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Iranian Proxy Warfare Doctrine in the Gaza conflict



While the war in Gaza continues, some external actors are intervening and shaping the conflict. Few entities wield as much influence and provoke as much concern as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its proxies have played a significant role in advancing Tehran's strategic interests. We will have an insight into how the ayatollah's regime (in)directly engages in the conflict.

The Axis of Resistance

At the forefront of Iran's proxy network was General Soleimani, the mastermind behind Iran's anti-Islamic State campaign and the dissemination of ideology and funding to Shiite militias abroad. Leading the Quds Force, the external operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Soleimani orchestrated a coordinated effort to combat the spread of ISIS across the region. His adept coordination of diverse militia groups following ISIS's territorial gains in 2014 proved instrumental in spoiling the extremist group's advances. This strategy extended to Syria, where Quds Force operatives trained and deployed Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to support the Assad regime's fight against ISIS.

By strengthening ties with non-state armed actors across the region, his successor Ghaani cultivated what he termed the "Axis of Resistance" comprising groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The coalition intersects ethnic and religious differences and aspires to put pressure against Iranian enemies, still each group maintaining its own agendas and decision-making.

The Houthis in Yemen

Central to Iran's support for the Houthi rebels is the notion of resistance against Western influence and regional adversaries, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have capitalized on Iranian assistance to enhance their military capabilities to expand their reach in Yemen since the ‘90s, while broadening the reach of Iran's anti-Western alliance along one of the world's most important geo-economic gateways in Bab-el-Bandeb.

As the Israel-Hamas war continues since October 2023, the Houthis began missile launches against Israeli targets and systematic attacks on ships off the coast of Yemen in solidarity with the Palestinians. While supporting the idea of a ceasefire in Gaza, this non-state group strives for two objectives: a) they aim to bolster public approval, which was domestically weakened due to their inability to compensate salaries or provide services as a de facto authority in the northwest of Yemen; b) their direct military clash with the US and the UK contributes somewhat to the validation of the Houthis' anti-imperial beliefs. Indeed, the Houthis perceive themselves as engaged in a conflict with divine support on their side and they are willing to grow their ideological indoctrination power, especially in young generations through textbooks and summer camps that frame Americans and Israeli as enemies.

Despite accusations from Western powers of direct Iranian involvement in arming and supporting the Houthis, considering the increased sophistication of Houthi attacks, the Islamic Republic argues for an independent action in Yemen. The involvement in the co-joint attack to Israel in the night bewteen April 13th-14th sweepts any doubt away.

IRI in Iraq

In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have likewise posed a challenge to regional stability. Following Soleimani's death in a U.S. drone strike, proxy groups intensified attacks on American military installations to the point of killing for the first time three U.S. military personnel in Jordan last January.

Being the second biggest Shia group, Tehran started endorsing indoctrination in Iraq since its foundation in 1979. The militia originated as disjointed in several groups, yet recently the five major organizations have come under the umbrella of the “Coordinating Committee of Iraqi Resistance”. However, their actions still do not necessarily fall under a command chain and “IRI” is a façade name intentionally used to avoid singular accountability, thus preventing any one group from being perceived as the primary perpetrator.

The drone attack on Tower 22 American base in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Syrian border, is ascribed to this Iranian proxy group. After the attack, IRI declared that the strike was intended as a response to the U.S. backing to Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Iran has denied any involvement in the attacks, but the IRGC’s coordinating role is quite evident.

Hezbollah in Lebanon

Meanwhile, Hezbollah remains Iran's staunchest ally in the Axis of Resistance, wielding considerable influence in Lebanon and engaging in periodic conflict with Israel. The group's close coordination with Tehran spans decades, with Iran providing financial, military, and logistical support to bolster Hezbollah's capabilities.

This proxy was the first one to open the fire against Israel after October 7th and the two parties have ever since been trying to balance their force in order not to spread war to their allied counterparts. Nevertheless, recently Israel has widened the geographical area of strikes from southern Lebanon: on January 8th the commander within Hezbollah and one of its senior members, Wassim al-Tawil, was targeted; on an overnight air strike on April 8th another Hezbollah commander was also killed. In addition to sporadic military achievements, like its recent interception of an Israeli drone, Hezbollah had primarily responded to Israel’s escalating campaign in Lebanon through its rhetoric as the domestic economic crisis is halting the employment of new individuals and arsenals. The non-statal group was also engaged in the attack to Tel Aviv in the night bewteen April 13th-14th.

Tehran's Red Lines 

Across various countries, the methods and targets may differ, but all these attacks are supported by Iran and share the common objective of pressuring Israelian and U.S. leaders to cease the conflict in Gaza. Tensions continue in the Gaza Strip, particularly in the aftermath of Israelian airstrikes targeting Iranian proxies in Syria, the specter of open conflict loomed large.

With the first direct attack in history to Israel, Iran seeked retaliation for perceived provocations, however it was wary of crossing a threshold that could lead to direct confrontation or the involvement of the U.S. The strategic calculus of Iranian proxies continues to shape the dynamics of the Middle East, with far-reaching implications for regional stability and security.

The Israelian attack in Syria contravened the Vienna Convention and excarcerbated the calm maintained by the Ayatollah regime until now, since it hit a diplomatic facility and killed senior leaders of the IRGC. On the other side Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was also under domestic pressure to retaliate visibly, which could risk escalating tensions. Iran seeked a 'soft response' with the employment of drones, cruise  and balistic missiles, which were mostly intercepted by the Iron Dome system, to avoid further consequences and to prevent escalation. Khamenei had vowed to punish Israel, indicating a desire to restore deterrence without sparking a full-blown war, as declared at the UN. 

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