Soon after Iran, for the umpteenth time, through the army general, Abdolrahim Mousavi, threatened Israel with an impending demise, Iran-backed militias in Syria launched a series of missile attacks aimed at Israel. Israel published satellite imagery of a Shi’a group operating under the IRGC Quds command. That followed a mysterious attack on the Iranian base at the Syrian-Iraqi border, which was widely attributed to Israel, the US, or a joint operation. The strike reportedly destroyed warehouses owned by Iraqi Hezbullah and other Iran-backed militias and killed at least 21 individuals.
This followed intense speculation over the viability of Iran’s land route connecting Iraq to Syria and facilitating transfer of militias and weapons. At approximately the same time, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that Israeli intelligence uncovered another secret Iranian nuclear facility. This comes only a few days after a revelation that Iran is setting up a massive classified military base in Syria, despite a clear threat of an Israeli strike. These events follow a series of violent confrontations between various Iranian militias – including Iraqi groups and Hezbullah – and Israel, which has a policy of responding to any external attacks or imminent threats with force. It has also destroyed an Iranian drone that was aimed at Israel from Syria, while Hezbullah reportedly downed an Israeli drone over Lebanon. Iranian drones have also been used by Houthis to attack Arab Coalition targets in Yemen, and to strike at Saudi Arabia, as recent as only a day prior to these Israel-related developments.
At this juncture, two observations appear with increasing clarity. First, for the first time, Iran is coordinating efforts among its different proxy groups and militias across the region, rather than treating each country it deems to be a part of the future “Shi’a crescent” as a separate matter. The same weapons are used in Yemen against coalition forces and against Saudi civilians in KSA as the weapons used against Israel from Iraq and Syria. Moreover, some of the Iraqi militias for the first time also partook in attacks against Saudi sites in May, according to US officials. Hezbullah that has been training the Houthis to become another sophisticated transnational paramilitary group, is mirroring the attacks of Hamas, the Gaza-based terrorist organisation which is likewise backed by Iran. Both terrorist organisations have fired missiles into Israel, and Hezbullah has recently started sending in incendiary devices over the border, just like Hamas has been doing, which prompted the Israeli attack.
As these forces becoming increasingly interchangeable, Iran’s strategy of regional domination becomes increasingly integrated despite the financial setbacks from sanctions against Iran and Hezbullah targets, as well as the disruptions from the Israeli airstrikes. This means that thanks to fundraising by Houthis and Hezbullah, as well as various criminal schemes, Iran will continue to stay afloat despite the burdensome sanctions just enough to continue wreaking havoc across the region. It also means that just as Israel should eventually come to expect an additional terrorist front (aside from ISIS, Hamas, Hezbullah, Syrian militias and Assad, Iran itself, and Iraqi militias) in the face of the increasingly mobilised Houthis and their fellow travellers in the North of Yemen and parts of Oman, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states targeted by Iranian forces can expect as much trouble from Iraqi militias and Hezbullah as they could once expect from ISIS, Al Qaeda, or in the more recent years, the Houthis. Although Hamas, for the time being, remains focused on Israel, its forces train all over the world, including Algeria, and could in theory be likewise mobilised against other forces adversarial to Iran’s interests.
Furthermore, these developments reveal that despite being supposedly cash-strapped, Iran is developing increasingly sophisticated networks of coordination and communication. Rather than relying solely on its own meagre naval or traditional military forces, Iran remains able to fund various ideological and humanitarian initiatives across the region that keeps the number of recruits to these forces sufficiently high that the regime can keep its adversaries distracted with playing sanctions whack-a-mole, while the executives of lucrative schemes, such as the Oil Smuggler in Chief Qassem Soleimani roam free, milking opportunities where the West and Sunni allies seek to avoid violent confrontations.
Increasingly, Afghani Taliban may be figuring into the equation. While the White House has called off peace talks following a series of terrorist attacks which killed a number of Americans, the plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan remain intact. Afghanistan has been a vital part of the puzzle for Iran’s drugs and arms smuggling schemes; many Afghanis and Pakistanis are part of Iran’s foreign brigades which are the first to be thrown into its various international military adventures.
This level of uninterruptible, coherent, clear, and effective coordination and communication among the various groups, and between these proxies and Tehran deserves a further visit from the security experts as they lie in stark contrast to the exceedingly poor communication among the allies. Whether the Arab Coalition, appearing on the verge of a split thanks to miscommunications and Iranian propaganda, or the tone deaf messaging coming from the US Defense Department and calling for GCC unity, despite Qatar’s active role in facilitating the funding and logistics of all these operations, the anti-Iran coalition at the moment appears nothing more than a motley crew of vastly different and argumentative interests who only agree on identifying Iran as a main threat, but which have thus far failed to develop any comprehensive strategy to roll back or even contain its influence. Iran’s effective communications and ability to manage such diverse and different forces with few fallouts shows that its strategy if fairly well fleshed out, fairly unified, and that Tehran remains largely in control of its own people.
The other observation that can be made that Iran is comfortable with tactical losses, such as the inevitable sacrifice of bases, arsenal, and proxy forces after Israeli attacks, so long as the overall strategy is advanced. Israel has not been able to roll back Iranian influence in Syria despite the repeated attacks; Russia is largely an enabler. It can and likely will in the future become a serious challenge for Iran’s own ambitions, but certainly not against the Western forces at the moment. Indeed, Iran is neither delusional nor suicidal in its continuous stream of verbal and physical threats towards the presumptively nuclear Israel with a significantly stronger air force, superior navy, well trained army that has become known for success in blitz attacks and asymmetrical warfare, not to mention its famous intelligence which has been an apparent stumbling block for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
At this point, however, these seemingly empty threats towards Israel’s existence are not aimed to “scare” Israel or the United States or to mobilise the disillusioned and long-suffering Iranian population, no longer hostile to Israel. Rather, it’s a familiar call to arms to the Israeli-hating proxy forces and would be recruits. Iran once again is using ideological outreach and propaganda as a substitute for stability, prosperity, and increased security that other states can offer. Rather, it is focusing its energy to motivate the troops towards an aspirational goal of “fighting” Israel, even if “destroying” Israel is not realistic even by the standards of the ayatollahs. Iran is a primary cause and beneficiary of chaos in the region. Too poor to compete with the arms purchases by Saudi Arabia and UAE, or with Israel’s sophisticated training, air force, and naval power, it uses the psychological weaknesses of its allies against them taking advantage of the power vacuum to insinuate itself everywhere it can.
Middle Eastern tribalist and sectarian conflicts, tensions, and differences are to Iran’s advantage. Internal domestic foreign policy disputes between isolationists and interventionists in the United States, Brexit-related mayhem in UK, and the eternal French and German rivalry all play into Iran’s hands. It’s playing not so much its own weak hand, but the hands dismissed or unappreciated by everyone else. Just like the regime managed to use the poison of ethnocentrism internally to divide the opposition and to ensure that no coordination between Persian and non-Persian opposition movements would be possible by playing on ethnic bigotry against Ahwazis, Turks, Kurds, Balochis, and others, Iran is seeking to sow the same kind of ideological disintegration and disunity, using the controversial and sensitive subject of Israel as its central tenet. While many of the Arab states are slowly opening up to the idea of at least coordinating with Israel on defense issues if not other matters, most are still a far cry from joint training exercises and comprehensive strategic response to Iran’s meddling. Indeed, some of the regional states still struggle with their own populations indoctrinated by decades from propaganda, and now increasingly reached by international rabble rousers on social media and through Al Jazeera-backed outlets.
Iran can thrive in and through chaos, and unable to finance any significant and long term development projects in the countries it infiltrated, is best served by a continuous state of asymmetrical war and attrition, where its adversaries are too busy dealing with side issues and with resolving their difference to focus on the main threat at hand. For that reason, attack on the “Zionists” remains a surefire way to dog whistle to “all the right people” and to ensure that just enough regional powers hate Israel in theory at least as much if not more than Iran’s tyrannical hegemony in practice. Iran will utilize an endless stream of lies to that end. It will mobilise the ever popular Palestinian cause, even if no one’s interests are served by Tehran’s approach, not even that of the Palestinian itself.
Rather than invest into education, job training skills, or trauma centers and science research, Iran contributes only to hateful propaganda and incitement against the “occupation” – while suppressing its own non-Persian populations especially Ahwazis, occupying their lands, and denying them the right to speak their own languages and practise their cultures openly and securely. But Tehran is counting on the lack of critical thinking and the emotional state of its target audiences, whether in the Middle East or the West, who will fall prey to these appeals and grievances, without ever asking the questions about the reality or who is being served by these narratives. And Iran will back its words, however, false with action, showing willingness to make limited sacrifices and attacks against Israel, where others only talk tough. In other words, all of this is yet another propaganda move to show that the lying Ayatollahs are credible after all, at least on the issue of confronting the “Zionists”.
Irina Tsukerman is an American lawyer and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about foreign policy and security issues for a variety of local and international think tanks. Her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.