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Research Report


Phillip Smyth
Tim Michetti
Owen Daniels
Copyright Date: Sep. 1, 2017
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 48
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 2-3)

    Hybrid warfare has been with us since the American Revolution, when George Washington’s Continental Army was supported by a bevy of irregulars, such as Francis Marion of South Carolina. More recently, the United States has worked in close cooperation with irregular militias both to overthrow the Taliban regime in 2001-2002 and as a concomitant to the “surge” that suppressed the Iraqi insurrections in 2007.

    America hardly has had a monopoly in hybrid warfare; over the past decade, Russia has refined the concept while seizing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine, employing local irregulars and soldiers without uniforms—both armed with modern...

  2. (pp. 6-11)

    Iran has long sought to extend its influence beyond its borders. Its aspirations have not always been directly in competition with US interests; Iran under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was a crucial part of the Nixon Doctrine, which aimed to strengthen US partners to better support the United States in preventing the spread of Soviet influence around the globe. Iran served alongside Saudi Arabia as one of the “Twin Pillars” in the Gulf.

    However, with the revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the country’s new elites put an obligation to export their ideology...


    • (pp. 12-25)

      While Iran relies on longstanding relationships with larger proxies in Iraq and Syria to shape favorable political and military outcomes, it also uses smaller, lesser-known groups to achieve local ends, or to strike at rivals while maintaining deniability.

      Iran has appealed to Shia groups operating beyond its borders to influence regional events since the early days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. Iraq has a long experience with militias influenced by Iran, going back to the 1980s and the Iran-Iraq War.13 But, after the US invasion in 2003 and Iraq’s subsequent descent into civil war, Iran-backed Shia political parties and their affiliated...

    • (pp. 26-29)

      The small Kingdom of Bahrain has historically found itself the target of Tehran’s interest. Following attempts by the Shah to annex the island before the Islamic Revolution, Iran tried to overthrow the monarchy in the early 1980s, through an IRGC-backed Bahraini militant proxy. Today, IRGC-backed militants and proxies continue to plot and carry out serious, and potentially deadly, attacks against government targets.

      But, while the IRGC’s covert support for militant proxies has remained resolute, social-media evidence suggests that Iran is exploiting recent regional insecurity to further destabilize Bahrain. Beyond Tehran’s already-dangerous proxy sponsorship for Bahraini groups, some militant groups, like...

    • (pp. 30-33)

      Iran’s influence across the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has risen sharply since late 2014, corresponding directly with the country’s Houthi uprising and subsequent civil war. The reason: Iran’s supply of arms to the Zaidi Houthis, a Shia minority from northern Yemen. While the extent of Iran’s support for the Houthis at the beginning of the conflict was unclear, new evidence points strongly toward Tehran’s embrace of the Houthis as a means of inflicting pain on its rival in Riyadh. Although it is transferring weapons and knowledge to the Houthis, it is not clear that Iran hopes to cultivate the group...

  4. (pp. 34-35)

    Competition for influence in the Middle East is a jump ball, but, at present, Iran stands taller than its rivals. Its careful cultivation of local actors and transnational groups willing to undertake its bidding gives the Islamic Republic a major advantage as it tries to achieve its political, economic, and security aims. Even though Iran has verifiably curbed its nuclear program under the JCPOA to date, its troubling policies in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond have continued apace. Between its naval provocations in the Persian Gulf and continuing ballistic-missile tests, Iran appears even more emboldened in recent months. One...