Iran’s Increasingly Decentralized Axis of Resistance

IRGC

After Iran’s allies lost ground in recent elections in Lebanon and Iraq, international observers began asking whether Tehran’s regional influence was slipping. On May 15, Lebanon’s voters denied Hizballah and its allies the majority they had enjoyed over the past 15 years. A few months earlier, Iran’s close allies in Iraq — the Fateh alliance — suffered a much larger blow as its opponents established a clear parliamentary majority against it. Nonetheless, both Hizballah and Fateh’s coalition secured a significantly larger number of votes than their opponents in absolute terms and still managed to steer post-election politics as they desired. These developments certainly reflect new challenges that Iran is facing. But they also portend a new, more decentralized approach to axis management that could help protect Iranian interests in the long run.

Over the years, Iran has been agile in devising tactical responses to regional developments. It supported Iraqis when they were threatened by the Islamic State’s onslaught in 2014 and managed to continue sponsoring Hamas despite the Israeli blockade of Gaza. However, Iran’s fast-growing array of partners, combined with shifting regional and domestic realities, have made it increasingly difficult for Tehran to respond to emerging threats. For example, the Iraqi and Lebanese elections both followed widespread protests in Baghdad and Beirut that called for radical political reform and the expulsion of foreign actors — Iran among them. This has forced some of Iran’s partners to distance themselves either politically or rhetorically from Tehran to retain their domestic legitimacy. And this comes as Iran was already dealing with challenges created by the overextension of its regional network, a weak economy, and divisions within the Shiite community over the doctrinal status of Iranian clerics.

 

 

The result is that the “axis of resistance” is now shifting from a hierarchical, Iran-centric network to a decentralized horizontal structure that facilitates greater autonomy for its members. The breakdown of Tehran’s control may well lead to partners taking uncoordinated actions that threaten Iranian interests. But the benefits for Iran and the network remain greater. More autonomy gives Iran the plausible deniability to distance itself from its partners’ provocations while still seeking their support when needed.

Causes of Decentralization

Iran’s axis of resistance consists of a network of political parties and armed groups that span Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. It is ideologically connected by the joint struggle of these actors against Israel, the United States, and their allies, and it is operationally supported by the Quds Force — the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The different nodes of the network were always linked to Tehran with various degrees of intensity, but recently they have become more autonomous.

Three main factors have contributed to this shift. To begin with, the size of the axis and the strength of its members have grown substantially. This makes it more difficult for Tehran to maintain a set of ideological principles and political priorities across this network. Second, the network’s central organization made it vulnerable to disruption by the assassination of senior commanders like Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Finally, for Iran’s partners, political power also brought new challenges. Where they joined ruling coalitions, as in Lebanon and Iraq, they became part of corrupt political systems and were seen as complicit in the injustice they claimed to resist.

Paradox of Power

Historically, the different components of the axis of resistance emerged independently in response to the struggles faced by different Shiite populations: the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982; Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980; his oppression and exclusion of Iraq’s Shiite community after 1991; the rise of the Islamic State in 2014; and the Persian Gulf monarchies’ hostile stance towards Shiism, most recently demonstrated by Saudi Arabia’s execution of more than 40 Shiite citizens. Iran played a leading role in nurturing local resistance, an effort that was underpinned by a shared Shiite ideology of suffering and social justice.

But recent decades have seen a significant improvement in the political positions of Shiite populations, particularly with fall of Iraq’s Baath regime in 2003 and the liberation of South Lebanon by Hizballah in 2005. With Shiite empowerment across the region, the core notion of “resisting oppression” has lost some of its resonance. Thus, some of Iran’s powerful allies, such as the Badr organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq in Iraq, have emancipated themselves from Tehran’s guidance and increasingly charted their own course. Lebanon’s Hizballah has also become more independent in a number of ways including its approach to domestic politics and its conduct of military operations.

The erosion of Iran’s central control has also been visible in Syria. In November 2021, the Quds Force’s chief commander there, Gen. Javad Ghaffari, was removed from his post. Although Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated media claimed that Ghaffari left Syria after his mission ended, his removal reportedly occurred at the request of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. In Yemen, the relationship between Tehran and the Houthis, which was already weaker than that with other allies, eroded further when Iran refused to back the movement’s January 2022 attack against the United Arab Emirates. As the attacks occurred just when Iran sought to improve bilateral relations with Abu Dhabi, Tehran signaled its displeasure with the Houthis by announcing that “military strikes are not the solution to the Yemeni crisis.”

The Perils of Hierarchy

The January 2020 killing of Soleimani created a major challenge for Iran’s top-down network. Soleimani had unparalleled influence over Iran’s partners. This gave him the ability to direct their domestic decision-making in accordance with Iranian interests. But this influence was personal and not institutionalized in the Quds Force or beyond it. As the network’s architect, Soleimani personally acted as the chief commander and political coordinator of Iranian-backed armed groups. Next in the chain of command were top field commanders operating under Soleimani’s direct supervision, such as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hosein Hadamadi in Syria (assassinated in 2015), Abu Mahdi al Muhandis in Iraq (assassinated in 2020), and Imad Mughniyeh in Lebanon (assassinated in 2008). All of these killings undermined the strategic coherence and operational performance of a network built on personal ties. Now, Soleimani’s successor, Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani is struggling to direct a network he himself did not create. The very strength of the axis became its core weakness.

The effect of Soleimani’s absence was compounded in Iraq by the simultaneous assassination of al Muhandis, who had maintained harmony among the country’s various Shiite groups. This is now proving to be an impossible task for Qaani. Several senior Iranian representatives have had to step in to restore Iran’s influence, including the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, the former head of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence Hossein Taeb, former intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi, and delegates from Lebanon’s Hizballah. Despite this, Iran faced defiance from its Iraqi partners during several recent incidents. They rejected Tehran’s request for calm during nuclear talks with the United States, as well as Tehran’s earlier plea to sit out the remainder of President Donald Trump’s term without creating an excuse for U.S. intervention. The loudest of the defiant voices has been Qais al Khazali, leader of Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In public statements, he directly defied Iran’s directives, claiming that he would continue to target the U.S. “occupier” and that this decision was an Iraqi one.

Failure to Deliver

Axis of resistance members are also increasingly struggling to deliver to their local constituents. Even though Lebanon and Iraq’s Shiite communities have experienced a substantial political revival under the leadership of Iranian allied groups, these military and political victories have not translated into substantial socioeconomic gains. In late 2019, demonstrations against corruption and a lack of economic reforms erupted in both countries. These protests rocked Shiite towns and cities (especially in Iraq), revealing that Iran’s allies were not delivering for their supporters — let alone for citizens at large. Having prided themselves for decades on protecting the impoverished and fighting injustice, Iran and its partners are now part of corrupt political regimes in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq that work against the people. In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite groups such as Badr, Asaib, and Kataib Hizballah are afraid of losing their influence and political relevance after significant losses in recent elections. Meanwhile, Iran’s most important regional ally, Hizballah, has also come under unprecedented internal and external pressure. The Lebanese organization is increasingly blamed by opponents for the country’s severe political and economic crises. This was seen as the main reason anti-Hizballah opposition groups gained ground in the country’s May 2022 elections.

The Decentralized Axis in Action

However, these developments do not mean that Iran’s axis is disintegrating. Instead, it is transforming from a highly centralized network to a more participatory and decentralized one. In recent years, “mutual assistance” among Iran’s partners has grown. Hizballah, for example, plays a decisive role in consolidating the axis: It joined Hamas in rejecting Arab normalization agreements with Israel and has worked to restore the group’s ties with the Syrian regime. Hizballah also mediated between Iraqi Shiite factions over the past year and is said to influence negotiations between Houthis and the United Arab Emirates.

Cooperation between Iranian partners is not a recent trend: As early as December 1983, Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi Dawa operatives worked together to attack a series of targets in Kuwait. But in recent years, Iran has consciously encouraged such efforts, particularly the exchange of military expertise and asymmetric warfare tactics. Today, Iraqi and Lebanese groups have deployed expeditionary forces in Syria and elsewhere, while providing advanced training for other Shiite forces. Hizballah has trained the Houthis in explosive drones and guerilla warfare in designated camps. Houthi operatives claimed in an interview with the authors that the group provided on-site training and advice to Palestinian Hamas members during Israel’s May 2021 offensive against Gaza. Even more recently, Iraqi factions have shown their support for the Houthis, in defiance of Iran, by launching one of their own attacks against the United Arab Emirates.

New financial constraints have also driven cooperation. Since 2018, the U.S. government has pursued a “maximum pressure” policy designed to alter the course of Iran’s foreign and security policies. The strategy relies heavily on sanctions, which have pushed Iranian-linked groups to diversify their funding sources. As a result, they have collaboratively expanded their portfolios with activities such as smuggling drugs and selling counterfeit products. This has had the side effect of embedding these groups more deeply in the local political economy and developing intra-axis contacts independent of Iran. As a New York Times investigation reported last year, the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, commanded by Bashir al Assad’s younger brother, has worked with Syrian intelligence services and other regime-linked warlords to establish a network for smuggling captagon across the Middle East. Lebanese and Iraqi law enforcement officials have said that Hizballah increasingly relies on drug trafficking, with the help of the Syrian regime, to pay its fighters, buy weapons, and provide social services. Various pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq, such as Kataib Hizballah, are known to exploit drug trafficking for similar ends.

Similarly, as sanctions and Israeli airstrikes have made weapon and technology transfers harder, Iran’s allies have worked with one another to develop their own missile production capabilities. For example, Hizballah efforts to indigenously produce precision-guided missiles have resulted in development of a number of military industries in Lebanon and Syria. In 2019, Iran boasted of its ability to equip its partners in the Gaza Strip with rocket technology. In Yemen, a land mine production facility has been established in Sa’ada, producing about 20 tons of mines per day. In Iraq, Shiite resistance groups have built their own unmanned aerial vehicles. Although these groups will continue to benefit from Iranian military assistance, their dependence on Iranian weapons and parts is declining as self-production expands.

Such inter-group assistance deepens mutual commitment among axis members while significantly reducing dependence on Iran for operational and financial support. It also means that an attack on one of the nodes of the network increasingly risks a response by other nodes. Finally, it diversifies the resources available to both Iran and other axis members to survive sanctions, pressure, or direct attacks.

Conclusion

In constructing an “axis of resistance” throughout the Middle East, Qassem Soleimani built strategic consensus between heterogeneous organizations that did not necessarily have direct ideological links to Iran. Though he ran the network in a highly personalized manner, he also helped lay the basis for the more decentralized model emerging today. Soleimani was never interested in cultivating a group of completely dependent proxies. Instead, he sought to help regional partners develop their own defense industries and integrate into the political and economic life of their own countries.

Paradoxically, decentralization reduces the direct utility of the axis as a tool of Iranian foreign policy but improves its resilience and capabilities. Partners may take actions that run counter to Iranian interests, such as attacks that threaten the future of the nuclear deal or rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates. But Iran also gains a denser defensive network with more plausible deniability to respond to threats from opponents.

Nonetheless, securing the benefits of this new organizational model requires maintaining a degree of ideological and political coherence. Here, domestic upheavals and divergent interests will generate the next set of challenges for the axis of resistance. As members are increasingly resilient and can tap into horizontal networks for support, their incentive to respect Iranian orders will likely decrease. If Iran did rejoin the nuclear deal, for example, some of its partners might refuse to comply with the necessary conditions. So far, the axis remains sufficiently aligned for everyone within it to benefit. But local political resistance and stronger international opponents could eventually make the axis so decentralized that it comes apart.

 

 

Nancy Ezzeddine is a research fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. In this capacity, she explores identity politics and the use of religion as a means of political mobilization in the Levant. Her recent work focuses on the interplay between sectarian constituencies, patronage politics, and transnational militancy in Iraq and Lebanon. 

Dr. HamidReza Azizi is a research associate at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit and a CATS fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His research interests include security and geopolitical issues in the Middle East and Central Eurasia, Iran’s foreign policy, and Iran-Russia relations. Azizi holds a Ph.D. in regional studies from the University of Tehran. He was an assistant professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University (2016–2020) and a guest lecturer in the Department of Regional Studies at the University of Tehran (2016–2018).

Image: Flickr user safwat sayed, CC BY-ND 2.0