War with Iran: The Pretext of Proxies

Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq

by Kevin L. Schwartz

The prospect of war between the United States and Iran is more likely than it has been in decades, with the pretext for justifying a U.S. military strike or invasion already in place. In recent weeks, leading Iran hawks in the Trump administration have presented a framework to assign culpability to Iran in any future attack. Intentionally broad statements threaten military action in response not only to Iranian actions, but the attacks of “their proxies of any identity.” They also assert that the United States will respond to actions against a wide array of interests including U.S. military vessels, commercial vehicles, and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Such an expansive framework has already been used to explain recent events and beat the drums of war. Following a cursory assessment, American officials cast blame on Iran or Iran-backed proxies in an explosives attack on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, while noting that there was no definitive evidence to back such a claim. (Upon the collection of further evidence, the determination was upgraded to “highly likely.”)

By presenting the possibility that Iran could be blamed for hostile actions, even when carried out by other groups, the United States has afforded itself a high-degree of latitude in justifying a potential retaliatory attack. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been briefed on recent intelligence on Iran, noted: “We are not going to start a war. But if we are attacked by Iran’s proxies, we are going to respond against those proxies and hold Iran responsible. And they’re going to pay a price for that as well. Who could disagree with the notion that if we are attacked, we have a right to defend ourselves and respond.”

This attitude represents a key difference between the build-up to a potential war with Iran and the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War. There are certainly striking similarities between the two—the lack of transparency, presentation of selective or disputable intelligence, and desire for regime-change—but the pretext for an attack on Iran is significantly broader, making it all the more cavalier.

In the case of the Iraq War, the justification followed a narrow and direct path to link Saddam Hussein to weapons of mass destruction because the United States decided it needed to secure a UN mandate and coalition partners. In this case, the path is quite wide: a military strike or war can be initiated in response to the actions of any number of Iran-backed militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and possibly any action undertaken by a Shiite individual or group deemed hostile to the interests of the United States and its allies in the Gulf. The only requirement is to consider a group as an “Iranian proxy,” an idea already ingrained in public discourse as a way to describe Iran’s strategy of malfeasance in the region, with little differentiation among the levels of support and direction provided. The label already written is ready to be affixed and paraded as a justification for war.

Although the current U.S. approach to confront Iran more forcefully may prove to be more bluster than bite, it’s worth assessing its claims. What is the evidentiary threshold for determining Iranian culpability in actions carried out by groups it supports? Where does the line of culpability for proxy militias end and sponsorship begin? Would financial support and the supply of Iranian arms—a long-standing feature of Iran’s relationship with groups it supports—be enough to blame Iran for an attack on U.S. interests or would more convincing evidence, like the ordering of an attack, be necessary? As the United States has learned through its support of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and its reliance on proxies in Syria and elsewhere, the use of such weapons does not always adhere to even the most perfunctory of conditions under which they were granted, nor do proxies invariably follow the orders of their sponsors.

Justifying a war with Iran based on the actions of its proxies, especially without clear evidence of Iranian direction, is dangerously misguided. It is founded on the flawed logic that Iran operates as an omnipresent puppet master to create havoc across the Middle East, seemingly impervious to the challenges of operating proxies faced by others, including Western countries. It also suggests that such groups do not have motivations and aspirations of their own in confronting U.S. interests and those of its allies. Should it be to anyone’s surprise, for example, that Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities in response to what an official spokesman deemed the Saudi-led coalition’s “aggression” and “genocide” against the Yemeni people?

Understanding the Houthis, or Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq for that matter, as merely pawns operating at Iran’s direction is based on a simplistic misreading of current dynamics and politics in the Middle East. Conflating their interests with Iranian regional ambitions and discarding their actions as the mere handiwork of Iran nullify any necessity to faithfully confront the political and social realities shaping their attitudes and driving their behaviors. U.S. allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, also often use this tactic to avoid addressing the underlying causes of social strife. Relying on the Iran threat and its network of proxies to explain away all Middle Eastern ills obviates the need for more complex thinking and solutions. Such a pretext for another avoidable conflict in the Middle East suggests such a limited understanding of regional dynamics that the result is likely to be unsuccessful, costly, and counterproductive.

Kevin L. Schwartz is a research fellow at the Oriental Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague where he focuses on Iran. He was previously a research fellow at the Library of Congress and Distinguished Visiting Professor (Middle East Chair) at the US Naval Academy. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

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  1. So I suppose the author believes that the revolutionary guards are in all these areas like Syria Yemen Iraq just to have a picnic.

    It’s fine if you don’t like the US policies but don’t go blindly supporting the Ayatollahs.

  2. A real scientific approach which is completely distinctive than what we are used to receiving from the pseudo-science of politics and its most emotional pseudo-scientists.

  3. Iran has “proxies” while the US has “allies” — note the framing in the US media. Proxies supposedly are just doing what they’re told and have no agency of their own, thus we can safely dismiss their motivations and reasons for joining Iran.

  4. Cyrus

    There is, in fact, no treaty of alliance, military or otherwise, obtaining among the United States and Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, and Egypt.

    There are articles of alliance among NATO states.

    The so-called proxy military formations in Lebanon, Syria, and in Iraq are either partisn forces or irregulars that are authorized by the Legitimate State Authorities, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

    Americans have now rejected the Islamic Republic of Iran as a Legitimate State Authority by sanctioning the Revolutionary Guards, hoping Iranian Army would overthrow the Islamic Republic.

    Barring that, Americans have paved the way for the United States to attack Iran, not during the Prseidency of Trump but likely during the next one.

    So, I would speculate that Iran has 6 to 8 years to prepare herself for war with US.

  5. To avoid another war, Trump’s administration should be wise enough to compromise and share with Iran what Trump calls the American “interests” in the region – although the interests are wholly ‘illegitimate’ because the US has no right to be in Muslim lands in order to sustain the dying American Imperialism; and to avoid further bloodshed Iran should also compromise and accept the offer. This will also fulfil Trump’s election campaign pledges and increase his chance of being re-elected.

    Pompeo and Bolton can also enjoy a break and won’t have to invent new silly narratives and propaganda to feed the pathetic American mainstream media and their analysts/Iran expert commentators. The same will apply to their pathetic British counterparts ever ready to follow their American Masters.

    But then the Israeli, Saudi and Emirati servants of the American Empire will be too disappointed: after years of successfully brainwashing their public, feeding their expensive mercenary and paranoid armies and hoping to be acknowledged as the Master’s devoted servants who had the honour of participating and fighting alongside the Master, they cannot accept a bloodless ‘peace’, otherwise their self image would tarnish in the eyes of their oppressed people busy with conspicuous shopping and habitual praying or murdering to steal more land while their illegitimate rulers have been busy emulating their Master’s immoral genocidal wars branded a “noble cause”; or “war on terror”.

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