ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 201

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Iran’s Network Across the Middle East

Who are these groups and how does Iran support them? We summarize the research of the experts of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran has considered itself at war with the United States and its Middle East allies since the revolution of 1979, and it has used proxy forces to varying extents in this campaign to provide a degree of deniability.

Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack against Israel on October 7 and subsequent strikes by Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemen’s Houthis have focused increased attention on this shadow war and the Iranian-backed groups that carry it out.

Who are these groups, and how does Iran support them?

This article summarizes the research of experts from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Iran’s proxy network. We invite readers to click on the links below to explore this subject in full detail.

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What is Hezbollah?

Created in 1982, Hezbollah carried out car bombings, kidnappings, hijackings, and other attacks even before officially announcing itself in 1985. Its Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility for the 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 service personnel. Until 9/11, Hezbollah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist group, and the U.S. government designated it as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Today, it engages in a wide range of activities, including political activities in Lebanon, military efforts throughout the Middle East, and covert militant, criminal, and terrorist operations around the world. In Lebanon, the group is a fixture of the government, managing and exploiting a large network of social services. It is estimated to have 25,000-30,000 full-time fighters and about the same number of reservists.

Listen to the Institute podcast Breaking Hezbollah’s Golden Rule and view its interactive Hezbollah worldwide activity map.

How does Iran support it?

The relationship between Hezbollah and Iran provides a useful template for understanding how the Islamic Republic has extended its regional influence. Considered Iran’s “biggest and scariest attack dog,” the group receives between $800 million and $1 billion each year from Tehran. In addition, Iran has helped Hezbollah acquire an arsenal of 150,000-200,000 missiles and rockets, including tens of thousands of precision-guided missiles. The relationship is not an equal partnership, however—Tehran has frequently influenced the group’s decisions or blatantly given it specific orders.

What has it done since October 7?

Since October 7, Hezbollah has practiced measured escalation, with strikes across the Israel-Lebanon frontier. Several of its attacks have pushed beyond the two sides’ normal rules of engagement by making greater use of advanced weapons, conducting simultaneous attacks, and hitting new military and civilian targets. The conflict has led to the evacuation of communities on both sides of the border.

View the interactive Israel-Lebanon border attack map and read more about Hezbollah’s recent escalation.

GAZA

What is Hamas?

Hamas initially emerged as a social and religious wing of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine during the 1960s; it did not coalesce into its current form until the late 1980s. Hamas sees itself as having three mutually reinforcing “wings”: political, social/charitable, and military. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel through violence—toward that goal, the group has perpetrated attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets alike, including a long wave of suicide bombings between 1987 and 2005. In 1997, the U.S. government designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization. Ten years later, Hamas launched a coup in the Gaza Strip, becoming the territory’s de facto governing organization by force of arms. The group had an estimated 30,000 fighters before its attack on October 7.

How does Iran support it?

Despite the fact that Hamas is a Sunni Muslim organization and has other ideological differences with its Shia patrons in Tehran, they share a common enemy in Israel. Since the group’s formation, Iran has provided it with funds, arms, training, and intelligence. Today, U.S. and Israeli officials estimate that Tehran gives Hamas $70-100 million per year.

Watch Dr. Matthew Levitt’s testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs regarding Hamas’s illicit financial and terrorist networks.

What has it done since October 7?

Hamas and its frequent partner, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (see below), were responsible for the October 7 massacre that killed 1,200 men, women, and children of all backgrounds and nationalities in southern Israel. Approximately 250 others were taken hostage, with an estimated 134 remaining in captivity as of this writing. Hamas continues to fight the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza and launch rockets at Israeli cities.

What is Palestinian Islamic Jihad?

PIJ is the second-largest Palestinian terrorist group, numbering around 8,000 members based mostly in Gaza, with branches in Lebanon and the West Bank. It plays no role in governing Gaza and is singularly devoted to fighting Israel. The U.S. government designated PIJ as a terrorist group in 1997.

How does Iran support it?

According to the U.S. State Department, Iran supports PIJ’s terrorist activities by transferring funds to the group and its affiliates and providing weapons and operational training, including teaching PIJ fighters to produce and develop missiles in Gaza.

What has it done since October 7?

PIJ took part in the October 7 attack and claims to hold Israeli hostages. It continues to launch rockets at Israel, with some reportedly landing in Gaza communities instead; for instance, one of its misfires was blamed for the tragic al-Ahli Hospital blast on October 17.

IRAQ

What is the Islamic Resistance in Iraq?

The self-styled “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” (IRI) is not a group per se, but rather a generic name used by Iran-backed terrorist groups in Iraq to collectively claim their attacks within Iran’s anti-American, anti-Israeli “axis of resistance.” The umbrella brand mainly consists of Kataib Hezbollah (KH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HaN), Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), and Ansar Allah al-Awfiya. Disturbingly, the most significant of these groups, KH, is part of the ruling parliamentary coalition in Iraq, the Coordination Framework.

Read the profiles of KSS here and HaN here.

How does Iran support the groups?

KH operates under Iran’s direct command, as shown by its immediate compliance with Iran’s stated wish to stop attacking U.S. sites after the January 28 killing of three American troops in Jordan. Unlike KH, however, HaN and KSS have no roles in government, allowing them to act with less caution. Overall, evidence suggests that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps plays a role in coordinating the broader IRI brand and corralling the different groups into working together.

What has it done since October 7?

The IRI name quickly came to the forefront as a formal brand after the attacks, collectively approving the massacre of hundreds of Israeli, American, and other foreign civilians. Later that month, IRI groups were energized by the al-Ahli Hospital explosion in Gaza, launching an intense campaign of over 180 strikes on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, plus others against Israel. These attacks have killed three Americans and wounded 183 as of this writing.

View the Institute’s Iraq-Syria attack tracker.

YEMEN

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis are a Yemeni clan that formed a terrorist organization known as Ansar Allah. Since the 1980s, they have worked to become a southern clone of Lebanese Hezbollah. During the civil war that erupted in 2014, they used Iran’s help to seize northwestern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. They now rule territory holding most of Yemen’s population, and their forces may include more than 100,000 members.

How does Iran support them?

The Houthis have strong links to Iran, which has built up their military capabilities at a far more rapid pace than other members of the “axis of resistance.” The UN Panel of Experts has detailed Iranian provision of medium-range ballistic missiles to the Houthis, while the U.S. government has confirmed numerous examples of Iranian drones and antiship weapons in Houthi service since 2015.

What have they done since October 7?

Following the October 7 attack, the group has moved from a peripheral to a central position in Iran’s proxy network. Claiming that they are supporting Hamas, the Houthis have attacked ships approaching the strategic Bab Al-Mandab Strait at the entrance to the Red Sea and en route to the Suez Canal. The Houthis have also struck Israel four times with ballistic missiles since October 2023, something that Iran has never dared to do in over forty years since the Islamic Revolution.

View the Institute’s maritime attack tracker and watch a video about the Houthi antishipping campaign.

Conclusion

To end the cycle of violent crises in the region, the United States must do more to counter these groups. In a recent LA Times op-ed, Institute scholars wrote, “If Israel and its allies aim to prevent a repeat of the October 7 attack, they must counter Tehran.”

For up-to-the-minute analysis of the latest Middle East developments, visit The Washington Institute website, subscribe to Institute publications, participate in free online forums, and follow the Institute on X/Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Threads, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

Written by Institute staff member Anna Brown.

 

 

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