Iran’s Proxy Threat Is the Real Problem Now

Iran may call it a day after its token strike at U.S. forces in Iraq—but will its proxy forces?

Supporters of Hezbollah hold placards calling for revenge for the killing of Qassem Suleimani in Beirut, Lebanon.
Supporters of Hezbollah hold placards calling for revenge for the killing of Qassem Suleimani in Beirut, Lebanon, on Jan. 5, 2020. Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s casualty-free and largely symbolic missile strike early Wednesday against Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops appeared designed to satisfy Tehran’s need for a prompt response to last week’s U.S. assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani. Alongside the missile strike, Iran simultaneously released a statement that it did not seek to escalate further unless the United States struck back—and U.S. President Donald Trump appears to have forsworn a military response for now, as well.

But even if Iran itself feels satisfied, the big question is whether proxy groups close to Tehran feel so as well—or whether they will continue to seek vengeance for Suleimani’s death by launching further attacks on U.S. interests or those of its allies.

As the primary architect of Iran’s strategic efforts to promote its expansion and undermine U.S. influence, Suleimani was particularly beloved by proxy groups like Hezbollah. Constantly traveling, Suleimani oversaw the vast web of forces Iran has spent years methodically establishing. Essentially the crown prince of Iranian fighting forces, Suleimani was a source of inspiration to followers throughout Iran’s sphere of influence and was known as a “living martyr.” His image can be found on posters from southern Lebanon to Yemen, often next to that of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. It was Suleimani’s face that fighters saw on the front lines, rallying them to the cause.

That’s why Iran’s proxies were some of the loudest voices to demand Iran hit the United States as hard as possible in retaliation for his killing. In a speech on Jan. 5, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party that controls much of the Lebanese government and is said to be the most formidable nonstate military actor in the world, delivered a harsh warning to the United States.Iran’s proxies were some of the loudest voices to demand Iran hit the United States as hard as possible in retaliation for his killing.

“It is the American military who killed him, and it is they who will pay the price,” Nasrallah said, adding that future targets would include “U.S. military bases, soldiers, officers, and warships.”

That attitude percolates down the ranks, particularly with Iranian proxies in Iraq, the battlefield for the recent flare-up of hostilities. Abu Hussein, a midlevel fighter in the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collective of Iran-backed militias wielding increasing influence in Iraq, seemed determined to show that Iranian generals cannot be killed without consequences.

“The [Jan. 8 Iran missile] attack was not enough,” he told Foreign Policy. “More attacks are coming, and more bases are going to be hit. Iran will not stop attacking until America is out of the Middle East completely.”

Since the day of Iran’s strike, several rockets have reportedly hit bases in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which also houses U.S. forces, causing no casualties. The rockets were likely fired by PMF units disgruntled with statements from senior leadership urging their followers to remain calm and not provoke the United States any further.

The contrast between Tehran’s apparent willingness to call things even with the United States and the continued bellicose rhetoric from its proxies hints at a potentially huge problem in the near future. Iran has traditionally, officially at least, sought to distance itself from the activities of groups like Hezbollah, but in the wake of the Suleimani killing and subsequent missile retaliation, it has publicly embraced many of those groups. On Thursday, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, held a press conference in which the various flags of Iran’s regional allies were ostentatiously displayed behind him. It was a clear warning to the United States: If you strike us, we will hit back, and we have a wide reach.

No matter how calculating Iran is in its military strategy, its proxies can’t always be counted on to remain in complete lockstep with their patron country, said Dina Esfandiary, an Iran expert at the Century Foundation.

“I think the proxies can make America’s life hell,” she said. “What’s particularly scary is that because Iran has painted itself as the entity completely controlling these proxies, it will then bear full responsibility for what they do. But it’s important to realize that these proxies don’t always answer directly to the Iranians … so we might find ourselves in a situation where people are misreading each other’s actions. That’s actually dangerous because it might then lead to the scenario of a full-scale conventional war.”

And there’s another risk that is easy to overlook with all the attention paid to the death of Suleimani: The U.S. drone strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the military commander of Kataib Hezbollah, part of the PMF and the group responsible for the Dec. 31 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Asked if the PMF will cease retaliating if Iran stands down, Abu Hussein was adamant that the militias will not give up the fight.No matter how calculating Iran is in its military strategy, its proxies can’t always be counted on to remain in complete lockstep with their patron country.

“It doesn’t matter if Iran stops,” he said. “Iran has avenged the killing of Suleimani. The Hashd must still avenge the killing of al-Muhandis.”

What Iran’s proxies ultimately do is so important because it is very unlikely that Iran will seek a conventional military confrontation with the United States, let alone seek an immediate nuclear solution to its rivalry, though it is boosting its uranium enrichment capabilities and shortening its breakout time toward a bomb.

“A full-scale conventional conflict between Iran and the United States is ultimately unlikely,” Esfandiary said. “It’s unlikely because Iran knows that it will eventually lose, and Iran doesn’t want to lose, especially if that puts its actual survival at risk.”

Iran’s influence can be compared to an outstretched hand, leaving fingerprints across the region. The Islamic Republic has long nurtured proxy groups scattered across the Middle East, North Africa, and, increasingly, South Asia, as the primary actors to carry out its agenda. Some of its more powerful regional allies include Hezbollah, the PMF, and the Houthi movement in Yemen, as well as, to some extent, Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah is also very active in Syria, where it has been fighting on behalf of Syrian president and Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad, and, given the group’s military expertise, members of Hezbollah are often present in an advisory capacity in other places where Iran has proxy groups. Various other militias Iran influences are scattered from Bahrain to along the eastern borders of Saudi Arabia.

Many of those allies have their own views of Suleimani’s killing, and the extent to which they are satisfied with Iran’s retaliation varies. A well-positioned Hezbollah political official in Beirut, who requested anonymity because Hezbollah is not permitted to speak with Western press, maintained that the Lebanese Shiite group stands ready to do its part in the event of continuing hostilities between the United States and Iran.

“There will be a lot of escalation against American interests in the Middle East in the future,” he said grimly. “If the situation intensifies, and they attack the Islamic Republic, we will cut off the American hand at the Lebanese border. We will hit Israel.” He also mentioned the possibility that, were the United States to attack Iran, Hezbollah would move against U.S. assets in Lebanon, such as the Special Forces contingents that train the Lebanese armed forces. This would be another dangerous element of any Iranian proxy response to further U.S. aggression.

Of course, Hezbollah is given to inflammatory rhetoric. The group has lost leaders such as former military commander Imad Mughniyeh to Israeli assassinations in the past without responding with anything more than vows of revenge.Tehran had to assuage its regional proxies that it would strike back and try to avenge Suleimani, as well as send a message to Washington that it had teeth.

The differing responses to Iran’s missile strike on Wednesday reflect, in part, the need to speak to two different audiences. Tehran had to assuage its regional proxies that it would strike back and try to avenge Suleimani, as well as send a message to Washington that it had teeth—but without provoking a wider war.

“I would say that the Iranian government needed the strike to satisfy its constituencies in Lebanon, in Iraq, and inside Iran that they are taking action,” said Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s conspicuous that they launched so many missiles at two bases, and there were neither Iraqi nor American casualties … but at the same time, I think that they also wanted to send the signal to the United States that they do have the military capability to hit things they want and not things they don’t want.”

Some of Iran’s proxies understood the limited strike in just that way.

“We imposed on [America] a new defense strategy by using advanced weapons without U.S. interception of them,” Mohammed Mohey, a member of Kataib Hezbollah, told Foreign Policy. “On the other hand, the American reaction of not responding to the strike shows how the United States fears our own retaliation. Trump’s speech in reaction to our attack was very weak and did not convince even his followers.”

But despite what he sees as a successful demonstration of Iran’s military reach, Mohey, too, said the strike was not in itself enough to compensate for the loss of Suleimani—suggesting further proxy retaliations could well come in the not-too-distant future.

“This missile attack was only a slap and not revenge,” he said. “Revenge will be total confrontation of the American presence in the region. The strike achieved a good objective, but it is certainly not sufficient as a response to such an enormous crime against the enormous personality of the martyr Suleimani.”

Abu Hussein also had a word of advice for the United States if it wanted to avoid future attacks against its assets.

“[Withdraw] forces from the Middle East and specifically from Iraq,” he said. “Second, vote Trump out and elect someone else. He will bring you only death.”

Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut and New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @SulomeAnderson.

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