Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has built up a network of groups across the Middle East that boost its regional hegemony and wage war against Western powers.
"Acting through proxies is a method of eluding responsibility," said the Council on Foreign Relations. Iran's Quds Force, part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are the "main point of contact" with these organisations, "providing them with training, weaponry, and funds to promote Iranian regional objectives".
But, said the Atlantic Council, they have "long ceased to work as geographically contained entities or in isolation". Increasingly since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Tehran has been "integrating its various extensions and proxies into a mutually reinforcing and symbiotic regional alliance".
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The Week takes a look at the disparate groups known as the "Axis of Resistance".
Otherwise known as the Party of God, Hezbollah is Iran's most formidable – and well funded – proxy. Designated as a terrorist organisation by the US, it is the dominant political force in Lebanon.
With backing from Iran estimated to run to hundreds of millions of dollars a year, Hezbollah is also a "well-resourced armed group with a medium-sized force that can defeat most Arab armies", said Time. Analysts put the size of its fighting force at between 50,000 and 100,000, making it "the most powerful non-state actor" in the region, Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told the magazine.
Hamas (Palestinian Territories)
An acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), Hamas called for the destruction of Israel, and the establishment of an Islamic society in historic Palestine, in its founding charter in 1988. Long designated a terrorist group by the UK and US, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip following elections in 2006, positioning itself as a rival to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Iran is the group's biggest funder and it is widely assumed that Tehran had some role in planning – or at least authorising – the deadly surprise attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 that started the current turmoil in the region.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (Palestinian Territories)
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is considered "one of the most extreme and uncompromising Palestinian armed factions", said The Guardian. It is the second largest armed group in Gaza, behind Hamas, and also operates in the West Bank. Although US estimates put Iran's financial support for Hamas and PIJ at up to $100 million a year, the two are long-standing rivals.
Houthi movement (Yemen)
Officially known as Ansar Allah ("supporters of Allah"), the Houthis come from a branch of Shia Islam that ruled Yemen for centuries until the 1960s. Since 2014, they have waged a brutal civil war against Yemeni government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia. And since 7 October, the Houthis have also carried out attacks on Israeli-linked shipping in the Red Sea. Their slogan, the sarkha or scream, is: "God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Damnation to the Jews; Victory to Islam."
Al-Ashtar Brigades (Bahrain)
"Funded, trained and armed" by Iran, according to the Wilson Center think tank, the al-Ashtar Brigades is a Shia militant group that has been charged by the US State Department with committing terrorist attacks in Bahrain to overthrow the government and was sanctioned by the Trump administration.
Kata'ib Hezbollah (Iraq)
Founded in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Kata'ib Hezbollah is one of the "elite Iraqi armed factions closest to Iran", said Reuters. It is the "most powerful armed faction" in the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an "umbrella group" of "hardline" Shia armed groups that have "claimed more than 150 attacks on US forces since the Gaza war began".
Badr Organization (Iraq)
Formed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard in 1982, Munadhamat Badr is a Shia political party and paramilitary force that is Iran's oldest proxy in Iraq. Given the group's "deep ties to Iran and its political and military pre-eminence", analysts have compared it to Hezbollah in Lebanon, said the Counter Extremism Project.
Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (Iraq)
The League of the Righteous is a "major Iraqi armed group" that identifies as part of Iran's Axis of Resistance but "stubbornly maintains a degree of independence, forming numerous cells to conduct kinetic, media, and social operations, some bankrolled by the Iraqi state", said The Washington Institute.
Fatemiyoun Brigade (Syria)
By far the largest Iranian-backed militia group currently operating in Syria, the Fatemiyoun Brigade is composed entirely of Afghan Shia fighters, deployed to defend Iranian interests in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Fatemiyoun members are “mostly in their 20s and 30s… motivated mainly by economic deprivation and vulnerabilities due to their migrant status”, said the United States Institute of Peace.
Zainabiyoun Brigade (Syria)
Recruiting fighters from Pakistan, the Zainabiyoun Brigade trained for operations in the Syrian civil war, which broke out in 2011. The US Treasury placed the group on its financial blacklist in January 2019 and it "remains a threat", security experts told Arab News, despite recent crackdowns on the militants' activities.
Quawt al-Ridha (Syria)
One of the groups known as Syrian Hezbollah, Quwat al-Ridha recruits in Shia villages in the Homs region, has deployed forces across Syria and operates with "little independence" from its Lebanese parent, said The Washington Institute.
Baqir Brigade (Syria)
The "tribal militia loyal to the Syrian government" was established in 2012 and its members mainly belong to the Bakara tribe, said Al-Monitor. Hundreds of its newly joined members underwent training in Iran in special camps run by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the news site reported.
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