Iran’s extensive network of proxy militias and partners across the Middle East, often referred to as the “Axis of Resistance,” has come under increasing attack in recent days from Israeli and potentially American forces. This escalation comes amidst growing concerns that Iran may be looking to aggressively assert its regional influence and deter western powers from challenging its nuclear and military ambitions.
Strikes Target Key Iranian Allies
Over the past week, strikes have targeted a number of Iran’s key regional partners and proxies:
- Facilities connected to the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza were hit by Israeli airstrikes
- Weapons convoys affiliated with the Houthi rebels in Yemen were bombed from the air
- Militia sites in eastern Syria were struck in precision attacks, likely by Israel
- Facilities connected to the terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon were targeted by missiles
Although Israel has not officially taken responsibility for all of these strikes, the attacks bear the hallmarks of its increasingly aggressive attempts to curb Iranian influence and stop the smuggling of advanced weapons to proxies that could eventually be used against it.
There is also speculation that the US may have had a hand in some of the Yemen strikes through its Gulf allies, as part of a wider regional shadow war against Iran and its partners.
|Hamas (Gaza Strip)
|Likely Saudi/Emirati/US targeted bombings
|Iran-backed militias (Syria)
Iran Promises Revenge
Iran and its allies have issued bellicose statements promising retaliation in response to these attacks. A Hezbollah spokesman warned that it has “opened the door to all possibilities” when it comes to responding. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders have vowed to strike back against Israel.
Experts warn that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah could look to launch rocket attacks against Israel or even attempt to carry out terrorist attacks internationally. In the past, Iranian proxies have targeted Israeli tourists and Jewish communities abroad in retaliation for Israeli actions against Iran and its partners.
There are also concerns that Iran might step up attacks on US forces and facilities in the region using Shiite militias in Iraq and other proxies. Iranian-backed groups have regularly targeted American troops and diplomats over the past two years as tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared.
Behind the Escalation
The current escalation comes against a backdrop of rising tensions between Iran and western powers over its nuclear program and destabilizing activities across the Middle East.
Experts see the latest attacks as part of an ongoing Israeli-led effort to curb Iranian influence and prevent it from consolidating a so-called “land bridge” of allied forces across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. This bridge to the Mediterranean would allow Iran to easily funnel weapons and fighters to partners like Hezbollah, posing a significant strategic threat to Israel.
Some analysts also believe renewed strikes may be an attempt by western powers to deter Iran from further expanding its nuclear program and enriching uranium to near weapons-grade levels. Talks between Iran and world powers aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal have stalled, and Tehran has ramped up its atomic activities in response. Attacks on its proxies are seen as a warning that there will be consequences if it continues down this path.
For its part, Iran maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful. However, it has threatened to aggressively retaliate against any attempts to undermine its regional interests or partners. Its allies’ vows for revenge suggest that the shadow war between Iran and its enemies is only likely to escalate going forward. This risks spiraling into a wider regional conflagration.
In the near term, Iran and its proxy forces are expected to follow through on threats of retaliation, likely targeting Israeli and American personnel and facilities:
- More rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza and Lebanon cannot be ruled out
- Iran may activate Shiite militia cells in Iraq and Syria to hit US bases
- Terrorist attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad are a real danger
In response, Israel promises to meet “fire with fire”, and will likely continue attempting to degrade Iranian capabilities through additional strikes. With both sides seemingly committed to confrontation, the ingredients are in place for a continued escalation in the months ahead.
Ultimately, some argue the Iranian regime views brinkmanship as leverage and escalation as a deterrent. Its regional assertiveness aims to pressure western powers to make concessions around its nuclear program and sanctions relief.
However, the longer the shadow war endures and expands, the more likely a miscalculation becomes that pulls the region into open conflict. While neither Iran nor its enemies want an all-out war, the tensions simmering across the Middle East mean the risk of one igniting remains worryingly high.
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