War by Proxy: Iran's Growing Footprint in the Middle East

March 11, 2019

Weapon Program: 

  • Military


Seth G. Jones


Center for Strategic and International Studies

The Issue

There is growing Iranian activism in the Middle East despite U.S. and allied efforts to weaken Iran’s economy and politically isolate Tehran. There has been an increase in the size and capabilities of militias supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen collectively. Iran is also working to establish a land bridge across the region. Nevertheless, Iran has weaknesses and vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the United States and its partners.

Tehran wields influence in the Middle East through its use of non-state partners, despite renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran and a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Iran’s economic woes have not contributed to declining activism in the region—at least not yet. If anything, Iranian leaders appear just as committed as ever to engagement across the Middle East using irregular methods. According to data collected and analyzed in this brief, there has been an increase in the overall size and capability of foreign forces that are partnered with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Iran’s paramilitary organization responsible for foreign operations. The IRGC-QF’s partners are in countries like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Iran is also attempting to establish land corridors across the region and increase its ability to move fighters and material from one theater to another.

More broadly, there is a growing regional conflict with Iran, which consists of a war in Yemen (including the Houthi use of ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia), an escalating conflict with Israel in Syria, a growth of Shia militia forces in Iraq, targeted assassinations, and cyberattacks. Iran’s expanding presence in Syria, for example, has led to concerns among Israeli leaders, who have authorized hundreds of military strikes against missile and other targets over the past few years. Based in part on IRGC-QF assistance, Iran’s partners have improved their capabilities in such areas as missiles and drones. These developments are significant because Iranian leaders have assessed that irregular warfare— including support to non-state partners—is a critical element to competing with the United States in the region. 

Yet Iran—and the IRGC-QF in particular—have vulnerabilities and weaknesses that may be exploitable, such as possible long-term overextension with an already weak economy and continuing divisions among Iraq’s Shia community about Iran and its doctrine of velayat-e faqih (the Islamic system of clerical rule). Overall, Iranian actions have also created growing regional concerns about Tehran’s attempt to expand its power and influence, which can be leveraged for more effective balancing.


Read the full pieace at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.