Since its 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has incited violent, radical, and often sectarian nonstate groups across the Middle East to serve as proxies in its military campaigns to influence regional and international politics. This “proxy model” has become increasingly salient since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and more recently in Iraq and Syria, and is now Iran’s primary tool for advancing its regional intersts.

The U.S. and the West in general have largely paid attention only to radical Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. With a few exceptions, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, nonstate Shi‘i militant groups have generally avoided the same intense Western scrutiny. 

report coverThis study compares and contrasts regional conflicts that have been shaped by Iranian proxies and Iran’s successful—and unsuccessful—attempts to recruit to its militant groups. It also identifies the key forces that have shaped Iran’s ideological and operational sponsorship of nonstate militant groups, both Sunni and Shi‘i, as well as its motivations and preferred modus operandi.

Key Points

  • Iran’s military interventions in Iraq and Syria have undermined its message of Muslim unity in the struggle to repel U.S. influence from Muslim lands, which has served as the core of its outreach to Muslims since 1979. 

  • Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Tehran has systematically attempted to undermine the agenda of the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East by sponsoring anti-American militant proxies.

  • After years of largely unsuccessful outreach to the Islamic world writ large, Tehran has—since the Arab Spring protests of 2011—narrowed the focus of its outreach to expanding and disseminating the Shi‘i nonstate proxy model.

  • The proxy model approach has overall been successful for Iran. Unless its costs outweigh the benefits, no major shift in this policy can be expected while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the decisive voice in policymaking in Tehran.

Read the paper in full

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.