ATbar Iranian Proxy Warfare in Iraq and Yemen

Iranian Proxy Warfare in Iraq and Yemen

03/08/2016 | by Wyss, Michel  
This paper of Michel Wyss was ranked by the Decision Committee at the 3rd honorable place in the Eyal Ragonis Memorial Competition for 2016-2017.

As the US Congress in early fall 2015 prepared to approve the “historic deal that will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” the nature of Tehran’s foreign policy and its regional ambitions were a regular point of contention between proponents and critics of the nuclear agreement.[1]                                                                              

Among its opponents, one of the frequently cited critiques was the fear that Iran will use the sanctions relief to bolster its military capabilities and facilitate terrorism across the region in order to pursue its interests.[2] On the other hand, the Islamic Republic’s leadership and some of its apologists in the West, among them – curiously – many European conspiracy theorists, have made every effort to assert that Iran is anything but a villain and that any claim to the contrary is purely based on “US propaganda.”[3] As Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei declared in a televised speech in April 2015, “Iran has never invaded a country and never will.”[4] Variations of this argument, such as that Iran has never launched an aggressive war in modern history, have been published in liberal media outlets such as Salon.[5]

While it is true that Iran has not launched a conventional war against its neighbors or any other countries since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the matter gets more complicated when it comes to warfare that does not meet the threshold of conventional inter-state war. Over the past decades, various terms have been introduced to describe this phenomenon. Some scholars and military experts have referred to it as unconventional, asymmetric, or irregular warfare; others have described them as low-intensity conflict, small wars, or hybrid warfare.[6] Most recently, the term “gray zone challenges” has sought to capture the elusive and ambiguous nature of conflict which the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) defines as “competitive interactions among and within [sic] state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.”[7] According to SOCOM, such a challenge can be characterized by “some level of aggression”, which is necessary to shift it from the white zone of peacetime competition to the gray zone; perspective-dependency, meaning that every actor may interpret the nature of a gray zone challenge differently (some view it closer to white zone competition, others closer to a black zone war) which will affect its level commitment; as well as “ambiguity regarding the nature of conflict, the parties involved or the relevant policy and legal frameworks.”[8] As the SOCOM white paper notes, these types of conflicts have indeed become the norm.[9]                                                             

At the same time, however, the concept of warfare that does not meet the threshold of conventional inter-state war is hardly a new invention. In a formerly top secret memorandum from April 30, 1948, then-director of the Policy Planning Staff George Kennan outlined his vision for the role of the newly founded CIA: the conduct of organized political warfare. “Political warfare”, according to Kennan, “is the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”[10] Kennan distinguishes between two major types of political warfare, overt and covert. The latter includes “clandestine support of "friendly" foreign elements […] and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”[11]

[1] "The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon," The White House, accessed March 31, 2016, 

[2] David Makovsky and Matthew Levitt, "Keeping Iran’s Feet to the Fire," Foreign Policy, July 14, 2015, accessed March 31, 2016, 

[3] Juan Cole, "Khamenei: US Invented Nuclear Myth; Iran Will Never Invade Another Country," Informed Comment, April 20, 2015, accessed March 31, 2016,; as for the connections between Iran and European conspiracy theorists, cf. (in German) Simone Schmid, "Warum Die Schweizer Rechten Den Iran Mögen," Tagesanzeiger, April 25, 2014, accessed March 31, 2016, 

[4] Cole, "Khamenei: US Invented Nuclear Myth."

[5] cf. Juan Cole, "The Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Iran," Salon, October 1, 2009, accessed March 31, 2016. 

[6] Teodor Frunzeti, "Asymmetric, Unconventional, and Hybrid Actions in 21st Century Warfare," Strategic Impact 46 (2013);  Eric V. Larson et al, Assessing Irregular Warfare: A Framework for Intelligence Analysis (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2008); Arnold Milton and Walt Berkovski, eds., Irregular Warfare: Strategy and Considerations (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2012); for a historical perspective, cf. John Arquilla, Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011); Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright Pub., 2013).

[8] "The Gray Zone."

[9] ibid.

[10] "George F. Kennan on Organizing Political Warfare," accessed March 31, 2016, 

[11] "George F. Kennan on Organizing Political Warfare,"

Michel Wyss is a graduate student at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya where he has also worked as a research assistant at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism and for Professor Assaf Moghadam. Last year, he was selected to spend the fall semester at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, TX. He also had the opportunity to participate at this year's Cadet/Student Conference on Terrorism, Insurgency & Asymmetric Conflicts at the Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy West Point, where he presented on proxy interventions, his primary research interest. He currently is an intern in the department for security at the "Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH" / GIZ in Frankfurt, Germany.

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