Iran’s militias push Middle East toward all-out war
What were earlier simply claims that Iran’s regime was using its loyalist armed militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as bargaining chips to gain more leverage in any prospective nuclear negotiations with the US are now acknowledged facts requiring no further proof.
Instead, the discussion now is about the extent to which Tehran is willing to deploy its proxy militias across the region and instruct them to launch devastating offensive operations, ultimately leading to all-out war. Are the Gulf states militarily and socially prepared to counter the ramifications of such a catastrophic war? And what would be the role of the US, Europe and the wider international community if this scenario played out?
Since January, multiple drone and missile attacks have been launched against Saudi Arabia from the northern part of Yemen, with a militia known as the “Right Promise Brigades” claiming credit for the attacks that targeted Riyadh. Regardless of the Iranian regime constantly creating new militias with multiple names to distract from the activities of its main loyalist militias, these attacks mark a major transformation in Iran’s strategy. In addition, the regime provoked further hostilities on the Iraqi front by deploying across the region the massive militia reserves it has been amassing on Iraq’s territories for years. Some now estimate the number to be as many as 70,000 fighters.
Through these attacks, Iran seeks to achieve multiple objectives simultaneously, including opening a new front on the northern border of Saudi Arabia in addition to continuing its hostilities on the southern front, where the Houthi militia threatens the Kingdom and the Arab coalition in an effort to strengthen support for the Houthis’ claims of legitimacy in Yemen. This is alongside putting pressure on US forces in Iraq and making America feel powerless in the face of the Iran-backed militias, as well as sending a clear but unspoken threat to other Gulf states. Iran has announced its ability to target Gulf territories from Iraqi soil and made it clear that, no matter their distance from the war in Yemen, they are not immune from attacks.
All the aforementioned factors are intended to impede Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement, especially following the reopening of the Arar border crossing and the initiation of trade exchanges between the two countries. Iran, through its escalation in Iraq, has attempted to weaken Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s government and hinted at its ability to spoil the next Iraqi parliamentary election.
By ordering its loyalist militias in Iraq to work toward securing the aforementioned objectives, Iran is risking the initiation of militia-style guerrilla warfare in the region. Such attacks by Iraqi militias are unjustified on any grounds, with Saudi Arabia uninvolved in any military confrontation with them. It is well known that any conflict involving militias does not need an official proclamation of war, but can be triggered merely by their repetitive offensive operations.
With Iran pursuing a policy of denial, the region’s countries and their allies have three options, namely: Adopting the same approach through establishing militias of their own and pursuing a policy of denial; responding directly to the central actor controlling these militias and sparking catastrophic conventional warfare in the region; or continuing with imposing diplomatic and economic pressures on Iran.
Choosing any of these options depends to a great extent on the level of escalation mounted by the pro-Tehran militias on Saudi territories. It is important to note that Iran’s regime has been diversifying its targets. In some attacks, its militias have fired rockets at Irbil airport or targeted military columns in Baghdad, while in others they have fired drones and missiles at Riyadh. Iran has also ordered the Houthis to mount an extensive ground offensive in Marib, despite the militia not being prepared for such an offensive.
Maybe not launching repeated attacks on one target or area is one of the reasons why the affected parties have not responded strongly, considering the attacks to be nothing more than a foe employing limited military aggression to secure a political objective or provoke a response. Whatever the reasons for this restraint, there is no doubt that the region is experiencing asymmetrical warfare, with Iran using loyalist militias against countries that use conventional warfare to defend themselves.
For several reasons, we cannot be totally sure that any potential negotiated settlement regarding the outstanding issues between Iran and the international community will lead to Tehran’s loyalist militias suspending their operations. Iran will be keen to continue using and deploying these militias to achieve other strategic objectives. Also, it is hard to reintegrate fighters into society and rehabilitate them after years of involvement in militias, even if Iran planned to dismantle its proxies.
For these reasons — as well as considering the fact that the presence of pro-Iranian militias has become a fait accompli on Iraqi soil, geographically adjacent to Gulf territories — it is imperative for the Gulf states to prepare themselves militarily and socially to deal with this reality.
It is neither natural nor acceptable that Gulf territories should continue to be targeted by unknown parties without the finger of blame being pointed at Iran.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
It is neither natural nor acceptable that Gulf territories should continue to be targeted by unknown parties without the finger of blame being pointed at Iran, which continues to hide behind a policy of denial.
Iran’s use of terrorism and sectarianism to achieve its objectives is dragging the entire region into an expanded militia-style warfare unprecedented in modern history. What emboldens Iran to use its militia tool is the fact that the US, Europe and even the wider international community consider its establishment and deployment of proxies across the region to be of lesser significance when compared to dealing with its nuclear program. This is despite the fact that this issue is of primary importance to the region’s nations and they cannot accept that this issue is neglected any longer.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami