Report: Tens of Thousands of Allied Fighters Serve as Iran’s Four-Pronged Network of Proxy Forces

Iranian-backed Shia militias pose a growing threat to Israel from Syria and Lebanon. Photo: Iranian government media.

Iran “exerts near-complete control” over a network of tens of thousands of close allied fighters across the Middle East and has ties to tens of thousands more, posing the Islamic Republic’s most formidable challenge to the US, according to a new a research report by non-profit think tank the Rand Corporation.

The report describes that the so-called Iran Threat Network (ITN) — a force of tens of thousands of fighters from non-Iranian, non-state proxy and other groups, in places including Syria, Yemen, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories — has become a much larger and more mobile network, and will continue to threaten US interests.

“The ITN is presently — and likely to remain well into the future — Tehran’s primary means of power projection and preferred instrument of influence in the region, including to deter and counter the US,” the authors Ariane M. Tabatabai, Jeffrey Martini, and Becca Wasser wrote in the report. “As the US and many of its regional partners, such as Israel and the United Arab Emirates, increase their conventional military capabilities, Iran will concurrently seek to strengthen its asymmetric capabilities through the ITN.”

“From Iran’s perspective, the ITN allows it to pursue its objective of imposing costs on the US in the region without escalating the confrontation to a conventional war,” they added.

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April 17, 2021 10:34 am

The ITN, which is primarily coordinated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has grown from a few groups in Iraq and Lebanon to roughly a dozen groups in 2019. By some accounts, the total number of the broader network is estimated at about 200,000. The Rand research found that Iran has also shown more flexibility in collaborating with groups of different ideologies and identities, to include non-Shi’a actors and even adversarial ones, such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Recent examples of the actions carried out largely by Iranian proxies are maritime provocations and rocket attacks on US installations in Iraq in the spring and fall of 2019.

“Iran has leveraged the ITN to raise the costs of perceived US hostile policies, most recently in response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. Without a clear understanding of the ITN and its scope, the US cannot devise a coherent strategy to counter its threat,” the report suggested.

The authors of the report categorized four classes of groups within the ITN, calling upon the US to formulate specific responses to each category of groups. The “Targeters” counter US presence and influence in the Middle East, and include groups incorporated into the Iraqi political system and security forces. The “Deterrers” consist of groups focused primarily on deterring and harassing Iran’s regional rivals, including the Houthis and the Hamas terrorist group.

The “Stabilizers” comprise proxies currently helping stabilize Iranian allies — including the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun, fighting in Syria, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Finally, the “Influencers “pursue “violent activities in the Middle East and South Asia to undermine stability and strengthen their influence in their respective countries.”

“The ITN is not simply a hub-and-spoke system with Iran in the center,” the report explained. “Instead, different members of the ITN also interact with Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s most trusted and capable proxy, which is at the forefront of many of these interactions.”

“ITN members — not Tehran — are most likely to launch attacks against US and other targets,” it assessed. “It is important that the US government adopt a multidimensional approach to counter Iran’s use of the ITN to undermine US interests or potentially harm US military and civilian personnel.”

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