Are 'Iranian proxies' really Iranian proxies?

By Connor Echols, Jul 16 2021

In recent weeks, Iran-backed militias have stepped up attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria, triggering a wave of commentary about what Biden should do in response. Many observers rely on a key assumption to inform their analysis: Iran is using these militias as a way to hit the US without getting its hands dirty. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, for example, called on Biden to “put forward a real strategy for deterring and ending these attacks” and added that the current approach is “failing to deter Iran or its militias.”

It’s not hard to understand why people believe that the militias are simply Iran’s footsoldiers. After all, most mainstream media outlets give that impression. A recent piece in the New York Times reports that Iran “is using its proxy militias in Iraq to step up pressure on the United States” and increase Tehran’s bargaining power in the nuclear negotiations.

The problem with this framing goes beyond the facts of this particular case. The broader issue is the common and uncritical use of the word “proxy” to describe various Iranian allies in the Middle East. The term conjures up images of a puppet master sitting in Tehran and pulling strings across the region. This is reminiscent of the Cold War, when American policymakers perceived the Soviet Union as a hidden hand behind militants and governments from Vietnam to Nicaragua—a perception that led decision-makers to underappreciate the local roots of these conflicts in consequential and, at times, catastrophic ways. So it’s worth asking the question plainly: Is Iran really the puppet master it’s assumed to be?

The short answer is no. And our tendency to overstate Iran’s control of its “proxies” leads to all kinds of trouble.

Consider Yemen, where a brutal civil war has left much of the population on the brink of starvation. The mainstream narrative holds that the Houthis—one of the key belligerents in the conflict—are an Iranian proxy. Indeed, showing a willingness to counter Iranian influence was a major reason that the US got involved in the conflict, providing key logistical support for the Saudi war effort. This support helped turn the situation in Yemen into what both the United Nations and the World Food Program have called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

If the Houthis really had been acting at Iran’s behest, arguments for American support of the Saudi military intervention might have had at least some merit. But that’s a moot point, because the reality of the relationship between Iran and the Houthis was much more complex. 

The Houthis began as a small opposition movement in the 1990s and grew more prominent over the course of six guerrilla wars with the Yemeni government. Iran had no real ties to them until the last of these conflicts, and even then the relationship was fairly tenuous. When Yemen’s longtime president was forced out of office in 2011, the Houthis seized their opportunity and began moving toward the capital, Sanaa, which they took in 2014. This suggested limits on Tehran’s influence over the group: Iran had reportedly opposed the decision to take the capital.

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The Saudis nonetheless saw the fall of Sanaa as a sign that Iran and its “proxy” were winning a war on the kingdom’s southern border. In 2015, Riyadh resolved to turn the tide and initiated the brutal bombing campaign that America continues to aid. This campaign had the unintended effect of increasing support for the Houthis among other Yemeni factions, many of which had stayed out of the war until they started getting hit by errant Saudi bombs. The Saudi intervention also led Iran to increase its support for the Houthis, who, from Iran’s point of view, are an appealingly inexpensive thorn in the side of their primary regional foe. (Iran reportedly spends a few million dollars per year supporting the Houthis, while the Saudi Coalition spends about $5 billion per month on its Yemen campaign.)

In short, building a strategy around the idea that the Houthis were an Iranian proxy failed on its own terms: It increased Iran’s influence in Yemen while embolding the Houthis, who are now the dominant faction in the country. It also caused the US to get involved in a massive escalation of the civil war, which has now left well over 100,000 people dead and millions more in near-famine conditions.

The blame for the narrative that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy falls more on hawkish opinion writers than mainstream reporters, who have generally attributed the “proxy” claim to the Saudi government. But some journalists still fall into the trap of stating it as fact. See this recent Politico article, which lumps the Houthis in with “other Iranian proxy forces” in the Middle East, nuance be damned.

When it comes to Iraq, both commentators and reporters often use the term “proxy” to refer to Iran-linked militias. And here, as in Yemen, the situation is more complicated than this terminology implies. Take the above-mentioned Times article claiming that Iran is targeting American troops through “​​its proxy militias” in order to improve Tehran’s negotiating position in Vienna. The term “proxy” suggests that Iran exerts decisive control over these militants—that an order originating in Tehran will be followed in Baghdad. It also suggests that, absent Iranian support, these militias wouldn’t attack Americans in Iraq.

Both of these suggestions seem dubious in light of a recent AP article by reporters Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samya Kullab. The pair report that Iran-backed militias rejected a recent Iranian request to pause attacks on US troops (and that the request was—contrary to the Times’s narrative—grounded in Iran’s concern that continued attacks might complicate negotiations in Vienna). In fact, the militias have not only continued the attacks but increased them.

The AP piece suggests that the militias’ defiance is rooted in their strategic interests. Many of them derive support from their opposition to the US, and holding back from attacking Americans could hurt their popularity. As with any local actor allied with a foreign power, these militias have strategic reasons to work with their patron but are also motivated by complex local factors. Reducing them to mere proxies misses this subtlety.

Abdul-Zahra and Kullab paint a picture of waning Iranian influence over the militias that dates back to the US assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, who coordinated Tehran’s relationships with them. It’s conceivable that this picture overstates how much these relationships have frayed, but, at a minimum, their reporting establishes that there is no consensus among informed observers on the “proxy” narrative about Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Yet the Times flatly asserts that Iran is using these groups as pawns in its negotiations with the US. That this claim was stated as fact—rather than as an opinion attributed to some expert—in America’s most influential newspaper demonstrates the distorting influence that the “proxy” paradigm has on US foreign policy discourse.

Such misleading reports tend to kick off a round of commentary from hawks who argue that the US should bolster its troop presence in the region or abandon talks with Iran. A case in point is a February piece from Josh Rogin of the Washington Post, not-so-subtly titled “Biden can’t negotiate with Iran as its proxies attack U.S. troops.”

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None of this means we should ignore the pernicious influence exercised by Iran and its allies in the Middle East. Iran-linked militias have allegedly killed Iraqi activists and analysts who were simply trying to build a better future for their country. But it’s important to understand that the strength of these militias stems not just from Iranian influence but also from local factors, such as anti-American sentiment and the corrupt, weak state of the government in Baghdad. Thinking of them as mere proxies misses this key point (and sometimes leads to US military action that further strengthens them by inflaming anti-American sentiment).

A strategy based on a clearer understanding of the situation might focus on pressuring Baghdad to listen to the demands of Iraqi protestors who have been calling for wide-ranging reform for years. This means all of their demands—not just the ones that serve Washington’s desire to counter Iranian influence. In the short term, we might even consider addressing one of the more absurd consequences of US sanctions on Iran: Baghdad has to buy electricity from Tehran with commodities instead of cash, a logistical challenge that has led to blackouts in southern Iraq during a brutally hot summer.

At a basic level, Iran’s relationships with militias and countries in the Middle East have a lot in common with America’s: Both Washington and Tehran are senior partners in alliances with governments and armed groups with whom they share interests. Each country tries to exercise influence over its partners with military or economic assistance, but the influence is rarely strong enough to make the junior partner do something that goes directly against its perceived interests. When it comes to Iraq, as Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group argues, “you could make a definition [of ‘proxy’] in which you say both the U.S. and Iran have proxies or that neither the U.S. nor Iran have proxies, but not one in which [only] Iran has proxies.” Yet mainstream media discusses American and Iranian allies in very different ways: Gregory Shupak of FAIR recently found that in the past decade, the Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal referred to groups as Iranian “proxies” nearly 800 times. By contrast, American “proxies” were cited fewer than 200 times.

Conceiving of Iran’s regional partners as simple extensions of Iranian influence ignores their locally rooted grievances and goals, leading to American policies that, to invert a common saying, miss the trees for the forest. This misconception is also used to justify America’s support for “partners” like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose record of human rights abuses rivals that of Iran’s allies.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The fact that mainstream media outlets generally avoid referring to US-linked groups as proxies shows that American journalists are capable of providing reasonably nuanced coverage of the relationship between a powerful state and the groups aligned with it. This nuance shouldn’t be abandoned just because the state is an adversary.

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.

(Photo credit: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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