Iran continues to expand its influence in the Middle East. But who are his deputies in the region?

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits next to a model of a fighter jet during a meeting with the Army Air Force.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with the Air Force on February 5, 2024 Photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/ap

Gaza Strip: United in hostility against Israel

The Palestinian Islamist and militant organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the Sunni part of the otherwise mainly Shiite-influenced Iranian “Axis of Resistance” in the Middle East. Although Iran and the two groups belong to different forms of Islam, which are sometimes hostile to each other, common strategic objectives are more important, especially the front position against the West and Israel with the stated goal of destroying Israel.

Iran has supported both organizations since their founding, in the form of financial support, weapons and weapons production know-how.

Islamic Jihad is purely a proxy for Iran and depends entirely on the support of the Iranian regime. Inspired by events in Iran, the organization was founded in Gaza shortly after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Due to its proximity to the ideology of the Iranian regime, this group is less popular among Palestinians in Gaza than Hamas.

Hamas's predecessor organization, which emerged from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, initially focused primarily on charitable work and was initially supported by Israel. With the start of the First Intifada in the late 1980s, Hamas (Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”) attempted to take a leading role in the “Stone Revolt” and published its letter calling for the destruction of Israel as its target. In 2006 he won the Palestinian elections. After the fratricidal war with the more moderate Fatah party, it took power in the Gaza Strip. The international boycott of the Hamas government is generating increased support from Iran.

Countries where Iran's allies are particularly active Photo: taz/Infotext/AE

However, unlike Islamic Jihad, Hamas also depends on support from Qatar and donations from other countries.

Shortly before October 7 there were loud noises. Wall Street Journal around 500 Palestinian members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad for special combat training in Iran. Judith Poppe

Lebanon: Hezbollah as an extended arm of Iran

In Lebanon, Hezbollah acts as an extension of Iran. The party was founded in 1982 as a paramilitary alliance of Shiite groups against the then-Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah is a party involved in the current government and also a highly armed militia. They are linked to Iran through their anti-Israel and anti-imperialist ideology.

There are currently mutual airstrikes between Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli army in the border region between Israel and Lebanon. Many people in Lebanon believe that Hezbollah is defending the Lebanese border against Israel. It is militarily stronger than the Lebanese army. Especially because the Lebanese State is bankrupt and pays its soldiers poorly. Hezbollah pays much more. Money for fighters and weapons comes, among other things, from Iran and drug trafficking.

Domestically, Hezbollah has lost significant support in recent years. He is credited with primary responsibility for the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

In foreign policy terms, the rising death toll from Israeli attacks on Gaza is putting pressure on the “unity of the fronts” invoked by Iran. That's why the alliance is carrying out what it considers some deterrence measures, such as attacks on US forces. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seen as a sort of chief spokesman for allied militias. According to Nasrallah, the militia attacks served as ideological reinforcement, but were not intended to expand the war on Iran's part.

Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas did not clash during the war in Syria: Hamas refused to support ruler Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah militias, however, are fighting in Syria alongside Alawite ruler Assad against predominantly Sunni rebels and opposition. They also had the support of Iran. Julia Neumann, Beirut

Syria: common cause with Assad

Iran has been loyal to Assad's side in the Syrian war since 2011, militarily, politically and economically. Ideologically, they justified their support by fighting on the Islamic front against disbelief, rather than fighting the Syrian regime against its own people. Despite the then arms embargo, Iran supplied weapons, surveillance technology and toxic substances to the Syrian government in the years after the war began. Between 2013 and 2015, Iran loaned Assad $4.5 billion. Iranian commanders and military advisors are stationed in Syria to support the Syrian army. Weapons convoys destined for Lebanese Hezbollah also travel overland in Syria.

The presence of pro-Iran militias has drawn Syria into fighting in the context of the war between Israel and Hamas. According to the AFP news agency, a total of 165 attacks have occurred against US forces and their allies in Jordan, Iraq and Syria since mid-October. The United States, for its part, attacks pro-Iran groups with airstrikes.

Commander Abu Bakr al Saadi, who was in charge of military affairs in Syria, was killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad on Wednesday. This was confirmed by a representative of the Hezbollah Brigades, according to AFP.

Three American soldiers were killed in a drone strike in Jordan, on the border with Syria and Iraq, in late January. White House blames Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have abandoned their posts on the border between Iraq and Syria. In retaliation, pro-Iran militias attacked a US base in northern Syria with drones. According to the German representative of the autonomous government of northern and eastern Syria, the attack was launched from territory controlled by the Assad government. Julia Neumann

Yemen: professionals in asymmetric warfare

The Houthis are a Shiite Islamist movement that controls much of Yemen. The decidedly anti-American and anti-Israel group has created a counter-government and has powerful weapons, especially drones and missiles, which can also reach Israel. According to American information, the weapons arsenal was built in close collaboration with Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The Houthis are experts in asymmetric warfare because Yemen is located in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait in the southern Red Sea. By shooting at ships that claim to have a connection to Israel, they are endangering international shipping. The stated goal is to put pressure on Israel to end the Gaza war. With their solidarity with Gaza, the Houthis were able to gain the sympathy of the Yemeni population.

How the Houthis are contributing to the internationalization of the Gaza war is demonstrated by the fact that the Bundeswehr sent a warship to the Red Sea to intercept Houthi projectiles as part of the EU “Aspides” mission decided on Thursday. The EU does not want to participate in US attacks on continental positions. Jannis Hagmann

Iraq: militias connected to Iran

In Iraq there are a series of armed groups through which Iran has expanded its influence in its neighboring country. When the “Islamic State” (IS) established its caliphate ten years ago and subjected parts of Iraq and Syria to its reign of terror, Iraq, Iran and the United States for once had the same goal: to drive back the jihadists.

That was successful, but in Iraq the paramilitary groups that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki united to form a fighting force against IS in 2014 were made up primarily of Shiite fighters. The militias were trained, advised and partially financed by Iran, and when IS was defeated, they did not simply disband.

Today, united under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units, the militias are a central actor in Iraq and exist parallel to the army. Although they were integrated into state structures in 2016 and report to the head of government, they are still very close to Tehran. Among its ranks was also formed the group “Islamic Resistance in Iraq,” which claimed responsibility for the attack in Jordan in which three American soldiers died and dozens were injured at the end of January. Jannis Hagmann