The attacks may appear random, but they are the fruit of a carefully calculated strategy formulated in the wake of the 2020 killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Force, to bring cohesion to an unformed militia alliance — which Tehran has labeled an “axis of resistance.”
Although the two groups appear to be unrelated – a rebel organization in Yemen; Guerrilla movement in Lebanon; Members of the groups and analysts said that all of these groups and militias formed to fight US forces in Iraq have one thing in common: their loyalty to Iran, which arms, finances and inspires them. They constitute, along with Hamas, the basic components of the “resistance” axis.
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“What these various elements have done, going forward with these attacks, shows the strength of the proxy network that Iran has created throughout the region and how concerning it is,” said Joseph Votel, the former commander of U.S. Central Command who oversaw U.S. forces in Iraq. The area at the time of the US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani.
In interviews, officials associated with three of the major groups described an unprecedented level of coordination In the nearly two decades since, Iran has begun to cultivate a diverse group of local allies As a means of expanding its regional influence. They added that militia representatives cooperate and consult through a joint operations room that meets regularly, usually but not always, in Beirut.
Officials said that no single group controls the region, and each has a degree of autonomy regarding what attacks should be carried out in their area and when, according to their local capabilities and agendas. The Houthis, for example, took on the task of attacking ships, with the aim of pressuring the international community to demand that Israel adopt a ceasefire in Gaza. Iraqi groups are targeting US bases in response to the Biden administration's support for Israel. Hezbollah fires on Israel to push Israeli forces away from the Gaza front.
Meanwhile, officials with the groups said, all actions were calibrated to avoid a broader regional war — suggesting that while the militias have autonomy in individual operations, their actions are designed not to conflict with Iran's strategic goals.
He added: “During the meetings, we discuss developments and progress on all fronts An official in the Hezbollah Brigades, the largest Iraqi group carrying out the attacks, said: “How does each front benefit from the operations from a strategic perspective?” The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. He added: “Iran provides all kinds of support, but when it comes to decisions and actions on the ground, the decision is in our hands.”
Officials say Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has played a leading role in strengthening the alliance, as the most prominent figure leading the oldest, most successful and most battle-hardened group.
Soleimani's killing left the Axis leadership in disarray. As commander of the international wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani almost single-handedly strengthened the militias, and in the process achieved a legendary status that far exceeded his official rank.
Without Soleimani, rivalries broke out, especially between the Iraqi militias, whose commander-in-chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was assassinated in the same strike in which Soleimani was killed.
Nasrallah intervened to mediate and began implementing a new strategy that he called “Unity of the Fronts,” and all groups pledged to move in their regions if any of them were attacked. The Gaza war was the first time this strategy was put into practice.
Officials say Nasrallah emerged as first among equals. When he gave his first public speech after the outbreak of the Gaza War, Iraqi militias gathered in Tahrir Square in Baghdad to watch the speech live on giant screens.
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The Hezbollah Brigades official said: “We consider Hassan Nasrallah the official spokesman for the resistance, and one of its basic pillars and most important symbols.” He added: “He enjoys the respect and appreciation of all Iraqi parties, and we consider him an umbrella for all of us.”
Votel recalls that he was concerned after Soleimani's death that the Iraqi militias would lose the discipline imposed by their Iranian commander. Instead, the restructuring appears to have strengthened their cohesion, he added.
“The fact that they are going horizontal rather than vertical seems to be a strength for them,” Votel said.
The size of the role Iran plays in directing the overall strategy “is a million-dollar question,” said Hamid Reza Azizi, a former professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and now a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. . To some extent, Iran is behind these activities and it is not.”
Soleimani's replacement, Ismail Qaani, has adopted a much lower profile than his predecessor, lacking Soleimani's charisma and history of personal relationships with groups.
As a result, Iran changed the position of the Quds Force, to allow greater autonomy for local groups, while remaining their supporter. But Azizi says that Qaani is very active behind the scenes, moving between the capitals of the countries where the militias are based.
“He found me everywhere. It was a plan,” he said. “But they deliberately wanted him to be out of sight.”
An IRGC official attends most joint operations meetings, according to a person linked to Hezbollah familiar with the procedures. But Nasr al-Din Amer, the Houthi spokesman in Sanaa who heads the Saba news agency, said Iran is only represented as “one of all,” without playing a leadership role.
This strategy seems to be working well from Iran's perspective. Azizi said that it was able to assert its regional influence through sporadic attacks, without sparking a major conflagration that could endanger its militia allies and perhaps drag Iran directly into the fighting.
He said: “Iran feels completely comfortable.” “These groups can come together to defend their interests and have demonstrated their willingness not to allow one of their members, in this case Hamas, to completely leave the scene without a response.”
Whether this strategy will continue to work for Iran is in question as Israel expresses increasing anger over Hezbollah attacks along its northern border. Israeli Minister Benny Gantz said last week, in a warning that Israel might do so: “If the world and the Lebanese government do not act to prevent the shooting of the residents of northern Israel, and to push Hezbollah away from the border, the Israeli army will do so.” Launching a large-scale attack on Lebanon.
Israel also intensified its attacks on Iran's allies and assets in the region. On Monday, an Israeli raid in Syria killed a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Razi Mousavi, sparking threats of direct retaliation from Iran.
But an all-out war would throw Iran's strategy into disarray. But militia officials say they are confident their attacks provide sufficient deterrence for both Israel and the United States without escalating beyond the current level of the conflict.
Salim reported from Baghdad and Hidamous from Washington. Ali Mujahid contributed to this report from Sanaa, Yemen.