat alongside government forces in the Syria. AFP PHOTO / STR        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Fighters from Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah carry the coffins of fellow militants, Ahmed Hareb (R) and Adel Hamidi during their funeral on June 6, 2015 in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut after they were killed in combat alongside government forces in the Syria. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

The nuclear deal with Iran defers one looming confrontation with Tehran, but it may accelerate others by emboldening and enriching Hezbollah and the other proxy forces that the Islamic Republic uses to advance its interests across the Middle East and beyond.

The most immediate beneficiaries of the historic nuclear agreement might be beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that is fighting and dying on his behalf in Syria’s many-sided civil war, according to U.S. and Israeli experts. Hezbollah is thought to have between 6,000 and 8,000 fighters in Syria, and to have lost close to 1,000 men there.

From Hamas and Hezbollah in the Levant, to Shiite militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran has long relied on proxy forces to reinforce its standing in the Sunni Arab-dominated region. The nuclear deal between Iran and the West will do little to change this habit, except to bolster Tehran and, in turn, the guerrilla and terrorist groups that do its bidding, experts said.

On this point, at least, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appear to agree.

“We’ll still have problems with Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism; its funding of proxies like Hezbollah that threaten Israel and threaten the region; the destabilizing activities that they’re engaging in, including in places like Yemen,” Obama told reporters on July 15. The president said he hoped that the deal would lay the groundwork for future discussions with the Iranians “that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile [and] more cooperative.” However, he added, “we’re not counting on it.”

For his part, Khamenei made it clear that Iran would continue to support its allies and proxies in the Middle East. “We will always support the oppressed Palestinian nation, Yemen, Syrian government and people, Iraq, and oppressed Bahraini people, and also the honest fighters of Lebanon and Palestine,” he said July 18 in a speech after prayers to mark the end of Ramadan.

Too many observers are focused on the details of a nuclear deal, when “more important from a strategic perspective is what … the follow-on impact to all these wars and proxy organizations [is],” said Chris Harmer, a Middle East analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

Concerns across the region — particularly in Israel and Saudi Arabia — that President Barack Obama has been more focused on a nuclear deal than on the threat of rising instability fostered by Iran and its proxies are unfounded, said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

“Nothing has changed about our continued focus on other issues with Iran that are destabilizing to the region, and we’ll continue to make our concerns clear and to work with allies and partners in the region to address them,” Kirby told Foreign Policy.

Tehran’s use of proxy forces dates back to the 1980s, when it created the Quds Force as a component of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with responsibility for military operations outside Iran. Since then, in a rough combination of the roles played by the Central Intelligence Agency and Army Special Forces for the United States, the Quds Force has created, trained, and directed a growing number of militant groups to do Iran’s bidding. And though the primary targets of these indirect campaigns were Israel and the United States, increasingly Iran is using its proxies to compete with Saudi Arabia for primacy in the Middle East.

The deal will also hand Iran more than enough money to pay for a sharp increase in its indirect warfare, retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of defense intelligence, predicted. “There’s no doubt” Tehran will reap as much as $100 billion through sanctions relief and the regaining of assets that have been frozen in overseas banks, he said. Harmer called it “inevitable” that some of the funds will immediately “provide a significant increase in Iran’s ability to support their proxies.”

Obama has said a nuclear deal with Iran could nurture greater global stability — and if it doesn’t, the U.S. military remains at the ready. “If, in fact, we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, [and] in a better position to protect our allies,” he said in an April interview.

Yet intelligence and counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt said Western hopes that the agreement will moderate, or even tame, Iran’s use of proxy forces are misplaced. “Hard-liners in Iran are going to want to [burnish] their revolutionary credentials and show that they haven’t sold out,” said Levitt, who monitored terrorist funding networks while at the Treasury Department during former President George W. Bush’s administration and has authored books on Hamas and Hezbollah.

Although “the United States has talked about the prospect of a nuclear deal empowering the moderates in Iran,” in the near term, there will be “an uptick in the activity of Iran’s proxies,” said Levitt, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The nuclear deal is happening in the shadow of the Syrian civil war.

Various Sunni militant groups in Syria, including the Islamic State, are locked in a bitter struggle with each other and Assad’s regime, which Iran supports through its proxy, Hezbollah. The Lebanese group has been fighting hard for Assad, and the casualties it has taken on his behalf are a demonstration of Iran’s commitment to keeping him in power. Iranian forces and their proxies “are the margin of survival for the Assad regime,” Harmer said.

Tehran has been funding Assad, who is desperate for cash, to the tune of $1 billion a month, said Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. He said a nuclear deal that allows Iran to access more of its frozen assets abroad, and to sell oil more easily, will give it greater leeway to support Assad.

Iran’s support for the Syrian president has wavered at least once since the war began. In late summer 2013, after his regime unleashed chemical weapons against civilians, talk in Tehran turned to “sacrificing Bashar al-Assad and bringing someone else into power in Damascus, and finding a compromise solution [with] some parts of the Syrian opposition,” Alfoneh said.

That approach found support among senior civilian leaders in Tehran, including newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. But the Revolutionary Guard opposed it, Alfoneh said, on the grounds that removing Assad would result in the collapse of the entire Alawite system, which the security force viewed as key to Iran’s interests in Syria. “The Revolutionary Guard won the argument,” he said.

After Assad, the second-largest beneficiary of a nuclear deal will be Hezbollah, Alfoneh said. The Shiite militant group was created to resist Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but has now found itself mired in Syria.

Just as with the Assad regime, the influx of cash now expected to flow into Tehran’s coffers will allow Iran to increase its support for Hezbollah, experts said. “The war in Syria is not exactly a popular cause, and Hezbollah must pay economic compensation to families of the martyrs who die in Syria, and they also need access to arms and money, so that would [have to] be imported for them,” Alfoneh said.

Levitt noted that Tehran has been careful to ensure that the activities of Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies are not part of the nuclear deal. He said that should further discourage hopes the Islamic Republic will reduce its support for the Lebanese group.

“Hezbollah is central to the core interests of the revolutionary leadership in Iran,” Levitt said. “I don’t see them throwing Hezbollah under the bus.”

Yet an empowered Hezbollah in Syria presents something of a silver lining for Israel, which has been bracing for a repeat of its 2006 war in Lebanon with the militants. With its hands full in Syria, the prospect of Hezbollah engaging Israel in a full-fledged war is unlikely — at least in the near term, no matter how much the nuclear deal may boost the group’s financial support from Iran, according to most experts.

“Hezbollah … is clearly committed to Syria for the long run,” Levitt said. “This is not a short-term commitment.”

What that means is that neither Hezbollah nor, by extension, Iran can afford to open up yet another front for the foreseeable future. “They are not looking south towards Israel; they are looking eastward,” Yadlin said of Hezbollah. “The likelihood of them deciding to have a second front is very low.”

But that doesn’t mean Hezbollah, or the other groups Iran uses to attack Israel — Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine — will ignore Israel entirely. “They will get the feeling that Iran has gained more power because of the agreement, and therefore, they can be more aggressive to Israel [if and when needed],” said retired Brig. Gen. Amnon Sofrin, a former senior official in Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Experts believe Hezbollah has stockpiled between an estimated 60,000 and 100,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon.

Just as Iranian support has been key to the Assad regime’s survival, the Shiite militias that are Tehran’s proxy forces in Iraq were crucial in halting the Islamic State’s lightning advance on Baghdad. The United States and the Islamic Republic may be bitter enemies, but they share common goals in Iraq: defeating the Islamic State and maintaining long-term strategic influence in Baghdad. However, Iran’s on-the-ground commitment to the Shiite government in Iraq, where U.S. advisors are working with the Iraqi military, has placed the United States in the awkward position of fighting on the same side as the Quds Force, whose commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, has made repeated and very public trips to the front lines.

Unlike Hezbollah, however, the Iraqi Shiite militias have little need for the funds that will be freed by the nuclear deal, Alfoneh said. “For Iraq, I do not expect any great change, because the Iraqi militias have access to Iraqi government money, so they are self-financed,” Alfoneh said. “The only aid they receive from Iran is arms, logistics, and military advisors,” plus small Revolutionary Guard units.

Alfoneh also downplayed the significance of Iran’s role in Yemen’s civil war, which is widely seen as a proxy battle between Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels and a regime supported by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni governments in the region. Since late March, the Saudis, supported by the United States, have led a coalition of Sunni states in a bombing campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen.

It’s unlikely Yemen “is such a central issue from Tehran’s point of view,” said Alfoneh, who voiced skepticism that Iran is providing as much aid to the Houthis as some believe. Tehran did not provoke the conflict in Yemen as much as it had tried “to take advantage of those problems in order to open a new front against Saudi Arabia,” he added.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which in some eyes is becoming a regional Sunni-Shiite contest, is the backdrop against which any nuclear deal must be viewed. And it is why, ironically, Sunni militant groups supported by the Gulf Arab states will also benefit from the nuclear deal, according to Alfoneh.

“There are certain countries in the Middle East region who deeply distrust the Islamic Republic and believe that the nuclear deal means that the [United States] has abandoned them, and they will probably step up financing [of] the [Sunni] opposition,” he said, adding that this dynamic “of course perpetuates the conflicts, both in Syria and in Iraq.”

Harmer said the United States has “talked a great game against Iranian proxy warfare” but has done little about it. As he sees it, the “implied payoff” for Iran from the nuclear deal would be America quietly stepping back from the region.

Kirby, the State Department spokesman, strongly disagreed. Similarly, Levitt downplayed the idea that the deal would amount to an American recognition — and tacit acceptance — of a burgeoning Iranian sphere of influence across the Middle East. “But I don’t think that our allies in the region have any faith that that’s the case,” he said.

Levitt also noted the risk that, despite U.S. intentions to the contrary, Tehran might see the deal as a green light from the United States to continue its proxy wars. “I think that’s very dangerous,” he said.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor