Iran, Its Partners, and the Balance of Effective Force
What is the current balance of power in the Middle East? In conventional terms it rests overwhelmingly with the West and its allies, whose combined arsenals dwarf those of Iran and its partners. But the more subtle “balance of effective force” — in other words, those capabilities which are most readily deployable and deliver greatest military and political advantage in an actual conflict — has tipped over the last five years decisively toward Iran. Tehran possesses a capability which its adversaries do not: the capability to fight through indigenous third parties.
From Yemen to Iraq and through Syria to Lebanon, Iran’s use of local partners has proved consistently effective. Although it has risked nationalist backlash at times, Tehran’s strategy has amplified its power throughout the region. Iran does not and cannot, absent a nuclear capability, threaten its adversaries through superior firepower. But it has, through its third-party capability, tilted the regional balance of effective force in its favor.
In response to Iran’s strategy, the West and its regional partners should learn to develop and deploy a capability to fight through indigenous third parties. To build that will require a refreshed legal framework, a reconfiguration of strategy and resourcing to make this third-party capability the supported effort, and political will to build partnerships with third parties over time.
History of Iran’s Use of Partners
Iran has been systematically fostering its third-party capability since the establishment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force in the early 1980s. It served the early Islamic Revolution’s wider strategy of championing Islamic causes, including ultimately the “liberation” of Jerusalem (Al Qods). Those ambitions have since mutated into a grand strategy designed primarily to give Iran a deep defensive cordon but also forward positions from which to threaten Israel and Saudi Arabia. The third-party capability was led and fashioned by the Qods Force. It did so by tapping into a traditional Shia perception of being an endangered minority and into a broader sympathy with other revolutionary groups, including secular and Sunni ones. As the strategy paid dividends, most notably in Lebanon, it became more important than conventional capabilities. Those capabilities, held by the wider Revolutionary Guard and the army (Artesh), became secondary and supportive, focused primarily on securing the revolution at home.
Iran has been able to use third parties to exploit the long years of turmoil in two countries of vital strategic importance, Syria and Iraq. It has succeeded in both entrenching its influence and harassing its principal adversaries (Israel and Saudi Arabia) through local partners. In the case of Israel, this includes not only Hizballah in Lebanon but also Hamas in Gaza, and Iran-affiliated and supplied groups in Syria. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Iran has helped the Houthis (Ansarallah) deliver a steady tempo of ballistic missile attacks deep into the kingdom from neighboring territory. Iran has used partners and proxies to project power across the region, and to embed its influence in the political lives of countries which are critical to its defense.
The long list of Iran’s partners is in itself illustrative of an important feature of its strategy: the breadth and variety of relationships it instrumentalizes. These are not by any means all proxy relationships, which is a common but misleading generalization. In practice, Iran manages a wide range of relationships from those based on deep cultural affinity, though those which are merely a pragmatic alignment of interests. Iran has deliberately not imposed a rigid command and control structure on groups which often have powerful local agendas.
While Lebanese Hizballah remains the paradigm, Iran has settled for relationships elsewhere that lack those characteristics or have them to a far lesser degree. Similarly, the nature of Iranian support to a third party and the Iranian official presence varies widely. In Yemen it has been restricted to small packets of forces that can be plausibly denied whereas in Lebanon Iran is publicly aligned to the army of Hizballah, whose leadership is intertwined with that of the Revolutionary Guard. Hizballah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, is the Iranian supreme leader’s closest ally and strongest supporter. Operating to a set of principles rather than a template, and delegating authority to Qods Force commanders and local partners, Iran has been able to customize and modulate its interventions to secure the optimum presence and outcome.
Tehran does not want a conventional war with another state. It has chosen to keep its aggression below the level that would trigger such a conflict. That has included eschewing territorial acquisition either directly or through treaty with an indigenous party. Iran’s leadership has been content to generate influence within foreign states rather than to assume the responsibilities, and consequences, of annexation. Its capability to fight through and partner with third parties has delivered many of the benefits of annexation at a fraction of the cost politically and financially. The capability to do that has become Iran’s weapon of choice in contesting power and influence. It has given Iran strategic presence in theaters of conflict without risking costly casualties or entanglement. It is a sustainable doctrine and strategy despite “maximum pressure” from the United States, and the killing of Revolutionary Guard leader Qassim Soleimani.
What Does Iran’s Capability Mean in Practice?
Iran’s ability to fight through third parties has allowed it to upend the balance of effective force in the Middle East. First, it gives Tehran an advantage over its conventionally superior adversaries, not just in existing conflicts, but potentially in future conflicts where, if current trends continue, this capability to fight through others will be at a premium. The current trajectory in conflict is toward battlespaces that are complex (protagonists and agendas proliferate), asymmetric (states confront local militias, superpowers confront terrorists), and fierce (communities are fighting bloodily for survival). For external players to intervene successfully they increasingly need the ability to fight not in their own configurations and uniforms, but through indigenous combatant groups.
Secondly, Iran’s use of indigenous forces has reduced the utility of the conventional power accumulated in the region. For the West and its allies, deploying this kind of force in regional conflicts has been, since 2001, both politically risky and often ineffective against adversaries embedded within a populace. In Iraq, for example, Iran chose to work steadily “by, with, and through” local partners to achieve a level of influence equal to state capture but calibrated to ensure longevity. A successful third-party capability challenges some of the rationale behind the region’s accumulated massive firepower.
The third-party capability is not without risks. For all its subtlety, it is still projected, foreign force and risks pushback from local groups and the population at large. Iran’s largest risk is that its form of Shia mobilization, based upon religious and political “ley lines” that run to Iran, engenders pushback from equally well-defined Shia Arab nationalism. That has already happened in Iraq and Lebanon, where it has been a constant in confessional politics for decades. Iran has a mechanism for calibrating and managing risk primarily through adjustment of posture. But the risk of being displaced from a polity by Arab Shia nationalists is a greater threat to the operations of its capability than any financial pressure or conventional military containment. If the Qods Force loses its position as a credible patron of Arabs, its reach is dramatically curtailed. Its dexterous division of labor with Lebanese Hizballah as the intermediary force in Arab communities, such as the Houthis, is indicative of its sensitivity to this existential risk and a determination to manage it.
How Can the West and its Allies Regain the Balance of Effective Force?
First, it helps to re-envisage the balance of power in terms of the balance of effective force. Rather than accumulated firepower, the balance of effective force covers those capabilities which are most readily deployable and deliver greatest the political and military power in actual conflict. This will require a changed approach to force generation, the type and size of military presence in the region, and strategies of intervention.
Secondly, the West and its allies in the Middle East should pursue a “capability-first” approach to identifying and using indigenous partners. In other words, they should prioritize building the necessary capability to work through third parties through the dedication of resources and manpower but also through the arguably harder task of creating a legal and political framework for its deployment. All this needs to be done in advance of a conflict. Waiting until a conflict starts results in improvised and tardy responses. Alliances can be tactical, legally awkward, and not sustainable. In some cases, as with the U.S. decision to end its five years of support for the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2019, using local third parties can end messily and damage the general credibility of the United States as a partner to nonstate groups. Using local partners is notoriously easier for countries with no or little accountability or respect for international law than it is for open, democratic countries. In recent conflicts the United States and its allies have adopted the “conflict-first” approach in applying force through partners. This has resulted in patchy performance and often fallen foul of changes in domestic politics, or legal restrictions, or nervousness over transfer of technology. These issues are rightly difficult categorically to resolve but a “capability first” approach to fighting through third parties would force solutions to these problems and ready the capability for deployment so that often-fleeting windows can be seized.
Third, responding to Iranian moves by enhancing local affiliations and partnerships will have a positive effect over time. Conversely, responding to Iranian use of this capability with conventional firepower can have the perverse result of reinforcing the cohesion of Iran and its partners through a shared perception that they are confronting a superior military power determined to use force where it cannot win support.
Fourth, constancy, above all, has been a major strength in the Iranian doctrine. Tehran so far has not had to contest theaters where its adversaries’ backers were constant, adaptive, and prepared to channel national strike power through the combatant partner. The West needs to be able to match the continuity that Iran has given its regional, nonstate partners. Doing so also affords a valuable channel for influencing partners’ conduct on and off the battlefield, rather than attempting to do so in the heat of conflict.
Fifth, the West should pursue a “whole-of-theater” approach when dealing with a transnational actor such as the Qods Force. It needs to envisage all the countries in which the Qods Force are present as one theater, rather than a series of armed conflicts in separate countries where Iran just happens to be a player. Although military commands often span the whole Middle Eastern theater (Central Command, in the case of the United States) strategies, narratives, and policies do not.
A whole-of-theater approach has practical advantages too. When conflicts spill across borders, all protagonists need the ability to move resources, at the pace of conflict, where they are needed even if this means crossing an international border. That requires appropriate political and legal authorities. The approach in any one country needs to be embedded in a strategy that covers all the theaters in which protagonists (e.g., Iranians, Houthis) are active or have interests. Failure to do this risks a local success becoming a regional failure. That could apply equally to stoking a damaging backlash as to a displacement of effort from one theater to another where it can less successfully be contained. The long pursuit of al-Qaeda and now of ISIL remnants are cases in point.
Finally, perhaps the most difficult obstacle to Western governments working with local partners is that it undermines the integrity of sovereign states and the international order that rests upon it. It both sponsors nonstate actors against states and constitutes a form of direct interference in foreign jurisdictions. Those are valid reasons for reservation but they must be held against the prevalence of conflicts in which states are one of many actors, and Western interests may more likely align to those of a minority rather than a state actor. The most important element in any response will be the creation of an enabling legal framework, both domestic and international, which addresses the challenges of transnational capabilities and permits a response that does not leave the field to actors uninterested in preserving international law and norms.
The West Needs to Beat Iran at its Own Game
With the ability to disrupt both the course of a conflict and the nature of any peace, Iran currently enjoys a strategic advantage in the Middle East. Tehran enjoys a balance of effective force, and can maneuver with facility across the region, even as its adversaries enjoy superior conventional advantages.
Tehran’s chosen way of war poses, therefore, a strategic challenge to the West: How to either neutralize or match its ability to fight through others? Iran has exploited cultural advantages in establishing its network of influence through indigenous third parties. However, it has also been systematic in curating and deploying the capability required to turn the opportunities of an armed conflict into enduring military and political advantage.
And while Iran coined this method of power projection in part out of necessity during its war with Iraq in the 1980s, it has proved ideally suited to contemporary conflicts. As Russia and Turkey have shown, it is increasingly being adopted in other theaters. The challenge to the West and its allies is not, therefore, restricted to maintaining the traditional balance of power in the Middle East. Instead, the West should gain the edge in what is starting to look like the critical, warfighting capability — the strategic partnering with indigenous, nonstate partners, to advance a state’s interests.
John Raine CMG OBE was a British diplomat for 33 years serving in the Middle East and South Asia, and a senior member of the United Kingdom’s national security community. Since 2017 he has been the senior adviser for geopolitical due diligence at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). He was a contributing editor to the IISS Strategic Dossier “Iran and its Networks of influence in the Middle East” published in November 2019.
(Image: Paul Keller)