Iran’s Proxies Are Out of Control

Published in the Atlantic

Iran and the United States have been in a shadow war with each other for years. That the conflict has never spilled into all-out war is only because both countries have kept to certain unwritten red lines and rules of engagement. One such rule, rarely broken in recent years, is: Thou Shall Not Kill an American Soldier. Even in January 2020, when a U.S. strike killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most important military figure, the Iranian response didn’t lead to a single U.S. fatality. The tit for tat that had led to the assassination had included the killing of a U.S. contractor, but no U.S. soldiers.

On Sunday, this line was crossed. Three American soldiers were killed when a drone hit their living quarters in Tower 22, a small outpost in Jordan, near the country’s borders with Iraq and Syria. The attack was claimed by Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella term used by pro-Iran Iraqi Shiite militias that are backed and trained by the Islamic Republic and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These militias stage many such attacks, but they rarely make a serious impact. In this case, the outpost’s air defense apparently misidentified the drone as a returning American craft.

A debate has predictably broken out over the degree to which the Iranian leadership was responsible for the attack. President Joe Biden quickly blamed “radical Iran-backed militant groups.” In response, several Republican senators and others have called for strikes on Iranian territory. But the Biden administration has been careful to assert only that the responsible groups are trained and funded by Tehran without implying a direct Iranian role in ordering the drone strike. “We certainly don’t seek a war, and frankly we don’t see Iran wanting to seek a war with the United States,” the Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said yesterday. Today, President Biden said he had decided on a response but affirmed: “I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s public stance, meanwhile, has been similar to what it was on October 7: The government denies playing any direct role in the attacks, even as state-backed media outlets effectively praise them. For years, Iran was thought to have made an art out of this official ambiguity, slyly posing as a responsible actor in its state-to-state relations while continuing its support for revolutionary militias. The regime’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was praised by some analysts for cannily allowing the pro-Tehran militias to grow while keeping Iran out of any direct conflict. As it loudly denounced the United States, Tehran also quietly worked with it in Iraq and elsewhere. But the forces of the so-called Axis of Resistance threaten to upset this balance for the regime in Tehran, which can no longer fully control them. After spending billions of dollars (and immeasurable diplomatic and political capital) on the militias, the Islamic Republic finds itself beholden to them. Many in the Iranian establishment now worry that the militias might get Iran into a war it has long tried to avoid.

That this weekend’s attacks in Jordan were staged by an Iraqi group should not be surprising. The Iraqi militias form perhaps the rowdiest part of Iran’s Axis of Resistance and are among the most firmly rooted in Iran’s Shiite Islamist ideology. But unlike in Lebanon, where all supporters of Iran’s Islamist government are united in the ranks of Hezbollah, the militias have never coalesced into a single outfit in Iraq. Instead, each militia has a strong identity, usually organized around a single charismatic leader, and they cooperate through ad hoc umbrella groups, such as the military Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee and the parliamentary Shiite Coordination Framework.

The ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader, and Khamenei, its current leader, run deep in the Iraqi militias. But this ideological fervor makes them, ironically, hard for Tehran to control, because they are not always prone to be convinced by the strategic calculations of the Iranian establishment’s more pragmatic sections. Tehran and the IRGC leadership have thus struggled to keep the militias in check—and to restrain them from attacking U.S. forces, in particular. Wrangling them has become especially difficult since Soleimani’s killing, because the current head of the IRGC’s external operations wing, Esmail Qaani, doesn’t have Soleimani’s charisma, personal ties with the militias, or even a good command of Arabic.

Iran-backed militias dominate Iraqi politics, to the country’s detriment. Hundreds of Iraqis lost their lives protesting them and the broader sectarian power-sharing system that empowers them in 2019 and 2021. The militias did poorly in parliamentary elections in 2021, but they were able to use a combination of brutality on the streets and horse-trading in Parliament to weaken their main rivals and install a friendly prime minister. They now have access not only to Iran’s largesse but to the coffers of the Iraqi state.

Emboldened by this state of affairs and encouraged by Washington’s apparent lack of strategic focus on Iraq, the militias have been open in their threats. Since October 7, they have repeatedly attacked U.S. forces, leading to dozens of injuries. At least one U.S. contractor has died in these attacks. The Iraqi militias have even attempted to lob missiles at faraway Israel. They have also been pushing Tehran to be less cautious in its dealings with the United States.

On November 27, Qais al-Khazali, among the most ambitious of the Iraqi-militia leaders, complained that the Americans had more regard for Iranian blood than Iraqi blood, because their strikes against Axis forces rarely killed Iranians but “when they come under attack [from Iraqi groups], and not one American is killed, they regard Iraqi blood as without any significance … We can never accept this.”

Now that Iraqis have crossed the red line of killing American soldiers, they might escalate further, even if Khamenei tries to restrain them. The same is true of the Yemeni Houthis, who have been hitting American and British warships. Tehran can exercise only so much control over its proxies in day-to-day operations. By tying Iran’s fate to an unruly Axis, Khamenei has endangered his country and put it at serious risk of war.

These are not good times in Iran to begin with. The economy is teetering, and political repression has reached new heights. In recent days, several political prisoners, including some linked to the 2022–23 Woman, Life, Freedom movement, have been executed, spreading a feeling of despondence and anger in Iranian society. In March, Iran will hold elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts (the body tasked with selecting a new supreme leader after Khamenei dies) that are already shaping up to be among the most restricted in its history. The disqualification of candidates has reached comical proportions: Hassan Rouhani, a sitting member of the assembly and a former president, was barred from running. So, too, was a former intelligence minister. A general feeling of despair hangs over society—and now as well, the fear of a direct U.S. strike on Iranian territory, something that has never before happened. (During the closing years of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Reagan administration targeted Iranian ships but never Iranian territory.)

Peace and civil-society activists aren’t the only ones grumbling about these conditions. Even former officials of the Islamic Republic now openly complain about Khamenei’s policies. Speaking to an Iranian outlet, Mohammad Ali Sobhani, a former ambassador to Lebanon and Syria, complained that Iran’s “aggressive foreign policy” had prevented the country from “playing a positive role in regional developments.”

Most strikingly, Sobhani—who is, again, not an oppositionist but a regime diplomat who has worked closely with Axis groups in the region—complained about the Islamic Republic’s support for Hamas and said: “Some of our officials have become spokespersons for Hamas … In such conditions, diplomats will be unable to do much. We keep talking about supporting Hamas and the resistance while Arab [states] seek a government that could run Gaza and the West Bank … and ultimately want to reach peace with Israel.”

Sobhani is not the only member of the Iranian diplomatic and security establishment to have expressed a loss of faith in Khamenei’s choices and leadership. Some have harshly criticized, in particular, the regime’s military support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which breaks with a cherished Iranian tradition of nonalignment. The regime’s recent attack on Pakistani territory, which led to a military response by Islamabad, was seen by many as a shocking blunder, because it unnecessarily got Iran into a military spat with a nuclear-armed neighbor.

Whatever their feelings about Israel, serious Iranian analysts know that it doesn’t make strategic sense for Iran to get into a military confrontation with the Jewish state and its American and Western allies. I have spoken with Iranian military and security figures in recent days, and some among them have asked: If Arabs themselves refuse such a confrontation, why should Iran accept this dangerous burden?

Those I spoke with suggested the existence of sharp internal disagreements about the future direction of Iran. Sitting at the helm, Khamenei is the only glue that holds the regime and its current orientation together. As he is almost 85, and not a particularly healthy man, many now await his death with a mix of eagerness and anxiety. Jockeying for succession has already begun. But, for now, the same man calls the shots, as he has done since 1989: an octogenarian revolutionary Islamist whose reckless building up of a network of militias has turned into a grave threat to his nation.

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