Analytical Brief n. 15, September 2021

Iran’s continuous projection of power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen through its Shia proxy groups has become a political reality that Western allies have started to reckon with. The recent appointment (June 2021) of Simon Shercliff as the new British Ambassador to Iran is a clear illustration of this point. Shercliff had served in Iran from 2000 to 2003 during the presidency of President Khatami and is considered an expert on Iranian proxy groups and the IRGC intelligence operations.(1)

Pro-Iranian armed Shiite groups have their origins in the 1980s. However, in the past twenty years Teheran had turned a network of pro-Iranian regional groups into a powerful foreign policy tool. The activities of these groups fit into Iran’s security strategy which is based on two main elements: 1) development of Iran’s missile program(2) and 2) support for Shia armed groups ready to strike American and Israeli interests in the region.


Iran's most reliable and well-equipped ally in the region is Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement. Hezbollah was formed in 1982 by radical elements that broke away from the Amal movement, which was in crisis after the disappearance in 1978 in Libya of its founder Musa al-Sadr. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) played a major role in financing, equipping and training the Hezbollah fighters and propelling them to the front of the anti-Israeli struggle in Lebanon.(3)

In 2000, Hezbollah's guerrilla operations in the occupied South Lebanese territories forced the Israelis to withdraw from the region. In the summer of 2006, Israel waged a 34-day war against Hezbollah with the aim to destroy it. However, this military campaign had an unexpected result. The ground operation failed on the Marjayoun-Hasbayya line in no small part because of Hezbollah's new tactics to counter Israeli tanks. Hezbollah anti-tank crews armed with Kornet and Fagot anti-tank missiles destroyed a significant number of Merkaba tanks, which were considered invincible until then.

The actual military victory in the July War greatly increased the popularity of Hezbollah in Lebanon. After that, the Party of God began to be perceived by many Lebanese as a national liberation movement defending the interests of all Lebanese, not just Shiites.(4)

The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 forced Hezbollah to reconsider its place in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah's leadership began a policy of making coalitions with other political groups. In 2006, the party managed to negotiate a cooperation agreement with a prominent Lebanese Christian politician General Michel Aoun. During the May 2009 parliamentary elections, Hezbollah formed the March 8 coalition with its new allies: the Free Patriotic Movement of M. Aoun, the Amal movement, the secular Syrian National Socialist Party, and the Democratic Party of Lebanon (the Druze political group).

Hezbollah's military capabilities have grown significantly since 2006. According to independent estimates, Hezbollah’s regular forces number between 20 to 25 thousand fighters and 15 thousand reservists. However, the most disturbing factor for neighboring Israel is Hezbollah's missile capabilities. In 2018, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated its missiles arsenal at 130,000.(5) The same year (2018), Forbes magazine declared Hezbollah to be the richest terrorist group in the world with an annual income of $1.1 billion.

Mutually aggressive and belligerent rhetoric from Israel and Hezbollah has been increasing over the past three years. In February 2016, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, when asked about a possible war with Israel, remarked that Hezbollah has the potential to respond to Lebanese bombing by destroying ammonia depots in Haifa and the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona, thus causing irreparable damage to the Israeli economy and the environment.

Since 2013 Hezbollah's forces are actively implicated in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar Assad army. Although Hezbollah suffered significant losses (up to 1,500 fighters), it gained invaluable combat experience, in particular in urban warfare and sabotage operations.

During the Syrian campaign, Iran's main strategic adversary was not Israel, but the Salafist groups supported by the Gulf monarchies. Tehran was trying its best to restrain Hezbollah's leadership from attacking Israeli forces. Since 2016-17, however, the situation began to change. Israeli air strikes against Iranian military facilities in Syria became more frequent. The new Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed tough sanctions against Iran. Media leaks about a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities became more frequent. Israel fears military action from several fronts: from the north from Lebanon, from the west from the Gaza Strip and from the northeast from Syria. All this increases the likelihood of a military conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.


Iran considers Iraq to be of paramount importance to its security arrangements. Iranians still remember the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), which brought disproportionately high human and economic losses to Iran. Another factor that makes Iraq singularly important to Iran is location of main Shia shrines in Iraq’s Nedjef and Karbala.

The creation of Shiite militias in Iraq coincided with the military campaign against the Islamic State. One result of the war against the IS in northern Iraq was the revival of Shiite militias affiliated with Iran. In July 2014, in the aftermath of the Islamic State terrorist takeover of Mosul, Iraqi Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa authorizing the revival of militias. As a result, Shiite militias have played a leading role in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

The most powerful of these groups is Liwa al-Badr (the Badr Brigade). Its commander is the former Minister of Transportation in the Nouri al-Maliki government, Hadi al-Amiri. He is a veteran of the Shiite movement in Iraq who, during the Iran-Iraq war, fought on the side of the Iranian army as a volunteer. Al-Amiri holds a dual Iraqi/Iranian citizenship and is married to an Iranian. Another Shiite militia is the Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) led by Jamal al-Ibrahimi. The group was formed in 2007 with the assistance of the Lebanese Hezbollah.

A large number of Iraq’s Shiite militia fighters gained good combat experience in Syria where they fought on the side of Bashar al-Assad's government. These include members of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq (League of Faithful, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq), Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade) and Ali al-Yassiri's Khorasan units. The military organization Asaib ahl al-Haqq is led by Qais al-Khazali, a former field commander of the Mahdi Army who defected to al-Maliki's government in 2008.

In 2014/15, the Shiite proxy groups Asaib ahl al-Haqq, Qataib Hezbollah, the Badr Brigade and others were merged into the al-Hashd ash-Sha'bi (the People's Mobilization Committee) network. This network was then joined by Christian and some Sunni self-defense units created in the northern provinces of Iraq to counter the Islamic State. In 2017, the Iraqi parliament legalized their activities, giving Al-Hashd ash-Sha'bi the status of the Iraqi National Guard.

Iranians, devising a strategy to counter IS in Iraq, did not want to revive the regular Iraqi army. The US spent tens of billions of dollars on this venture, which resulted in its complete defeat by the IS. More effective, in Tehran's view, was transforming the Shiite militias into an Iraqi equivalent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the IRGC's Quds Force, was charged with this mission. Later, Qassem Suleimani became the coordinator of all Iranian proxy groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The deaths of General Suleimani and Abu Ali al-Muhandis (the al-Hashd ash-Sha'bi commander) on January 2, 2020, raised fears about a possible breakup of the Shiite militia alliance. On January 9, 2020, the commanders of the most influential al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi groups met in Beirut and agreed to put aside differences and work out a new common line of conduct in the new environment.(6)

On January 12, 2020 another group of field commanders led by Hadi al-Amiri left for Tehran where they met with the Iranian security forces and representatives of a prominent Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to coordinate further actions. At the same time the leader of the Shiite clergy in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, tried to minimize the Iranian influence and re-subordinate al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi to his interests. At present only three (but the most numerous and combat-ready) armed groups are clearly pro-Iranian: Qataib Hezbollah, Asaib al-Haqq and Liwa al-Badr. The others gravitate toward Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Pro-Iranian leaders of al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi formed a seven-member committee in order to prevent the armed formations from splitting and losing their positions. At the same time, the Iranians threatened al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi “dissidents” that they would deprive them of funding and weapons if they ignored Tehran's demands. The total number of al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi fighters is currently estimated at 80,000, but not all of these groups are under Tehran's control.


Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Iran has supported the government of Bashar al-Assad. For Tehran, the fall of its key ally in the Middle East and the possible rise of pro-American and pro-Saudi forces in Damascus was unacceptable. As the Syrian army suffered losses on several fronts, Iran decided to use Iraqi tactics in Syria and form militias along the lines of al-Hashd ash-Sha'bi. The core of the volunteers fighting in Syria were young Shiites living in the Damascus al-Amin area. The militia was a purely Syrian formation. In addition to the Tehran- sponsored Shiite militias, there are Christians, and Druze armed groups that participated in the civil war on the side of the Syrian government.

Since the decline of the “hot phase”of the Syrian conflict in 2018, the influence of these groups has also declined. Russian commanders in Syria wanted to minimize operational independence of pro-Iranian proxies since Iranian proxy groups had a history of a conflictual relationship with the Russian forces on the ground. Damascus began to implement a program consolidating its regular armed forces and used Shia militias to create the 3rd, 4th and 5th Motorized Corps. Moreover, the 4th Corps, at the insistence of Russian advisers, enlisted “repentant” armed opposition fighters, provided they did not belong to the IS or Jabhat al-Nusra. In the fall of 2019, the government of Syria disbanded volunteer militias operating in the city of Aleppo. In doing so, many field commanders were arrested for their involvement in racketeering, extortion, and smuggling.

Thus, it is no longer possible to speak of Shiite militias actively involved in Syrian conflict. Certain number of volunteer Shiite fighters from Iraq, led by Iranian military instructors and Hezbollah officers, remain in the country, but they are not involved in controlling Syrian territory.


Tehran's leading ally in Yemen is the Houthis' Ansar Allah movement. Unlike Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiite militias, Ansar Allah was not created by Tehran and is not directly subject to Iranian control. The religious doctrine of the Shiite Zaydis of Yemen is very different from that of the Shiite Twelve in Iran.(7)

Ansar Allah began forging close ties with Tehran under the leadership of Abd al-Maleq al-Houthi.

Between 2004 and 2010 Yemeni Houthis fought six wars against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2015, the Houthis allied themselves with deposed President Saleh and his supporters in the armed forces and seized power in North Yemen. Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the UAE then launched the operation Resolute Storm, destroying the country's infrastructure and bringing Yemen to the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

Iran sided with the Houthi rebels and took advantage of the situation to expand the fighting to the kingdom's southern borders and divert the Saudis' attention away from Syria.

According to the UAE intelligence report published in November 2019, the funding of military supplies to the Houthis in Yemen is carried out through Somalia. According to the report, Iranian intelligence agencies work closely with Somali Islamists on illicit trade operations. The UAE believes that Iran is coordinating a trade network between Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula through which al-Shabab jihadists sell charcoal and purchase weapons. In the process, Iran reportedly obtains the necessary finances to provide logistical support to the Houthis rebels in Yemen, whom the UAE is fighting as a member of the anti-Houthis coalition.

In 2020 Iran's elite IRGC al-Quds force established a special unit to support these operations. The unit is staffed with operatives who have extended experience and knowledge of the Somali reality on the ground and have working channels of communication with al-Shabab.(8) The logistical support overseen by this task force allows the Somali jihadists to export charcoal to the Iranian ports of Kish and Qeshm from the Somali ports of Baraawe, Kismaayo and Burgabo. Upon arrival in Iran, the Somali cargo is issued a certificate by the Islamic Republic of Iran, so that it can be sold to Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in transit through the Emirati port of Al-Hamriya. Despite the existence of a relevant embargo on Somalia, charcoal exports generate approximately $150 million a year for Al-Shabaab alone. Meanwhile, the UAE claimed that Iran supplied Russian Scud missiles to Yemeni Houthi rebels, disguised as regular merchant goods.

Iran's contacts with the Ansar Allah movement are maintained through Hezbollah officers. According to several intelligence sources, Nasser Akhdar, also known as Abu Mustafa, a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary, is responsible for logistics, personnel and training of the Houthis and is in constant contact with Tehran on this issue. He is assisted by Khalil Harb, the former head of Hezbollah in the Iqlim el-Tuffa area in southern Lebanon.


In Afghanistan, Iran’s long-time allies are the Shiite Hazaras. The political interests of the Hazaras in Afghanistan are represented by the Islamic Unity Party (Hezb-e-Wahdat) led by Mohammed Mohaqqiq.

The most combat-ready Hazara group is the Liwa Fatemiyun (Brigade of the Defenders of Fatima). However, this unit was mainly active in Syria, not Afghanistan. The group was founded by Ali Ridha Tavassoli, who came to Iran from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. At the same time he joined the Abuzar Brigade of the IRGC, recruited mainly from Afghan refugees. This unit was based in the Ramazan garrison in Iranian Kurdistan and fought both Saddam Hussein's army and the Kurdish separatists. Two thousand Afghan fighters were killed in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. In the 1990s, Tavassoli returned to Afghanistan, where he took part in battles against the Taliban, before ending up back in Iran in 2003. In the summer of 2012, Tavassoli went to Syria with 15 volunteers. His goal was to protect the mosque and the tomb of Sayyid Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet and daughter of Imam Ali and Fatima. This tomb is an important place of Shia worship.

The Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters were recruited mainly from Afghan refugees living in Iran.(9) Afghans in Iran are mostly low-skilled construction workers, street cleaners, loaders and porters in markets. The main motivation for Afghan refugees to join the group is the promise of regulating their legal status in Iran (citizenship or permanent residence permit), social benefits after completion of service, and a high salary (by Afghan standards) - from $450 to $800 per month.

There are different reports about the size of Liwa Fatemiyoun. Its former commander, General Mohammed Hassan Hosseini, cited the number of 12,000-14,000 combatants. Liwa Fatemiyoun has fought on almost all fronts of the Syrian war, including Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, Latakia, Hama, Homs and Deraa provinces. However, despite the high fighting qualities of the Afghan Shiites, it is doubtful that Tehran would use the Hazaras to fight the Taliban. First, their numbers are insufficient to wage a sustained war. Second, the Hazara-populated Bamyan province is strategically vulnerable. It is a plain surrounded by mountains on all sides. It is enough to block a couple of roads to starve this region and take it without a fight. Most likely, the Iranian leadership will use stick and carrot approach to negotiate with the Taliban the rights of its Hazara allies.


1) The proxy network is an element of Iran's national security strategy. In the event of an open confrontation with the U.S. or Israel, Iranian allied militias would be able to attack American and Israeli military installations in the Middle East.

2) The rise of these groups was greatly facilitated by the policies of the U.S. and its allies. Iraqi militias emerged after the U.S. invasion of Iraq destroyed Saddam Hussein's army and security apparatus and created a power vacuum in the country. In Syria, pro-Iranian proxy groups appeared when the U.S. and Gulf monarchies got involved in the Syrian civil war.

3) Given the numerous security challenges and threats, Tehran continues to support proxy groups, despite a significant financial burden they represent for Iran.

4) Following the election of the new Iranian president, the interaction of the Iranian political elite with proxy groups will be further strengthened. It is telling that Hossein Amir-Abdollahian became the Foreign Minister of the new Iranian government. Unlike his predecessor Zarif Abdollahian, Amir-Abdollahian has worked in Iraq and Lebanon, where he was in close contact with commanders of the pro-Iranian militia groups.


1. Simon Shercliff has also served in Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. For the past two and a half years he has been director of national security for the Foreign Office.

2.Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.

3. Hezbollah gained support in Lebanon not only because of its anti-Israeli position, but also because it established a comprehensive social services network for its supporters.

4. Hezbollah's military force operates on a legal basis, as the Taif Accords of 1989, at Syria's insistence, reserved the Hezbollah the right not to disarm.

5. Those include Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 ground-to-ground missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, Katyusha multiple rocket launchers (MLRS), Iranian ballistic missiles Zelzal-1/2, Fateh-110, Scud-B/C (their total number is roughly estimated at 18-20 thousand), S-802 and Yakhont anti-ship missiles, SA-16 and SA-18 man-portable air defense systems, and SA-8 and SA-17 surface-to-air missiles. (CSIS, Hezbollah’s Missiles and Rockets, July, 2018)

6. Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, Kataib Hezbollah, Katai'b Jund al-Imam, Katai'b Sayid al-Shuhada, and Katai'b al-Imam Ali.

7. Zaydis believe that the leader of the Ummah must be Fatimids or descendants of Muhammad through his only surviving daughter Fatimah, whose sons were Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. These Shi'a called themselves Zaydi to differentiate themselves from other Shias who refused to take up arms with Zayd ibn Ali. Twelver Shi’is, also known as Imamiyyah, is the largest branch of Shia Islam. The term Twelver refers to its adherents' belief in twelve divinely ordained leaders, known as the Twelve Imams, and their belief that the last Imam, Imam al-Mahdi, lives in occultation and will reappear as the promised Mahdi.

8. Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen or « Mujahideen Youth Movement » or « Movement of Striving Youth », more commonly known as al-Shabaab, is a Sunni fundamentalist group based in East Africa and Yemen.

9. There are currently around 2.5 million Afghans, mostly Shiites, living in Iran.