Is Iran really in control of its so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’?

Is Iran really in control of its so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’?
Commonly referred to as 'Iran's proxies', groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), and the Houthis are frequently perceived as mere extensions of Iranian will. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelIiNews January 22, 2024

Militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), and the Houthis are frequently perceived as mere extensions of Iranian will. Western media and pundits commonly refer to them as "Iran's proxies" to assert that Iran is the primary instigator of conflicts in the MENA region.

This narrative simplifies the complex and multifaceted nature of these conflicts, often overshadowing the root causes, such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian lands​. A closer examination reveals a more nuanced reality, suggesting these groups should be seen as partners or allies with their own agendas and origins.

These groups emerged from local contexts rather than being creations of Iran. Hamas and Islamic Jihad were born out of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, while Hezbollah formed in response to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. The Houthis, predating Iran's support, rose in Yemen due to internal conflicts and grievances, in part due to the failure of successive Yemeni governments since reunification and the departure of the British from Aden.

Similarly, the PMF in Iraq was established by Ayatollah Ali Sistani to confront ISIS, not as an Iranian initiative​​​​. Yes, they have close links with Iran in terms of technology and intelligence sharing, but to say Tehran gives them orders over the phone is a step too far. Iraq has grievances with the West after decades of control by the British and then Americans over the 20th century, creating a great distrust of outsiders, with Arab nationalism and latterly Baathism crossing sectarian boundaries and social classes.

The modern relationship between Iraq and Iran is still a relatively new phenomenon, in part due to the US occupation following its invasion in 2003. Before that date, Iran and its clerics were entirely disconnected from Najaf and Karbala, two holy shrines to Shi’ites, because of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim who hated all things Iranian and led a bloody war with Tehran that lasted nearly a decade. There remains a suspicion in the minds of Iraqis of all stripes of Iranian intentions in the country, and the PMF’s creation should be seen as separate to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), not an extension of it.

Support vs control

While it's undeniable that Iran provides support to these groups, equating support with direct control is grossly misleading and incredibly simplistic. These groups sought assistance not only from Iran but from other Arab and Muslim countries—this is how things work in the Persian Gulf. Those with the deepest pockets and best militaries are the ones calling the shots in many respects.

Iran's willingness to provide support where others refrained from doing so does not necessarily convert these groups into proxies. This distinction is crucial in understanding the dynamics at play. For instance, despite receiving Iranian support, Hamas expressed discontent when a deputy of Iran's IRG linked their actions to the revenge for the killing of General Soleimani, emphasising their focus on Israel's occupation​​.

The difference between Persian Iran and Arab counterparts such as Saudi Arabia, often seen as Iran’s biggest rival, is that Iran is beholden to no other nation and has struggled to get military technology to the Saudi level. Tehran does not need to consult with Moscow (its primary partner in Syria in keeping Basher al-Assad in power), unlike the Saudis do with the Americans, who ultimately have another influential partner in the region in Israel.

This ‘third party’, Israel, is currently striking Iran a series of blows, the latest of which was a air strike in a suburban Damascus suburb killing several Iranian military leaders.

Israel has  ironically come to emulate the Islamic Republic in many ways as it has evolved over the past 75 years, becoming more religious and authoritarian and ignoring superpowers in search of its own interests.

Iran’s regional strategy 

Iran's involvement in the region is often framed within the strategy of creating an ‘axis of resistance’ against perceived threats, particularly from the United States and Israel. This strategy involves supporting various groups to counter these threats. The Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) elaborates on the IRGC-QF (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force) and its role in supporting and coordinating with these groups, emphasising Iran's interest in expanding its regional influence​.

Yet, each group maintains its distinct goals and agency. Lebanon, the birthplace of modern Shi’ism, emerged as a formidable force with Hezbollah, deeply embedded in the country's political and social fabric and often acting with a veto on several internal issues in the country. The long-term projection would suggest that even if a rift occurred between the two Shi’ite centres in the Near East, Hezbollah has built up a big enough arsenal and economic empire over the past 30 years that they could quite easily go it alone.

The Houthis in Yemen, while initially receiving Iranian backing against Riyadh, have their own complex motivations tied to the struggle for dominance in the Gulf country​​. Yes, they are Shia, but not the same branch as Iran (they’re Zaydi). They have their cultural norms and grievances stemming from Yemen's tragic history since the end of British rule and the failure of successive local governments to stamp out corruption, among other issues.

These internal issues led to the Houthis growing from a tribal group in the highlands of Arabia to the de facto government of the country. There is also a Saudi-backed Yemeni government but you wouldn’t know it as the Houthi movement has effectively taken control of the most populated areas and is now in charge.

Labelling these groups as mere proxies can lead to misguided policies. For example, to weaken the alliance between Hamas and Iran, addressing the root cause – Israel's occupation of Palestinian land – is more effective than targeting the Iran-Hamas relationship alone. Similarly, addressing Hezbollah's grievances requires considering Lebanon's territorial integrity and sovereignty​.

Recognising these groups as independent actors with their agendas, albeit supported by Iran, is essential for a more accurate and practical approach to the region's complex conflicts. This understanding is vital for policymakers, as it opens the door to more nuanced and potentially more effective strategies for engagement and conflict resolution in the Middle East.