Using proxy militias has been the way Iran has recently adopted to destabilise the Middle East region. That way Iran is not only supporting terrorist groups, but also how it resolves its disputes with adversaries; through fighting them abroad, in other countries, through military and financial backup, keeping its own forces and resources unconsumed.
A report released on May 14th by The Soufan Center (TSC), a US think tank, has shed light on Iran's grand strategy in the region.
Iran has developed a “playbook” to effectively implement its regional strategy. It has empowered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force to build pro-Iranian armed factions into political movements with progressively increasing influence and capabilities. The Lebanese Hezbollah is the realisation of this process and Iran seeks to build its other proxies into Hezbollah-like entities with similar capabilities.
Iran has developed Hezbollah from a small collection of clerics, to a significant militia with a charity and humanitarian arm and media network, to a political party capable of winning seats in parliament and government. The group is the clearest example of success for Iran’s proxy militias.
In 2015, the beginning of Yemen’s civil war, Saudi Arabia referred to the Iranian-backed Houthi militias as an intolerable “Lebanonisation of Yemen”.
Iran pumps money and weaponry into regional allies, proxies and militias with the aim of affording them military and political prosperity as well as enabling them to project power regionally and internationally. Iran also uses soft power (financial, political, diplomatic, public relationship and other non-military mechanisms) to portray itself as a strong economic power which also allows it to build political support abroad and insulate its proxies and allies. For example, it is a significant investor in Oman's major port development, and it is a major exporter of gas to Iraq. Iran has also increased food exports to Qatar and allowed that country's national airline to use its airspace, after a diplomatic boycott led by the Arab quartet: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
In Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Iran has sought to exploit the effects of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, including the rise of the so-called Isis terrorist group, to build pro-Iranian factions to promote Iran’s interests in those countries over the long term.
Yemen, not having been a close ally of the US, Iran’s leaders perceived no strategic imperative to build influence there. In order to limit the direct involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran used the Houthi terror group in Yemen as a potential proxy. Houthis have been the most recognisable sign of Iran’s puppets in the region, being funded by 100 million USD, according to TSC.
In January 2018, the UN panel of experts on the Yemen conflict reported that two missiles fired on Saudi Arabia by the Houthis, on July 22nd and November 4th, 2017, were consistent with the design of Iranian missiles, though no determination was made on when or how those missiles might have ended up in Yemen.
Iran also has an expansive program to develop and re-engineer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Iran and Hezbollah have used these vehicles on the Syrian battlefield, and the Houthis in Yemen reportedly have used UAVs to drop weapons on their opponents.