Iran’s selective approach to hybrid war

Ali Hajizade
Ali Hajizade
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During the cold war, the world witnessed various proxy wars, involving USSR and the USA, and their official and unofficial allies. Moscow and Washington managed to wage proxy wars in Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Now there is no Warsaw block, and proxy wars could seemingly become history. However, it did not happen. In today’s world, certain regional players have adopted the Soviet method of waging proxy wars. Speaking of the Middle East, we should emphasize Iran’s activity.

Strategists from Tehran are to be lauded; they improved the Soviet methods and transformed them into a system of a comprehensive hybrid war, including the application of modern technologies. Today, Iran’s permanent hybrid war is mainly directed against three countries – USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, Tehran is selective about the approach to each of these countries.

Iran has a separate strategy for each of these countries. However, in each case Iran tries to avoid a straightforward confrontation. For example, the situation with US is much more nuanced than with Israel or Saudi Arabia.

For instance, Iranian authorities declare vicious slogans against “Great Satan”, but at the same time, they spend great financial resources and energy to create, expand and support Iranian Lobby in US. These efforts continued even when Iran, not directly, but through Shiite armed militias was involved in a military conflict with the US army in Iraq. Iranians have been contacting with representatives of the Iraqi opposition since Saddam Hussein’s years in power.

The American invasion freed Iran’s hands and Tehran was able to fully use its ties and influence over Shiites in Iraq. Thus, Iraq turned into a failed state, possessing a role of a buffer zone for Iran.

In general, methods of Iranian hybrid warfare vary according to countries and political situation in those countries

Ali Hajizade

They could establish very valuable ties with a certain part (mainly with the liberal wing) of the American and European political establishment through the work of Iranian Lobby in US and EU.

Ethnic Iranians including Iranians who have dual citizenship participate in the work of Iranian Lobby together with citizens of Western countries, among which there are politicians, social activists, experts and journalists. The Head of Iran’s intelligence Mahmoud Alavi explicitly stated this in the interview.

The main objective of Iranian Lobby in Washington is to counteract activities of Jewish Lobby and activities of Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE in Washington. In particular, in matters regarding Iran, for example Iranian nuclear program, Iran’s missile program, matters related to tightening of sanctions against Iran and Iran’s ties with terrorist organizations.

Iranian Lobby has also been actively involved in the process of creation of a “positive image of Iran” and efforts to divert attention from a gross violation of human rights and rights of minorities in Iran. In addition, Iranian lobby tacitly tries to promote its people (not necessarily ethnic Iranians) into the governmental organizations, organizations close to the government of US and think tanks responsible for the formulation of US policy towards Iran and the Middle East.

The most successful experience in this regard was achieved during the Obama administration. Several representatives of Iranian Lobby could get into Obama’s circle. To what extent they had influenced the decisions on Iran remains a subject of dispute. However, it is a fact that unlike other administrations, Obama’s administration had a different view on Iran and its potential role in the region.

Obviously, Obama planned to make Iran the main ally of USA in the region, despite the fact that Iran is the main destabilizing factor in the Middle East. Moreover, of course, to the prejudice of Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey. This type of formation demanded Obama to ignore human rights violations in Iran and its support for terrorist organizations.

Hillary Clinton, being Secretary of State, actively participated in the formulation of Obama’s pro-Iranian policy. Of course, Clinton was not working alone; she was being assisted by a whole team, in which there were persons sympathetic to Iran with their views on Iran’s future role in the region and the future of Iranian-American relations. One of those persons is Tom Pickering, former diplomat. Specifically, the small report, he sent to Hillary Clinton is a subject of interest.

If you read this document, you can get a sense of an immense amount of concessions in relations with Iran Pickering proposes to make. There is another episode, which perfectly illustrates the Obama administration’s attitude to Iran.

As a result of the investigation, conducted by Politico it has been disclosed that Obama’s administration actually sabotaged the investigation against Hezbollah in cases of drug trafficking and money laundering. Obama was afraid that Iran could abandon the nuclear deal. Whilst the drugs were being supplied to the European allies of the US, as well as to US itself and the money raised was used to support the organization fighting against another US ally – Israel.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton had to carry on the Obama administration’s torch. Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s victory has broken the plans to rehabilitate Iran and turning Iran into Washington’s main ally in the Middle East.

One of the main Iranian Lobby organizations in US is National Iranian American Council. Nevertheless, that’s not the only organization engaged in lobbying of the interests of Iran in USA. There are other organizations and individuals. Iranian Lobby operates somewhat differently in Europe, more openly and freely than in US.

Unlike Washington, EU Countries have always been more lenient with Iran. It is partially due to the appetite of large European business. Of course, Iranian authorities understand it and use this factor in their global hybrid war. Large European business, having ties with Iran, in turn, becomes a kind of mediator between Iran and EU, a mediator that is always interested in good relations with the Iranian regime.

European technological companies are of particular interest to Iran, since the legal access to Israeli and American technologies is almost closed to Tehran. Various mechanisms and backup options to circumvent sanctions have been developed during the years of the sanctions.

Iran needs technologies, not only for civil purposes, but also for military purposes, in particular for their intelligence services and missile program. Besides lobbyists, large business and corrupt politicians the Iranian side uses a number of other methods in its global confrontation with US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Organization and support for paramilitary groups in the region are among them. In particular, in countries with a vacuum of authority (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen) and Shiite population. These groups may be considered Iran’s informal allies in the region. Of course, in case of Iraq, Tehran has a considerable influence on its authorities, but armed groups are much more loyal allies of Iran.

On the other hand, for example, Syria, where Tehran has to compete with Russia. In case of change of Government, Tehran can use controlled groups to preserve its influence in these countries. In addition, these groups are used against the countries, Iran perceives as its main enemies.

In countries with Shiite population, in which Iran could not create militias, Tehran tries to use the religious factor. These countries are closely monitored by the Iranian intelligence services. In the South, it is Bahrain, which is small, but strategically very important for both Saudi Arabia and Iran. In 2011, the support of Peninsula Shield Force helped to prevent pro-Iranian takeover in this country.

However, Iranian activity and influence in Bahrain are still there and still pose a threat to the sovereignty and the stability of Bahrain. Tehran, using its agents tries to have an impact on Bahraini society and, of course, first of all, on the Shiite community of the country.

In the North, it is Azerbaijan, a secular country, an ally of Turkey and Israel. Azerbaijan has the second largest Shiite population in the world, after Iran. Iran considers Azerbaijan as a permanent threat to the integrity of the country. The reason is a large Azerbaijani population in Iran itself.

Despite of the fact that Azerbaijanis are second ethnic group only to the Persian in size, they do not have any rights in Iran along with other ethnic groups. This is the reason sporadic demonstrations against Tehran’s policy erupt periodically in the Southern Azerbaijan.

Given the risk of division of the country, and taking into account, that the Azerbaijani Republic in the North is the centre of attraction for Azerbaijanis in the South Azerbaijan, Iran has been trying to gain support in Azerbaijan Republic in the form of political forces and religious communities, controlled by Tehran, for further implementation of its policy to, at least, neutralize the threat of Azerbaijani nationalism both in the north and the south or, at most, to involve the Azerbaijani Republic in its orbit of interest with the further turning it into a loyal vassal.

However, sustained actions of Azerbaijani authorities have limited Iran’s capacity to establish a big and strong pro-Iranian wing in Azerbaijan. At the same time, we have to note that Iran could achieve some progress in building its network in Azerbaijan, but the balance of power is not in Tehran’s favor.

Alongside Azerbaijan, certain activity of Iran is observed in Georgia. Azerbaijani Shiites, the second largest ethnic group in Georgia, are of particular interest. Here, just like in Azerbaijan, Iranians use Shiism as a soft power to promote their propaganda.

In addition, Shiite pilgrims undergo ideological and propagandist indoctrination, during the pilgrimage to Karbala, Najaf and Mashhad. Obviously, Iran tries to secure its northern boundaries and tries to create here forces, loyal to them.

Iranian strategy of global hybrid war could not ignore its eastern unstable neighbor – Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Iran has a long border with this country. Of course, the attention and recourses Iran spends on Afghanistan, cannot be compared to the recourses spent on Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, in general, Afghanistan is of great interest to Iran.

Contrary to its strategy in other countries, Iran does not scruple to cooperate with radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan, for example with Taliban. Iran, reportedly, provides financial recourses and arms to Taliban. In addition, there are training camps for Taliban in Iran. It is believed that the main aim of Iranian support for Taliban is to use Taliban fighters against the armed groups that pledged loyalty to ISIS. Obviously, Iran believes Taliban poses less of a threat than ISIS does.

However, no one can guarantee that Iranian money and arms supplied to Taliban is not used against the State and coalition forces. In general, this approach to the issue fits organically into the Iranian strategy of a global hybrid war. The principle is simple: the more problems the West has in the region, the less they care about Iran.

Iran is also concerned about the Saudi activity in Afghanistan. Tehran believes that the activity of Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan can seriously damage Iranian long-term plans for this country. In addition, Iran tries to promote and strengthen positions of Persian language in Afghanistan.

For Iran, Afghanistan is a source of young Shiite mercenaries, recruited by Iran and sent to Syria to fight on the side of Bashar Assad. In general, Afghan fighters are less expensive for Iran than others are. They can also be redeployed to other fronts or use them in their homeland in future. These people are a good material for a hybrid war.

One of the hot spots of the Iranian hybrid war is Yemen. This country has a long border with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, some of its areas are poorly controlled due to climate and natural landscape. Yemen is perfect to create problems and security threats to Saudi Arabia. That is why Iran could not opt out of the developments in Yemen and not use this opportunity in its global strategy of the hybrid war.

Supporting Houthis in Yemen, Iran tries to draw away a part of Saudi forces (armed forces, military aviation, intelligence), recourses (financial recourses) and attention. This tactics was widely used by USSR and US during the Cold War.

Particular attention should be given to the Houthis’ rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia. The missiles supplied to Houthis by Iran cannot seriously damage Saudi Arabia, even if they hit the target. Here Iran has two objectives – the first is psychological, that has to affect the Saudi society and foreigners, who live in or visit Saudi Arabia.

The second one is a military objective; Iran tests the Saudi air defense system by the shelling, in the event of possible armed conflict with Saudi Arabia.

Probably, one of the main directions of the Iranian hybrid war is the support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite the rivals in the face Russians. Iranians had started to help Bashar Assad long before the Russians came. Iran’s presence in Syria is still ongoing. In general, Syrian theatre of hybrid warfare has shown that Iranian military and IRGC are not as powerful and professional as Iranian propaganda tries to present.

The gains of Iranians, regime forces and Hezbollah had been modest before Russian military came. The control over the large part of Syria was lost and future of the regime of Bashar Assad was a question. Moreover, the interference of the Russian armed forces could turn the tide of war, not the Iranian assistance. Many casualties among the senior staff of the Iranian military, also doesn’t add them any points.

In general, it shows that during an all-out war with a more organized and well-armed opponent, Iranian armed forces including IRGC forces can quickly lose the initiative, what will eventually lead to defeat. This explains why Iran seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with the States, Tehran considers to be enemies. We can assume that the awareness of inability of its armed forces to meet the military challenges in Syria forced Iran to recruit Shiites from the whole Middle East for the war in Syria.

One of the major players of Iranian global hybrid war is a Lebanese terrorist organization – Hezbollah. This organization was established in the early 80s, with the direct participation of Iran. For quite a long time, Hezbollah was being used only against Israel. Nevertheless, there were attempts to move organization’s activity to Egypt; however, these attempts were prevented by Egyptian intelligence services.

Iran also uses Hezbollah in active measures in South America. When the civil war in Syria began, units of Hezbollah were redeployed to this country, to assist the Bashar Assad regime. However, Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict has not been effective.

In Lebanon Hezbollah is also being used to suppress Sunni armed groups. The fact that this is committed with complete impunity of Shiite militias raises extreme outrage among Sunni population of Lebanon. We should take into account that the number of Sunnis is almost equal to the number of Shiites in Lebanon and such actions can drag the country into another internal religious conflict. And in the event of such a conflict Iran will have a chance to further strengthen its positions in Lebanon.

Hezbollah is a perfect instrument to interfere into internal affairs and policy of Lebanon. Thanks to Iran’s support, Hezbollah terrorist organization has its deputies in Lebanese Parliament and is a part of the coalition Government. Knowing that its army is lag behind the Israeli army in all respects (except numerical superiority), Iran prefers to use Hezbollah and other organizations as proxies in the conflict with Israel.

We should also understand that propaganda and cyber attacks are important components of Iranian strategy of the global hybrid war. Iranian promotional machine includes an army of pro-Government trolls, an armada of fake and other marginal websites. I wrote about in my previous review.

There are also relatively qualitative websites and TV channels. Iranian state propaganda tries to use them to influence public opinion in the West and in Iran’s neighboring countries. However, we should understand that the quality of the product, produced by the Iranian promotional machine is very low.

Iranian promotional machine has a number of western “experts”, “journalists” and “analytics” who constantly flash across the Iranian propaganda channels and relevant western websites. Their main objectives are – a) to dilute the Iranian propaganda with their articles and comments, b) to promote the Iranian point of view in the West and in the region.

In addition, Iran-controlled organizations, such as Hezbollah or Shiite groups, have their propaganda recourses, mainly focusing on the audience of their regions. “Cyber forces of Iran” or “pro-Government hackers”, as they are often called in mass media, pose a serious threat to the countries in the region, both to the countries whom Iran considers as enemies (Saudi Arabia, Israel) and to the countries who have complicated relations with Iran (Turkey, UAE, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Afghanistan).

Since 2010, Iranian Government has sharply increased financing their cyber-warriors. In 2010, Iranian officials talked about the training and preparation of 1500 cyber-warriors, although in reality the figure can be different (higher or lower). Of course, Iranian Government continued to build their capabilities and increase the number of cyber-warriors.

For example, according to the tweet of Iranian Minister of Information and former intelligence officer Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi (17 October 2017) Iran has an intention to prepare 10 thousand cyber-specialists to combat cyber threats. And it is easy to imagine that these specialists will be used as cyber-warriors in the interest of the regime.

In the hybrid war, Iranian cyber-warriors wage attacks of different scales with various objectives. Iran can use its cyber-forces, both in peacetime and wartime. Critical infrastructure, information infrastructure, military and governmental communication facilities and many other vitally important targets can be attacked by the Iranian cyber-forces at any time. According to experts, the capacity of Iranian cyber-forces compares well with their Chinese and Russian colleagues.

Unlike a direct military intervention or even actions committed through proxy-organizations such as Hezbollah, the source of cyber-attacks is more difficult to trace. In general, methods of Iranian hybrid warfare vary according to countries and political situation in those countries. In countries, which have strong Government the Iranian side proceeds more carefully. In democratic Western countries, Iran uses all loopholes and opportunities given by the Western democracy.

At the moment Iranian hybrid war is, perhaps, one of the main threats and challenges to the stability in the Middle Eastern region. Of course it is impossible to inlcude all details and circumstances of Iranian hybrid war in one article, so I tried to summarize the information.

Each topic is a theme for a book and an extensive research.
Ali Hajizade is a political analyst and founder editor in chief of He tweets @AHajizade.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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