Kerli, February 5 2020

Once again heightened tensions in the Middle East

The security situation in the Middle East is continuously perilous. And the recent U.S. targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), near the Baghdad International Airport with an MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) undoubtedly escalated the tensions and the power struggle in the region. The assassination of Soleimani prompted the Iranian leaders vowing a retaliation and only days later, it launched missile attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq.

However, it is widely viewed that instead of utilizing conventional military tactics, Iran will likely increase its irregular warfare activities, which are designed to “subvert, coerce, attrite, and exhaust an adversary rather than defeat him through direct military confrontation” and these objectives are generally accomplished by operating through other state and non-state actors,  giving rise to a so-called proxy war.

Influence of the IRGC-QF

Iran exploits a growing network of non-state actors to project power and influence in the region, particularly through the IRGC-QF. The IRGC-QF is specialized in unconventional warfare and military operations, engaging in an extensive range of activities, such as gathering intelligence; training, equipping and funding state and non-state partner forces; conducting assassinations and bombings; and providing humanitarian and economic aid to Islamic causes. It’s training facilities are large, comprehensive and capable of training personnel to operate in guerrilla warfare, irregular warfare-type scenarios. Furthermore, it has provided weapons, parts, and training for other systems – such as explosively formed penetrators, explosive boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles – to non-state partners.

A recently published report – “Containing Tehran: Understanding Iran’s Power and Exploiting Its Vulnerabilities” – by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, highlights with new data and analysis, how the IRGC-QF has supported growing number of non-state fighters in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – including nearly a 50 percent increase since 2016 and there seems to be no alternation in this policy. For example, presumably the most notorious Shia-Muslim organisation backed by Iran is Hezbollah in Lebanon. Other proxies include, e.g. the Popular Mobilization Forces or also known as hashd al-sha’abi in Iraq; pro-Iranian Shia militia forces in Syria; the Houthis in Yemen; Liwa Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan; Liwa Zainebiyoun in Pakistan; and several groups in Palestinian territory, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. By backing Shia groups, Iran tries to overturn the regional order and help them to rise against Sunni governments. Additionally, this presents an opportunity for Iranians to secure a land corridor from Iran through Iraq to Syria and the Mediterranean Sea.

Emerging threat

Although the use of proxies does present advantages for the Iranian government – primarily plausible deniability and political cover by denying any knowledge of actions committed by its agents. Nonetheless, there is a risk of overextension – with the Iranian regime’s willingness to continue to resource the IRGC-QF at significant levels and remain heavily engaged across the region, which consequently may increase political costs at home, especially with a poorly-performing economy.

The proxy warfare displays another problem in the Middle East region – the need for protection of critical infrastructures – such as oil facilities, desalination plants, electricity grids, and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems – from missile, rocket, and UAV strikes by Iran and its partners. Increased threat levels and heightened tensions cause difficulties to provide sufficient protection for the facilities, operations and take appropriate measures for keeping the employees safe.

Turn of the regional order?

The increasing use of proxies by Iran additionally escalates regional tensions with Saudi Arabia. Due to their sizes, geographical location and presence of major oil reserves, the two countries have become major regional powers in the region and have accumulated strong alliances - the Saudis backed by the U.S.A, Egypt, UAE and Israel, while Iran with the backing of Russian and the Syrian governments - that offer certain safeguards in their actions. Both have historically assisted radical Sunni and Shia militias as they were seen as opportunities for seizing and gaining power in the region - Saudis aiding Sunni militias by sending money and weapons, while Iran supports the Shias. The Arab Spring in 2011 heightened the tensions between the two countries further and both got involved in Libya, Lebanon and Morocco, supporting the opposing sides either the protestors or the governments. The regional rivalry has taken on even a more profound role as Saudi Arabia and Iran have resulted in deploying their own militaries respectively in Yemen and Syria in support of the central governments. In Yemen, the Saudi military has been on the ground helping the central government since 2015 and leads coalition forces against the Houthi rebels who are claimed to be an Iranian proxy group. Overall, the situation in Yemen has been repeatedly declared to be one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and both sides of the conflict are to blame. The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has transformed into the intensifying use of proxies to counter and contain each other’s influence and aspirations.

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