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Feb 7, 2024

Iran’s Proxies Aren’t Really Proxies


Amal Saad is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Cardiff University. She specializes in Hezbollah and the Resistance Axis.

U.S. airstrikes against 85 targets in Iraq and Syria on Friday and Houthi positions in Yemen on Saturday marked the “beginning, not the end of our response” to a drone attack late last month that killed three American troops in Jordan, national security advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC on Sunday. The top Biden Administration official also refused to rule out airstrikes on Iranian soil.

Yet the retaliatory strikes are destined to fail, not least because the Biden Administration appears to not grasp an obvious fact: the various and mostly Shia militant groups that make up the Axis of Resistance are far from simply being Iranian proxies that operate at the whim of Iran’s diktat.

The support that Iran gives these groups—typically weapons, and advice on how to use them—doesn’t translate into the kind of power and control sponsors typically have over their proxies. Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., Amir Saied Iravani, made that case recently to NBC—saying that while Iran arms and funds its allies (except the Houthis), “We are not directing them. We are not commanding them. We have a common consultation with each other.” Iravani described Iran’s relationship with these actors as a “defense pact,” likening it to NATO.

As with most defensive alliances, each Axis member maintains a large margin of autonomy. Take, for example, Hezbollah, the most powerful non-state actor in the Axis. The late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general, Hossein Hamedani, wrote in his memoirs that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was “in charge of all the policies of the resistance axis in Syria” following its intervention in the country’s civil war in 2013. Hamas, a Sunni group, has always maintained its autonomy from Iran, at one point even defecting from the Axis over its opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, which was backed by the alliance.

(Some reports suggest that Hamas carried out the Oct. 7 attack without Iran’s consent or knowledge.) For their part, the Houthis showcased their independence early on, when they took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2014, disregarding Iran’s advice at the time. Meanwhile, Kataeb Hezbollah, the Popular Mobilization Forces’s (PMF) most powerful group, recently suspended its military operations against U.S. forces in Iraq because of pressure from the Iraqi government. The fact that other PMF groups have continued targeting U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria demonstrates the independent decision-making of these actors, even those within the same organization.

Whether it’s Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, or other Axis groups, each also perform key governance functions as quasi-states and are specific to their local communities and countries. As with other popular social movements, these hybrid actors cannot cater to Iran’s preferences at the expense of their publics. It just so happens that the main source of these groups’ legitimacy stems from their armed resistance roles within their own countries—and those goals often overlap, though not always, with Iran’s strategic interests.

The origins of the various members within the Axis can be traced back to security voids left by their respective states. In Gaza, Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades arose as a response to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s participation in the Oslo peace accords in 1993 that failed to deliver a Palestinian state. The Lebanese Armed Forces were historically powerless against multiple Israeli invasions, which gave birth to Hezbollah in 1982.

In Yemen, the Houthis filled the power vacuum left during the post-Arab Spring transitional phase that lasted from 2013 to 2014. Iraq’s PMF emerged in response to the Iraqi Armed Forces’s loss of the key cities of Mosul and Fallujah to the Islamic State in 2014. 

So when the U.S.,Israel, or anyone else targets these groups and their territories, this revives their raison d’etre and shores up their resistance credentials. This was most recently seen in Gaza by a doubling of support from 22% to 43% for Hamas, according to a December poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. In Yemen, the Houthis’s elevated legitimacy was demonstrated by the defection of a number of militias backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Both countries entered Yemen’s civil war against the Houthis, but militias they backed have now sided with the Houthis on account of their attacks in the Red Sea aimed at blocking ships from sailing to Israel. Hezbollah has also experienced a similar surge in popular support since it opened a “solidarity front” with Gaza against Israel on Oct. 8, rallying even many Sunnis who had previously opposed the Lebanese Shia group.

Likewise, PMF groups received a major boost of legitimacy in the wake of the U.S. strikes on Iraq on Friday that killed several of their forces, with the Iraqi government announcing a three-day mourning period for the “martyrs.”

Nor can the Axis be wished away. Both Hezbollah and the PMF enjoy state representation in their respective parliaments and governments, and their armed wings are granted legal cover by the state. Hamas, after winning elections in 2006 deemed fair by the E.U., formed a government that was subsequently ousted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.

Hamas then seized control of Gaza and established itself as the de facto government that has administered the Strip since. Meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthis aren’t just the de facto government that rule over the majority of the country, but they have also become the de facto state after taking control of the Yemeni armed forces in late 2014. Given the absence of viable state alternatives to these actors, waging military campaigns against them only recreates the political and security conditions that gave rise to them in the first place.

The Palestinian cause has long constituted not just a central ideological pillar, but a core group and national interest, for each of the Axis members. Hezbollah has defined a ceasefire in Gaza as serving Lebanon’s national interest by preventing Israel from expanding its war into Lebanon. The U.S.’s backing of Israel’s war on Gaza has also prompted the Houthis and PMF to identify Yemen and Iraq’s national interests with Palestinians.

Although PMF groups were attacking U.S. bases and convoys before this conflict, the war in Gaza has given them added impetus to expel U.S. troops from Iraq and Syria. For their part, the Houthis are poised to gain a significantly strengthened negotiating position concerning Yemen’s future in their talks with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. as a result of their participation in this conflict.

Claiming that these deeply rooted, quasi-state actors are simply Iranian stooges sets the groundwork for a disastrous U.S. strategy in response to them. Instead of demanding that Iran rein in its “proxies,” the U.S. should start by reining in Israel, if it is indeed keen on preventing a widening of this war.

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