Iran, the US, Israel, and Hamas: The Dangerous Game of Middle East Proxy Wars

A truck carried an Iranian Khorramshahr missile during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the1980-1988 war with Iraq, in Tehran on Sept. 22, 2023.
A truck carried an Iranian Khorramshahr missile during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the1980-1988 war with Iraq, in Tehran on Sept. 22, 2023.-/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The recent attack on Israel by Hamas has brought renewed scrutiny to Iran's role in destabilizing the Middle East through its use of proxy groups. While some argue that engagement and negotiation is the path forward, others contend that only maximum pressure can curb Iran's harmful regional influence. This complex issue involves high stakes for global security with no easy solutions in sight.On October 7th, 2023, Hamas launched a major assault on Israel, firing over 100 rockets at civilian targets and sending millions scrambling into bomb shelters1. Israel's Iron Dome defense system intercepted most of the rockets, but the barrage left 3 Israelis dead and dozens injured. Hamas claimed the attack was retaliation for an Israeli raid that killed a senior commander days earlier. However, many analysts believe the real motivator was Iran2.Iran provides significant funding and weapons to Hamas and has long used the group to attack Israeli interests. Experts estimate Iran bankrolls Hamas with $100 million annually and supplies advanced weaponry like the long-range rockets used in this latest assault3. Hamas and Iran share the ideological goal of eliminating Israel. As one of Iran's chief proxies, Hamas advances Iran's regional agenda through violence.

Iran's Use of Proxies in the Middle East

Iran relies heavily on proxies like Hamas to project power and destabilize rivals in the Middle East4. In addition to Hamas, Iran backs Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Shia militias in Iraq. Supplying these groups with money, weapons, and training allows Iran to attack its enemies while maintaining plausible deniability. Iran uses its proxies to:

  1. Undermine Israel - Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah allow Iran to threaten Israel without direct confrontation. Iran has funded and armed these groups for decades.
  2. Advance its interests in Syria's civil war - Iran has sent Shia militias to support the Assad regime, a key Iranian ally. These fighters have committed atrocities and fueled sectarian conflict.
  3. Gain influence in Iraq - Iran has cultivated Shia militias in Iraq since 2003. These groups undermine Iraq's government and attack US forces.
  4. Fight Saudi Arabia in Yemen - Iran arms and advises the Houthi rebels battling the Saudi-backed government in Yemen's civil war. The Houthis regularly launch missiles and drones at Saudi targets.

Iran invests heavily in these proxies to expand its regional clout and deter its enemies. However, this strategy comes at a bloody cost for the region. Iran's proxies have killed thousands of civilians, exacerbated conflicts, and threatened global oil supplies.

The Biden Administration's Iran Policy

Upon taking office in 2021, President Biden sought to revive the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal after President Trump withdrew the US in 2018. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal had traded sanctions relief for limits on Iran's nuclear program. Biden hoped renewed negotiations could lead to an improved agreement that also addressed Iran's missile program and regional activities5. However, talks stalled as Iran made escalating nuclear advances prohibited under the JCPOA. A year and a half into Biden's term, Iran's breakout time to a nuclear weapon had shrunk from 12 months to just weeks. Frustrated at Iran's negotiating tactics and ongoing proxy attacks, the administration adopted a more coercive posture in 20226.Key elements of Biden's current Iran policy include:

  • Maintaining harsh economic sanctions on Iran's oil, banking, and other sectors
  • Interdicting Iranian arms shipments to proxies
  • Building a regional missile defense network against Iran
  • Considering designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization

This pressure-based approach has slowed Iran's nuclear progress but done little to curb its regional aggression. Critics argue Biden's failure to enforce Trump's maximum pressure campaign has allowed Iran's dangerous activities to increase.

The Proxy War Heats Up

After the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel, experts warned the assault was likely coordinated with Iran and signaled a perilous new chapter in the region's proxy wars7. Indeed, hostilities have steadily mounted in recent years:

  • 2021 - Iran's proxies increasingly targeted US and Gulf state interests across the Middle East. Lethal drone and missile attacks emanated from Yemen and Iraq.
  • 2022 - Iran provided Russia with suicide drones used to attack Ukrainian civilians. Israel ramped up strikes on Iranian assets in Syria.
  • 2023 - Iran sent more advanced weapons and advisers to proxies. Deadly rocket attacks against Israeli forces occurred weekly in Iraq and Syria.

This escalation shows Iran feels emboldened to step up proxy violence despite US sanctions and Israeli retaliation. The October 7th Hamas barrage was the heaviest fighting since 2021. With more funding and better arms, Iran's proxies now pose a greater asymmetric threat.

Maximum Pressure vs. Negotiation

Iran's growing proxy violence has intensified debate on the best US policy course. Should Biden double down on sanctions and deterrence or offer concessions to get Iran back to the negotiating table?The case for maximum pressure

  • Sanctions relief empowers and enriches the regime, enabling more proxy attacks
  • Harsh sanctions forced Iran to negotiate the 2015 nuclear deal
  • Military strikes on proxies may be required to restore deterrence

The case for negotiation

  • Sanctions hurt ordinary Iranians but don't stop proxy violence
  • Diplomacy is the only way to avoid war and get nukes off the table
  • A new nuclear deal can be improved to limit proxies and missiles

President Biden faces no easy choices on Iran. But the deadly proxy war threatens to spiral out of control if left unchecked. As Middle East expert Michael Rubin argues, “the Iranian challenge will not end until there is systemic change in Tehran.”8

The Path Ahead

October's Hamas attack on Israel was a stark reminder of how Iran dials up proxy violence to advance its interests and threaten rivals. Despite Biden's pressure campaign, Tehran feels emboldened to step up funding and arming of dangerous groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. These proxies extend Iran's asymmetric reach and allow it to destabilize neighbors while maintaining deniability.Ultimately, curbing the proxy war will require reducing Iran's capacity and willingness to arm proxies and attack rivals. But the fierce debate continues on whether maximum pressure or engagement is the best path. In the meantime, ordinary citizens across the Middle East will pay the price as Iran and its proxies ramp up violence and instability.The Middle East's bloody proxy wars have no easy solutions. But the US and allies must unite to contain Iran's aggression and protect innocent lives. If not, the region faces a dangerous escalation as Iran empowers proxies to do its bidding.