Indeed, in the battle for control of the Middle East, the IRGC’s militant clients have been the great equalizer. While Iran’s neighbors have poured billions of dollars into conventional weaponry, Iran has invested in comparatively cheap proxy forces that have proven effective in numerous theaters. They have prevented Iraq from becoming an American puppet, saved Syria from being dominated by American- and Saudi-backed Sunni extremists, and redirected the attention and resources of Saudi Arabia and the UAE away from Syria by igniting war in Yemen. Iran’s influence in each of those countries has grown as a result, as has its influence in the region.
Foreign clients enable Iran to keep its adversaries at arm’s length, but they put Iran at risk of escalation with its regional adversaries and the United States. The conflict has so far remained beyond Iran’s borders, but the risk of miscalculation always lurks in the background. For now, Iraq is Iran’s main point of leverage with the United States. While Tehran and Washington are nominally on the same side in support of the government of Iraq, Iranian-backed groups routinely threaten to target U.S. forces. Should the United States intervene more heavily against Assad in Syria or the Houthis in Yemen, those groups might be given the green light from Tehran to renew such attacks. That’s one way the conflict could spiral out of control. Iran doesn’t want a fight with the United States — the IRGC can contend with adversaries by proxy, but it would have much less success in a direct war with the U.S. military — but if the situation spirals out of control in Iraq, a military escalation might be the result.
The ability to influence events outside its borders through proxy groups is both the central factor of Iran’s alienation and its most vital strategic asset. Solving that paradox would require a shift in the Islamic Republic’s overarching political and ideological agenda. But so long as anti-Americanism remains the prevailing tenet of the Iranian regime’s aspirations, and so long as those aspirations are promoted through foreign military adventures, Iranians will not know the peace and stability they so richly deserve.