Iran Is Mobilizing Its Proxy Network for War Against American and Israel

October 23, 2023 Topic: Iran Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IranHamasHezbollahAxis Of ResistanceWar

Iran Is Mobilizing Its Proxy Network for War Against American and Israel

Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East are involved in a multi-front escalation.

Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East are involved in a multi-front escalation. Attacks against Israel and US forces have now occurred in Iraq and Syria, and now from Yemen. Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder described these events as individual “small-scale attacks” and deflected when asked about Iran’s hand in them. But the timing and targets of these attacks signal an Iranian-led effort to dissuade US support for an Israeli offensive into the Gaza Strip, especially since Iran threatened activating its proxy threat should the United States refreeze the $6 billion released to Iran in August’s prisoner swap deal, which the United States has done.

In the past two days, Iranian proxies have conducted at least seven attacks from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias useddrones and rockets to target two US positions in Iraq in four separate attacks. They expanded their target set on October 19, firing one-way drones and rockets at two additional US positions in Syria. While US forces coming under fire in either country is not new, such attacks have not occurred with any regularity since July 2021 in Iraq and March 2023 in Syria. Finally, overnight on October 18, the Houthis fired cruise missiles and drones in a northerly direction—toward Israel—that the USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, intercepted. If Israel were indeed the target, as early evidence suggests, this would be the Houthis’ first time conducting such an attack. Iran’s coordination with its regional partners since Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 strongly suggests that the proxies are acting as part of an Iranian-organized effort to discourage US support for Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip.

Members of Iran’s so-called “Axis of Resistance” — an informal alliance that includes Lebanese Hezbollah, some Iraqi Shia militias, and the Houthis — warned that they would enter the fight if the United States intervened to support Israel. Hezbollah threatened Israel directly should the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conduct a ground operation into Gaza. In recent days, Hezbollah has fired mortars at and skirmished regularly with Israeli forces along the Israel-Lebanon border, and reports indicate Hezbollah forces have redeployed from positions in Syria to the Lebanese border. Iraqi Shia militias such as the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah (both of which killed US troops during the Iraq war) are now carrying through on their threat to attack US military positions, as are the Houthis, who threatened drone and missile strikes should the United States intervene in the war.

US support to Israel has flowed into the Middle East, ignoring the effort to limit it. President Biden described his administration’s support for Israel as “rock solid and unwavering” in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The US response has been to increase its regional military presence to prevent further aggression against Israel and quickly providing Israel with military assistance. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group, which includes the USS Carney, to the Eastern Mediterranean and later directed a second carrier strike group, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to the theater. Moreover, Western media reports that Washington has given Israeli leads the “green light” to launch major ground operations into the Gaza Strip. The IDF has yet to enter Gaza, though it has been striking targets within the enclave relentlessly.Iran’s Axis of Resistance is now acting as if its red lines have been crossed, tilting the region closer to conflict. Additionally, Iranian-backed groups are preparing for further escalations. Iraqi Shia militias organized a joint operations room to coordinate across the various organizations, for example. Yet the ongoing absence of major activity from the two most powerful members of the Axis of Resistance, Hezbollah and Iran itself, suggests Iran has sought to calibrate its proxies’ attacks carefully so as not to spark broader conflict. Hezbollah has still not fired its precision rockets or used drones against Israel. Even though the logic of restraint persists for all parties involved, a miscalculation on any side could spiral the region into war.

This expanding conflict—regardless of its outcome—underscores that the United States must retain an active role in the region to promote stability and secure its interests. Washington is again experiencing whiplash after trying to reduce commitments in the Middle East. This pattern of episodically prioritizing the Middle East risks at some point straining US policymakers’ attention and resources when they cannot afford to do so, jeopardizing competition with China and Russia or other strategic priorities. Rather, the correct approach for the United States is to engage the Middle East consistently through this crisis and beyond to promote long-term stability and deter adversaries like Iran and its band of misfits in the Axis of Resistance.

Nicholas Karl is a Middle East Portfolio Manager at the American Enterprise Institute.

Brian Carter is a Team Lead at the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project.

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on the global Salafi-jihadi movement and counterterrorism.

This article was first published by The American Enterprise Institute.

Image: saeediex /