With tensions mounting between the Trump administration and Iran, national security adviser John Bolton put Iran — and Iran’s nonstate partners, the regime’s preferred foreign policy tool — on notice. As the United States and its regional partners scramble to determine what happened to four tankers and two Saudi Aramco oil pumping stations — all allegedly attacked by Iranian forces or Iranian proxies — these incidents highlight how the ambiguity of Tehran’s multilayered proxy network complicates efforts to attribute responsibility to Iran.
While Iran’s nonstate partners are often thought of as a uniform group with unshakable loyalty to the Islamic republic, there are important differences among the groups. Iran’s nonstate partners are emerging as central players in the escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran — and may be a driver of further escalation. Iran provides support to militias and terrorist groups aiming to destabilize countries throughout the Middle East — contributing to insecurity and posing a challenge to the United States. But how involved is Iran with these proxy groups?
After coming to power following the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, began to build the regime’s nonstate network. Khomeini called for “oppressed peoples” in the world to unite, inciting Shiites in the region to rise against Western-backed rulers, and leading his regime to work with nonstate partners, particularly Shiite groups in Lebanon and Iraq.
Iran reinforced its ties to these groups in the 1990s through the provision of training, arms and money. By 2000, Iran’s network contained friendly and adversarial forces. After 9/11 and the resulting U.S. invasions, Tehran began maximizing its use of these organizations, leveraging them to undermine U.S. influence in the region and raise the costs of potential action against Iranian interests. Throughout the 2000s, Iranian-backed forces expanded their influence in key countries in the region and, at times, targeted U.S. forces.
Starting in 2011, the Arab Spring gave Iran yet another opportunity to expand its reach in the region. The Syrian civil war and the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen allowed Iran to deepen existing relationships with nonstate partners. Syria, in particular, allowed Iran to create new groups from scratch to bolster the Assad regime, while in Yemen, Iran strengthened its partnership with the Houthis.