The Islamic Republic of Iran, since its foundation in 1979, has been one of the world’s biggest state sponsors of terrorism to the point of being an integral part of the state’s geopolitical strategy. Iran also supports various militant groups and insurgencies to disrupt and destabilize its rivals and gain regional hegemony. Iran has provided funding or material support to some more notable groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Yemini Houthi rebels, and Shi’ite militias in Iraq like Kata’ib Hezbollah.
However, Iran has long supported the Sunni groups like Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups and even found reasons to provide limited aid to Al Qa’ida despite the tumultuous relationship with the notorious offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The following discusses a DIME (diplomacy, information, military, and economic) analysis of Iran’s support and utilization of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) and militias to impose its geopolitical strategy and establish regional hegemony throughout the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) and even into Central Asia.
Iran has frequently utilized FTOs and militias as a plausibly deniable paramilitary wing of their military and intelligence service, which the paper will discuss in more detail in a later section. However, the use of these proxy fighters also serves Iran’s interests in a diplomatic function. One such example is Iran enlisting five thousand Hezbollah militia fighters to aid Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria via Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force military advisors. By providing this paramilitary support by proxy to bolster the Assad regime against Da’esh (ISIS or Islamic State) and the Free Syrian Army revolutionaries, Iran has strengthened the alliance between the two states (Wilner 2017). Similarly, Iran’s other counter-Da’esh operations bolster its diplomatic ties to other partner states, such as Iraq and Lebanon, and gain favor within the international community (Malakoutikhan 2018).
Iran has used Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias to exert pressure on other governments on other diplomatic fronts. In 2011, the IRGC sanctioned the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S.’s assassination using the Los Zetas drug cartel sicarios (hitmen) via their Hezbollah connections. The plot was discovered and prevented thanks to a Drug Enforcement Administration informant within the Zetas but could have had dramatic and lasting diplomatic consequences had it succeeded (DOJ 2014). U.S. federal investigations into Hezbollah’s transnational organized criminal activities also became a negotiating point in the Iran nuclear deal.
The Obama administration ultimately hindered these criminal cases to push Iran’s international agreement into a settlement (Meyer 2017). Finally, in January of 2020, the IRGC aided Kata’ib Hezbollah in instigating massive violent protests in Baghdad, resulting in a breach of the U.S. embassy complex to exert pressure on both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. In response, the U.S. killed an IRGC’s commanding general, Qasem Soleimani, with a remotely-piloted aerial vehicle missile strike. However, despite the loss, Iran still has considerable influence in Iraqi politics through its militia proxies in that state (CISAC 2021).
Understanding its military and economic limitations, Iran has begun to incorporate information warfare more significantly into its geopolitical strategies, which often includes its support of FTOs and militia groups. Iran can contain and control its role in attacks against Israeli, Saudi Arabian, or U.S. targets perpetrated by one of these proxy groups. Having plausible deniability for the covert actions and clandestine activities of Hezbollah or Hamas against its rivals is a significant component of Iran’s information warfare strategy (Wilner 2017). In the earlier example of using Hezbollah as a proxy military force in Syria to help fight Da’esh, Iran could state it was doing its part in contributing to the international effort to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy the brutally violent extremist group. Providing IRGC military advisors allowed for “soft power” hybrid warfare and argue to the global community that it was as earnest in aiding in the defeat of Da’esh as the U.S., Russia, and Turkey (Piotrowski 2017).
Iran’s use of information warfare has also manifested in its constant call for the destruction of Israel and its support of any party with that similar goal. Despite Hamas and many other Palestinian extremist groups being Sunni organizations, Iran has provided a great deal of material support and financing over the years. This support includes using numerous mediums and platforms to publically condemn Israel whenever it militarily engages one of these groups or similarly clashes with Hezbollah in response to terror attacks (Byman 2020). As an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause through its backing of groups like Hamas and Fatah, Iran can spin its virulent antisemitism into a more benignly altruistic narrative in front of the international community.
As stated several times in this analysis, Iran predominately uses FTOs and militia groups as paramilitary proxy forces. As a result, Iran can avoid direct military confrontations with its rivals, specifically Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., by giving material and financial support to groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Yemeni Houthi rebels. For example, Iran’s heavy involvement with the Shia militias in Iraq allowed them to cause significant casualties among the U.S. military deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom without directly tying the rogue state to the attacks (Ricci 2014). Similarly, when the Houthi rebels fire on U.S. warships or Saudi oil facilities, or Hamas and Hezbollah launch Katusha rockets into civilian population centers in Israel, Iran benefits militarily without consequence or direct retaliation.
The earlier example of IRGC military advisors and enlistment of Hezbollah militia fighters in Syria is another brand of the military application of state-sponsored terrorism. This support provides an air of legitimacy to terrorism sponsorship and the usefulness of non-state actor militias in conflicts. Other states like Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have more privately backed Syrian rebel groups and FTOs without the same measure of international condemnation that Iran receives for the same activity (Baylouny and Mullins 2018; Carter 2012).
Iran appears to be actively seeking to cause global unrest via its FTO and militia proxies to better place itself in a preferential position to exert more significant geopolitical influence and establish regional hegemony. Other researchers and national security experts have theorized that Iran is not merely passively taking advantage of low-intensity conflicts, not unlike what occurred between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, but actively fueling them through its proxies (Modebadze 2019).
The Mullahs view the economic aspect of the Iranian state-sponsorship of terrorism as an investment in a broader strategy and hegemonic goals. Wars are expensive undertakings, and conflicts are economically disruptive and destabilizing. Thus, Iran can justify spending several hundred million a year to support FTOs and militias in numerous states where their rivals are spending billions annually to combat them as a cost-effective approach to undermining its enemies.
For example, at the peak of Operation Iraq Freedom, the U.S. was spending an average of six and a half-billion dollars a month to quell sectarian violence primarily caused by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias for a fraction of that cost. Prolonging a conflict through state-sponsorship of terrorism is another means of placing economic burdens on rivals; again, the best examples of this would be the U.S. in Iraq, the Houthis against the Saudis, and Israel’s conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran also applies asymmetric economics strategies through its FTO and militia proxies manifesting in second and third-order effects. For example, the Houthi attack on the Saudi oil facilities in September of 2019 had a significant economic impact on Saudi Arabia and many Western states who rely on their oil. The Iranian regime could profit off these attacks through their oil sales despite the U.S. imposed sanctions against the rogue state. Another unique economic effect of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is its support of Hezbollah, now a powerful transnational organized crime syndicate, as an alternative means of financing its operations.
Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises extend well beyond its borders in Lebanon. The terror group uses the Lebanese expatriate community to conceal its presence. It has roots in the Tri-Border region of South America (Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina), West Africa, the U.S., and Europe (Shaw 2019). The elevated economic expenditures in combating transnational organized crime, in addition to the destabilization and increased insecurity, can be just as draining on a state, especially ones that are already in a failed or failing condition.
There are significant information gaps related to whether Iran has any involvement in Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises. Still, the rogue state undoubtedly capitalizes on the increased insecurity and instability caused by its proxy’s crime-terror nexus. Increased sanctions on Iran and the limited resources to provide state-sponsored funding helped push Hezbollah into transnational organized crime. The need for financing created the crime-terror nexus necessity. It offered an opportunity to hide and move Hezbollah’s illicit funds, primarily due to increased counter-terrorism financing regulations and laws. Conflict areas afforded Iran via Hezbollah to efficiently exploit those states with weakened security environments (Steenkamp 2017).
Iran has been a state sponsor of terrorism since its founding in 1979 and has only seemed to increase the scale and scope of those activities since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequent global unrest. The use of proxy militias groups and support of foreign terrorist organizations have become entrenched in Iran’s geopolitical strategies and bid for regional hegemony. On the diplomatic front, enlisting Hezbollah fighters would aid its ally, the Assad regime in Syria, and use these groups as paramilitaries to weaken rivals’ influence in the Middle East and North Africa. Iran’s incorporation of information warfare for “soft power” support of rebel militias, violent extremists, and FTOs has proliferated over the last twenty years.
Controlling and manipulating narratives about combating Da’esh and rallying behind the Palestinian movement has increased Iranian influence in the MENA and the international community. Militarily, using militias and FTO proxies affords Iran plausible deniability to avoid direct engagements and retribution for attacks against its rivals. These ongoing low-intensity conflicts fueled by its surrogates place Iran better positioned to influence destabilized and insecure states. Finally, in the realm of economics, Iran has used its paramilitary proxies to inflict economic harm on its rivals in a cost-effective and deniable manner. Prolonging the conflicts its enemies are in, Iran can cause countries like the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia to spend vast sums of money combating the groups Iran is funding for a fraction of the cost.
Similarly, the second and third-order effects of backing certain rebel militias and FTOs have had a financial impact on their rivals. Hezbollah’s crime-terror nexus is a prime example causing increased spending on countering transnational organized crime by the U.S., Europe, and their partner states. In closing, Iran has benefited from incorporating state-sponsorship of terrorism into its geopolitical strategy and regional hegemony aspirations.
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Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.