Iran has secured unprecedented regional advantages from its strategy of promoting its influence through proxy forces in the absence of an effective international response, a leading security think tank has found.
A report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies has concluded that Iran’s cross-border policies have been vastly more important than the nuclear threat and missile development programme targeted by international sanctions.
The study traces the evolution of the policy to the establishment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force in the early 1980s and in particular, to the establishment of its Quds Force to lead its external activity.
The policy of developing and strengthening militias was pioneered in Lebanon but has since been instrumental in conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
In addition, the Quds Force has links to groups ranging from Hamas in Palestine to the IRA in the UK.
The report said the alliances sought or established by the IRGC were based on the establishment of four points of common interest: ideological affinity, strategic convergence, political expediency or transactional relationships.
"We wanted this acknowledged as a capability, not an accident," John Raine, an IISS director, told The National.
"The Iranians use this day in, day out. It is how they project their force. To them it is more useful than their conventional force."
While conventional thinking concentrates on the traditional balance of power standings in Middle East, the IISS dossier makes a distinction on the balance of effective force, which it says lies with the Iranians.
This gives Tehran an ability to pick its battles to its advantage.
“They are inside various states, they are inside the conflicts and they have these levers they can use to dictate pace of confrontation," Mr Raine said.
"They have been systematic about exploiting these advantages."
The dossier takes to task a failure to recognise the accumulation of power by Iran through its allies.
“”The strategic value to Iran of its networks is higher than that of its conventional forces, its ballistic missile capability and its nuclear programme,” it said.
“There has been an insufficient international response to deter Iran from developing and deploying this capability.
“By 2019 Iran’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen had become the new normal in the region where once such a concept would have been unthinkable.”
The step-by-step methods employed by Iran can be identified across a range of countries and conflicts.
The vital tools for Tehran is the supply of advisers, funds, ballistic missile arsenals, armed drones and, in the case of strategic maritime straits, remote controlled speed boats.
The dossier said this begins with the deployment of the Quds Force followed by the direction of finance and materiel to emerging groups.
Training of militias locally and on Tehran controlled territory is then supplemented with provision of advanced weaponry.
The expeditionary Quds Force units are then bolstered by the arrival of the regular army, foreign ministry operatives and other officials.
In the public realm the pattern is that initial denials of involvement give way to admission of Iranian interest.
By this stage a Hizbollah-modelled structure of armed militia and its political wing starts to emerge.
Finally Iran uses its soft power tools, including propaganda, to entrench its allies.
One section of the dossier points out the complementary public statements and Twitter posts of the Quds Force leader Gen Qassem Soleimani and Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister.
For Mr Raine, the point is that while Iran has not created the tension it seeks to use, it has a ready formula to exploit situations for its own agenda.
“There is a high degree opportunism but what they are not opportunistic about is the centrally held, curated effort to seize those opportunities,” he said.
The policy is not without costs for Iran, which has shown it will scale back if casualty numbers rise.
“Regional interventions have cost Iran hundreds of lives and billions of dollars when it is also facing unprecedented international sanctions pressure and mounting domestic pressure,” Mr Raine said.
The result is that Iran has been able to offset its international isolation and the economically devastating effect of sanctions by co-opting a strategic of “hybrid warfare” that marries a military and civilian intervention.
“Iran’s intervention have validated an external military doctrine, emphasising hybrid war techniques and co-operation with state and sub-state actors,” the dossier said.
It makes clear the recent expansion means the impact is not limited to land but also to the seas, a development with new international implications.
“Iran has been able to threaten international shipping and energy arteries,” the dossier warns.