How Iran Shapes the Mideast: Power by Proxy

Hamas

A close ally, it gives Tehran a direct link to the Palestinian struggle, a cause that resonates across the Arab world.

Recent actions

On Oct. 7, Hamas invaded Israel from Gaza, killing roughly 1,200 people, including women and children, according to Israeli authorities, and taking more than 200 hostages.

Since its creation in 1987, Hamas has launched numerous strikes on Israel, often working with another Iranian-backed militant group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In 2021, the two groups fired 4,000 rockets into Israel over an 11-day period.

How they are linked to Iran

U.S. officials do not believe that Iran initiated the Hamas attack or that it had even been informed about it in advance.

But Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad together receive more than $100 million a year from Tehran in addition to weapons and training, according to a 2020 U.S. State Department report. In a 2022 interview, Hamas’s political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Hamas received about $70 million a year.

Iran has not just provided weapons and training to both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, it has also taught Hamas to make and assemble its own weapons from local supplies.

Military capabilities

For the most part, Hamas is equipped with comparatively unsophisticated weapons — but quantity makes up for what the group’s arsenal lacks in quality.

Before the war Hamas had thousands of short-range and medium-range rockets that can travel at least 125 miles. From Gaza, some of them can reach as far as the Israeli cities of Eilat and Haifa, as well as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Hezbollah

The largest, oldest and best-trained Iranian proxy group in the Middle East.

Recent actions

Hezbollah, a longtime antagonist of Israel’s, began turning up the pressure on Israel’s border after the war in Gaza began on Oct. 7, launching strikes across the border. Israel has counterattacked, and many civilians on both sides of the border have been forced to flee their homes.

The most sustained conflict between Hezbollah and Israel was in 2006. That fight made clear how formidable Hezbollah forces had become, but it took a deep toll on the Lebanese, killing more than a thousand people, mostly civilians, and displacing more than 900,000.

How they are linked to Iran

Hezbollah receives significant financial support from Iran, though the exact amount is hard to ascertain. One U.S. official testifying in 2018 put the amount at $700 million, but offered no evidence for that number. However, Iran’s cash support for Hezbollah has diminished over time, reflecting the impact of long-term sanctions coupled with the more recent intense sanctions ordered by President Donald J. Trump and maintained by President Biden.

Iran has nevertheless been able to maintain its backing for Hezbollah in many other ways. It continues, for example, to provide not just arms but also sophisticated technological know-how so that Hezbollah engineers can manufacture weapons locally. The ability to produce its own weapons has made Hezbollah into one of the best-supplied militias in the Middle East.

Military capabilities

Estimates by the U.S. military and arms experts put Hezbollah’s arsenal, the largest of the Iranian-linked groups, at about 135,000 to 150,000 rockets and missiles. Others estimate it is even larger. With ranges of up to 200 or so miles, they allow the militants to reach targets deep inside Israel.

Among the weapons, analysts estimate, are between 100 to 400 recently retrofitted missiles with precision-guidance systems that can be programmed to land within meters of their targets. The technology is predominantly Iranian and Russian, though it is sometimes modified by Hezbollah’s weapon experts.

Military analysts view Hezbollah’s fighting force as more disciplined, better trained and better organized than most Middle East armies. It is made up of about 30,000 troops and 20,000 reservists. And, according to analysts, it has the ability to quickly recruit and train thousands of new foot soldiers through its role as a political power and a social-service provider in many Lebanese communities.

The Houthis

A recent addition to Iran’s network of allies, these militants have been attacking vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a major shipping route.

The New York Times; Area of control via the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

Recent actions

A Houthi attack on March 6 in the Red Sea killed three seamen, wounded four others and damaged their Barbados-flagged cargo ship so badly that it sank. Other Houthi strikes have targeted vessels owned by Britain and Greece.

Since the war in Gaza broke out, the Houthis, expressing solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, have launched more than 60 missile and drone strikes on ships transiting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, according to the Congressional Research Service.

How they are linked to Iran

For the most part, the Houthis receive weapons and training from Iran instead of direct financial support, but experts say they have also received narcotics, and, in the past, some petroleum products, both of which can be resold, giving the Houthis needed cash. In December 2023, the U.S. Treasury placed sanctions on individuals and on money exchanges in Iran, Turkey and Yemen that were involved in transferring millions of dollars from Iran to the Houthis.

The Houthis share Iran’s adherence to Shiite Islam as well as its antipathy for Saudi Arabia. During Yemen’s civil war, Iran and Hezbollah helped the Houthis fight against both the Yemeni government and its Saudi backers.

Military capabilities

Estimates vary widely on the Houthi militia’s manpower and the size of its arsenal.

Experts say it has about 20,000 trained fighters, but in interviews, Houthi leaders have claimed to have as many as 200,000, and in 2015 the United Nations put the number at about 75,000.

What is clear, based on the recent attacks, is that the Houthis have some highly trained units adept at operating increasingly sophisticated drones as well as anti-ship ballistic missiles and missiles intended for stationary targets on land.

Iraqi Armed Groups

Iran has secured far-reaching influence on its neighbor and is a power both in Iraqi politics and in business across most of the country.

The New York Times; Approximate areas of activity based on data from the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

Recent actions

As war flared in Gaza in October, two of those groups turned up their strikes on American positions in Iraq. Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al Nujaba launched 166 attacks on U.S. military installations in Iraq and Syria, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

The early attacks wounded about 70 troops, with most of the injuries relatively minor. On Jan. 28, however, a strike on a resupply base on the Jordanian-Syrian border killed three U.S. troops and wounded more than 34.

How they are linked to Iran

The Iraqi groups’ links to Iran go back almost two decades, and over the years Tehran has given them money, weapons and training.

Today, Iran still provides training and weapon parts as well as technical and strategic support. The Shiite groups, however, are now part of the Iraqi government’s security apparatus under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes more than 35 armed groups. The Iraqi government covers the salaries of most of the rank and file. It is unclear if Iran augments the salaries for commanders and the groups’ leadership.

Military capabilities

Kata’ib Hezbollah, which analysts estimate has between 10,000 and 30,000 fighters, uses drones, rockets and missiles with ranges of up to about 700 miles, according to the U.S. Central Command.

With Iran’s help, the group has gained the capacity to retrofit missiles to make them more accurate. It also has a variety of attack drones, including ones that can travel up to 450 miles. A drone was used in the attack on the resupply base that killed three American troops.

Harakat al Nujaba and Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada have fewer troops — analysts estimate their troop numbers are closer to 1,000 to 5,000 — but use similar weapons. They operate primarily in Syria and have attacked Israel.

Syrian Armed Groups

Nowhere has Iran given more resources to a regional government than Syria, which has been at war for over a decade.

The New York Times; Approximate areas of activity based on data from the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

How they are linked to Iran

Iran has helped prop up President Bashar al-Assad in numerous ways, including through billions of dollars in loans to the government, supplies of discounted oil and payments to help sustain Syria’s military forces.

The Revolutionary Guards also field at least two militias in Syria: the Fatemiyoun brigade, made up of Afghan refugees, and the Zainebiyoun brigade, made up of Pakistani refugees. They reportedly pay other armed contingents more modest salaries.

Iran’s involvement in Syria goes back to just after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Syria supported the new government in Tehran as others shunned it. Iran sees Syria as a strategic partner offering it overland access to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Military capabilities

Syria is also where Iranian-backed forces retrofit, manufacture and store weapons that Iran then distributes to armed groups in Syria and around the region, above all Hezbollah. Over the past 12 to 15 years, at Iran’s behest, the Syrian government has retooled some of its weapon facilities into production centers for retrofitting midrange rockets and missiles with precision-guidance systems, according to Israeli defense and intelligence reports.

The existence of these sites, some of which are underground for protection, became public in 2022 when an Israeli defense minister, Benny Gantz, spoke out about them after Israel bombed Syria and the strikes set off secondary explosions. The United States has also bombed Iranian weapon stores in Syria.

Syria also has a history of chemical-weapon production dating to the 1970s and of short- and midrange missiles adapted for their delivery, according to French intelligence officials. In 2023, the U.N. Security Council concluded that Syria still had chemical-weapon stores despite numerous international efforts to compel the government to destroy them.

Alissa J. Rubin covers climate change and conflict in the Middle East. She previously reported for more than a decade from Baghdad and Kabul, Afghanistan, and was the Paris bureau chief. More about Alissa J. Rubin

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