Ellias Aghili Dehnavi: Iran’s posturing in West Asia: offensive deterrence by proxies in the service of a revisionist agenda


As its natural right, first and foremost, the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to achieve deterrence. In its endeavor to create deterrence, Tehran takes the role of a controller that uses its proxies to control the security mechanisms, when it feels dissatisfied, under pressure, or threatened. It challenges the interventions of non-regional actors, to remind other actors on the global stage, as a regional power, how vital is the security it sells by means of keeping its non-official allies in check. The Islamic Republic of Iran uses this approach as a deterrence measure to ensure the continuation of its rule in Iran and as a leverage internationally.

  • The Islamic Republic of Iran is a revisionist actor in the international arena, this actor is surrounded by collaborators and benefactors of the established western liberal world order and US allies in the Middle East.
  • Tehran aims to challenge the hegemony of the US and disrupt the peace and stability that mainly benefits the West, the US, and its allies. At the same time, it does not wish to spread chaos and insecurity and escalate hostilities beyond a certain level that may lead to war.
  • Nuclear program, proliferation of its missiles and drones, supporting militia and insurgent groups are the Islamic Republic’s main means to defy the hegemony of the West as a non-conformist actor; taking proper measures  as a counterattack and a rational movement in the format of a response to the imposed threats by the interventionist outside and inside the region.
  • Supporting militia groups, enforcing command and control over them -as its proxies in the Middle East- is technically the Islamic Republic’s strategy to create deterrence and ensure its existence in a region surrounded by rivals and potentially hostile neighbors. This is referred to as the “Strategic Depth” in the rhetoric of the rulers in Tehran and they consider its maintenance and expansion to be vital.

Iranian Proxies in the Middle East Region


Hezbollah is undoubtedly regarded as the oldest, most sophisticated, and most successful proxy organization that Iran has in the region. IRGC established Hezbollah and ever since supported it to be the Islamic Republic’s first line of defense against Israel. Now Hezbollah possesses a wide variety of missiles with high accuracy and large quantities and also combat drones. Hezbollah is more dangerous and challenging than other Islamic Republic backed proxies because of different reasons, i.e., comprehensive financial and full technical support it receives and the transfer of weapon technology from Iran. Besides, Hezbollah has tens of thousands of well trained and well-organized militia forces and is capable of recruiting and mobilizing more troops, if needed. 

In a recent chain of attacks and retaliations, Hezbollah praised the October 7th attack on Israel by Hamas as expected. They also celebrated the Islamic Republic’s retaliatory missile and drone barrage of Israel on April 14th, 2024 known as “Operation True Promise” and contrary to the Israeli and western sources praised that the mission has achieved its objectives. Despite that Hezbollah verbally praised these attacks, in practice they refrained from supporting Hamas or Iran’s operation any further and through their combat means that is criticized by many low and middle ranking members of the axis of resistance. Although Hezbollah tried to stay away from the conflict in Gaza as much as possible, there have been border conflicts and exchange of fire between Hezbollah and IDF. In some cases, Israel even targeted Hezbollah commanders and troops deep in Lebanon territory. Neither the criticism of Hezbollah’s allies, nor the painful attacks of the IDF made Hezbollah mobilize its troops and missile force in large scales against Israel. This indicates that Iran’s objectives regarding arming and funding Hezbollah is something other than unleashing its full potential in regional conflicts like in Gaza. 


There were different factors involved in the creation of Iranian affiliated proxies in Iraq, to mention two important factors one can say the overthrow of Saddam mainly by the US and a vacancy of domestic hegemonic power besides the growing concerns among Iran’s ruling body regarding possible attacks from the U.S and the allies. The purpose of diverting funds and support to these groups in the first place (after Saddam was overthrown) was to pin down the US in Iraq so it would be too busy fighting them to mount an invasion of Iran. Islamic Republic’s network of militia groups in Iraq is made of multiple combat organizations with various levels of competencies and reliability in terms of taking command and influence from Tehran. These militia forces are now organized under Hashd al-Shaabi force, created in the aftermath of Iraqi Army’s incompetency to stop ISIS becoming powerful and taking over the Iraqi cities. After the ISIS problem was dealt with, many of the militia groups in Hashed al-Shaabi remained in the network of Islamic republic’s proxy groups and benefitted from Tehran’s support. Apart from funding these militias, Tehran provides them with rockets, ballistic missiles, combat drones and in many cases the necessary technology to become to some extent self-sufficient in arming themselves.

Iraqi political figures that are close to the Islamic Republic like Adel Abd-al-Mahdi praised the Operation True Promise After Israel’s revenge started on Gaza for the atrocities that Hamas committed on October 7th, the Iraqi militia forces intensified their attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria to protest against the US support. They have gone so far in their attacks that at one point the commander of Qods force in IRGC felt compelled to pressure them to back off, as the US signaled the Islamic Republic that it is holding Tehran accountable for the magnitude of the attacks, and Tehran wants to prevent further confrontation with the US. This is another sign that the Islamic Republic arms and funds these militia groups for the rainy day and specific scenarios and does not want its support to be wasted.   


Houthis and the Islamic Republic are on the same page in many respects. The Houthis overthrew the government in Yemen, which was backed by Saudi-Arabia, Iran’s regional prominent rival. In this process, the Islamic republic’s support turned the balance in favor of Houthis that were getting pounded by a coalition of GCC Armies supported mainly by the west. Yemen’s geopolitical location gives its rulers control over Bab al-Mandab strategic strait. For the same reason as to why having control over the strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is strategically important for Iran, the Islamic Republic wants to have control and influence over Bab al-Mandab strait to be able to jeopardize the international economy, which is a valuable leverage in case of any threats to the Islamic republic. In return, Houthis in the face of international isolation and under the threat of Saudi Arabia and other GCC members need the support of the Islamic Republic regarding receiving weapons, training, and to a lesser extent, “funding”; these supports make them able to sustain themselves and their rule over Yemen.

Houthis were among the first proxies of Iran that shared their support for Hamas. They have set out to create an economic and political pressure against Israel and its western allies by threatening and destabilizing the world economy through continued attacks on commercial ships passing through Bab al-Mandab strategic strait and the red sea. They also launched drone and missile attacks on Israel from their territory in Yemen; rather representing a symbolic gesture than militarily effective.   


Islamic Republic’s Strategy in Syria is different. Iran views Syria as a strategic partner and their alignment goes back to the beginning of the establishment of the Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution as the ruling system in Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war the Syrian government supported the isolated Iran through providing weapons and proper means to export its oil. After the Iran-Iraq war, Syria acted as a safe corridor for the Islamic republic to access and support its most precious Hezbollah in Lebanon. During Arab-Spring, the Islamic Republic concluded that Bashar al-Assad, as a regional partner, is too precious to be lost. Therefore, they helped al-Assad to crack down on the protesters and repel the insurgents that were backed by Islamic Republic’s regional rivals. To support its interests in Syria, the Islamic Republic paid billions of dollars in the form of loans and also weapons and training to the Syrian military. Besides, two Brigades, Zainbiyoun and Fatemiyoun, were formed under the direct command of the IRGC to support the Syrian government. The IRGC and the Islamic Republic have more freedom of action in Syria. They benefit from Syria’s infrastructures and the cooperation of its government to pursue their regional aspirations. One example is supporting and coordinating Hezbollah and other proxies through Syria. As a result, Israel tries to keep Tehran’s influence and operations in Syria under a severe state of surveillance through its military force. The most notable of such attempts was the attack on diplomatic establishments of the Islamic Republic in Damascus.


Hamas is not a faithful ally and not even a reliable partner for the Islamic Republic. Hamas and Islamic Republic have religious differences, one being Shia and the other being Sunni. Despite sharing an enmity with Israel, they have different political views and agenda. Tehran prioritizes the enmity with Israel (that it shares with Hamas in their mutual relations) and bridges over their differences with money. Hamas loves money and hates Israel; therefore, this relationship works!

The diverging effect of religious differences between Hamas and the Islamic Republic manifested as in 2011 Arab Spring hit Syria under the rule of al-Assad and his regime, which is a Shia oligarchy ruling a Sonny majority in Syria. Despite enjoying the financial, political, and military support of the Islamic Republic since 2000s, Hamas practically turned its back to the Islamic Republic and refused to abide by Tehran’s wish to take action in support of al-Assad regime and against the Syrian Sonny insurgents. Sonny governments of the region, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, that are regional rivals of Iran welcomed this shift in Hamas’s loyalty granted their financial supports to Hamas. After the dust had relatively settled in Syria and al-Assad remained in power, Hamas turned to Tehran to receive funds and support again. The Islamic Republic turned a blind eye to Hamas’s disloyalty and embraced its return. 

The Islamic republic supports Hamas or Hezbollah to keep Israel busy at its own borders and to rely on these militia forces in case of an attack to its soil or a threat to its rule. Hamas wants to stay in power and extend its power in the Palestine region. The goal of the Islamic Republic and Hamas align, when it involves fighting Israel, yet their strategies seem to be different. The Islamic Republic does not wish to get dragged into a full-scale war with Israel and its allies, therefore it tries to keep tensions to a contained level and maintain a reactive position against Israel. On the contrary, Hamas has a proactive stance, the most recent and vivid example of which is the October 7th attack. Tehran praised the al-Aqsa operation and the October 7th attack on Israel publicly and politically, but not effectively ;  According to a report by Reuters, Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic in the first meeting after the October 7th attack with Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, told him that the Islamic Republic will not fight on behalf of Hamas and even asked Haniyeh to “silence the voices” that ask for Islamic Republic’s and its proxies full-force involvement in this fight.

Hamas expected a more robust support from the Islamic Republic, yet until the Operation True Promise (the retaliatory response of Tehran against Israeli attacks vis-à-vis its consulate in Syria and the death of the members of IRGC brass) the Islamic Republic refrained from confronting Israel in the midst of conflicts in Gaza. Although Islamic Republic praised Operation al-Aqsa Storm, there is no consensus about whether Hamas carried out the October 7th strikes on Israel on its own initiative or under the directive of Tehran. Despite the fact that Islamic Republic pumped Hamas with funds and weapons, ordering it to carry out such an attack on Israel does not serve its regional strategies. Furthermore, the attack of October 7th, put the whole region on the verge of an all-out war and increased the possibility of a confrontation between Islamic Republic, the US and Israel. Hamas praised Operation True Promise, although this was a retaliatory move and was not meant to support Hamas against Israel.  This endeavor remained limited and in line with Islamic Republic’s reactive strategy against Israel because getting into a large-scale confrontation with Israel, the US, and the West is the last thing that Tehran would seek now. Such confrontation can immediately turn to an existential threat to the Islamic Republic’s rule in Iran, given the catastrophic economic conditions in Iran, public dissatisfaction, and lack of public support. Considering these points, after the IDF air strike on the 8th IRIAF tactical base in Isfahan, the Islamic republic choses de-escalation over further retaliatory attempts. 

The control of the Islamic Republic over its proxies and its purpose from supporting them

It should be remembered that Iran is a revisionist country in the international arena. This revisionist country is located in a region, where most of its neighbors are either allies to the US (Turkey and Israel) that shaped the current western liberal world order after the Cold War, or collaborators and benefactors of this world order (GCC countries). Surrounded by potentially hostile neighbors, Iran needs to have some element of deterrence to ensure the sovereignty of the country and the continuation of the reign of its current rulers. In the absence of access to the modern military technology and equipment, Iran has to resort to unorthodox methods and tactics to be able to create some level of deterrence against the US presence in the region, potentially hostile and well-armed neighbors and Israel that possesses nuclear weapons. Among these unorthodox methods most notably we see the development of various drones, UAVs, USVs, rockets and missile systems in Iran over the course of almost 40 years. What is less obvious is that the Islamic Republic is arming and supporting various militias and proxies in the region, not to merely destabilize the region or be malicious, but to add another layer to its deterrence system. These proxies are meant to be Iran’s Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of its well-equipped neighbors and world powers. In other words, the purpose of these proxies is not to wage and win a war on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, rather their purpose is to cause costs and inflict pain and destruction to Islamic Republic’s opponents and be a diplomatic leverage in Tehran’s hands. 

Currently the Islamic Republic’s net of proxies stretches over Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. In every one of these countries, they follow a specific purpose beside the general purpose of creating deterrence for Iran. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the first line of defense against an attack from Israel. In Iraq, Hashd al-Shabi forces are meant to keep a military pressure on the US forces and create a political pressure on the US until they reach their ultimate goal of expelling the US from Iraq and removing the US threat from Iran’s western borders. In Syria, the purpose of Islamic Republic led militia activities is to keep Bashar al-Assad, who is a strategic partner for the Islamic Republic. In Yemen, Houthis military capability serves the purpose of creating an economic pressure on the global and regional economies, inflicting additional costs for the western coalition and their allies in the region. Although it should be noted that the Islamic Republic’s command and control over these groups is not absolute. Many of these groups have their own agendas that in many cases aligns with Tehran’s agendas. Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic in the UN, Mr. Amir Saeid Iravani, recently described the nature of the relations of the Islamic Republic with these militia groups to be similar to the relationship of the members of a defense treaty like NATO and said that the Islamic Republic and these militia groups only confer and consult on various matters and it’s not like that the Islamic Republic fully controls them. Especially after the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, who was the commander of Qods force in IRGC, Iran’s grip over these groups loosened. Interestingly the IRGC recently had to put these militias under pressure to cease actions against the US troops, because their activities are one way or another assumed to be directed by Iran, even when it is really not the case, and Tehran wants to avoid further escalations in the region that can lead to all-out war. 


Despite that Iran had warned Israel and its allies that it would meet any retaliatory attempt by Israel to Islamic Republic’s attack on Israeli soil on 14th April 2024 by more destructive force, they refrained to take further retaliations against Israel after the IDF attack on Isfahan. This suggests that the Islamic Republic does not wish to continue with the cycle of retaliations and escalation. At the current stage that the two parties have demonstrated their military capabilities to each other and managed to appease the political pressures and public opinion domestically, it seems that they wish to shift back to lower gears and take a step away from the verge of an all-out war.

When one probes the surveys and the views produced by the experts in the matters of the Middle-East and the IRGC, they can notice that the rhetoric “In case of an attack from Israel/the US” is repeated multiple times; specially when the motifs of Tehran from arming and funding the militia groups in the region is discussed. The Islamic Republic tries to keep its proxy militia groups in check and keep the tensions on a reasonable level in the gray zone that does not lead to a destructive war for Iran. It was also the case in the Islamic Republic’s retaliatory operation ‘True Promise’, during which the attacks were carried out by the IRGC and Iran’s Army from Iranian territory and the involvement of the proxy militias were kept to minimum. Following the relative de-escalations after a sequence of attacks and retaliations between Tehran and Tel-Aviv, the Islamic Republic replaces the weapons and troops that were lost in these conflicts so these groups maintain their combat readiness to serve their purpose as a layer in Islamic Republic deterrence system.

War in Gaza and then Israel’s attack on Islamic Republic’s consulate in Damascus aligned the militia groups in the region and was the best opportunity for the Islamic Republic to take their 40 years old slogan of “Israel should be perished” a couple of steps closer to reality through orchestrating simultaneous large-scale attacks on Israel by all of their proxy groups and also from Iranian soil. Yet contrary to the expectations of its allies in the axis of resistance, the Islamic Republic chose not to take this so-called opportunity and preferred to save its silver bullet for another day. For Islamic Republic to order its proxies to do orchestrated attacks on the US, Israeli, and western targets, there needs to be an existential threat posed by them against the Islamic Republic, for example a military invasion of Iran to overthrow it.  Out of this frame and in line with the revisionist stance of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the global stage, the task of the proxy militias is to keep a continuous military, economic, and political pressure against the interests of the West and its allies in the region.

To sum up, the Islamic Republic relies on its proxies as a deterrence measure to ensure its rule in Iran. Tehran is a puppeteer that uses its puppet proxies to create chaos and trouble, when it feels dissatisfied, under pressure, or threatened. It unleashes trouble and chaos, to remind everyone how vital is the security it sells by means of keeping its puppets in check. It has been an effective deterrence measure by now for the Islamic Republic, because its rivals and foes in the region and internationally rely on stability and peace in the Middle East, which is the most important energy hub globally, to thrive. 

Author: Ellias Aghili Dehnavi