The Iran Threat Network (ITN)

Four Models of Iran's Nonstate Client Partnerships

by Ariane M. Tabatabai, Jeffrey Martini, Becca Wasser

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Research Questions

  1. What are Iran's political and military objectives?
  2. How does the ITN factor into Iran's strategy?
  3. What objectives does Tehran pursue via the ITN?
  4. How does the regime think about and categorize different ITN members?

The Iran Threat Network (ITN) is a formidable force made up of tens of thousands of fighters. It spreads across the Middle East and South Asia and has ties to and influence in Africa and Latin America. The ITN affords Iran the ability to have a presence and project power throughout the region, and to deter and harass its adversaries. The network consists of diverse and disparate groups, which is reflected in the nature and amount of support provided and the level of command and control exerted by Tehran over each group. These differences allow Iran to employ the ITN to achieve four buckets of political and military objectives.

The authors focus on the ITN, which sits at the intersection of two threats—Iran and nonstate actors—highlighted in the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy and the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy as a priority for the U.S. government to counter. In this report, the authors assess several indicators of Iran-ITN relations to offer an overview of the nature, depth, and breadth of Iran's relationship with these key nonstate partners classified by Iranian objectives.

Iran's further expansion of the ITN would increase its ability to use the network to undermine stability in the region, antagonize U.S. allies and partners, undercut U.S. influence, and pose a risk to U.S. military personnel. In light of this expansion, this study explores Iran's relationships with its nonstate network to better enable the U.S. government to counter Iranian subversion in the region via the ITN.

Key Findings

The Iran Threat Network is a formidable force of tens of thousands of fighters

  • Authors categorized the four classes of groups within the ITN that emerged from their analysis of Iran's nonstate client network by the objectives pursued by Tehran: Targeters, Deterrers, Stabilizers, and Influencers.
  • Targeters are designed to raise the costs of maintaining U.S. forward presence. The primary objective pursued by Iran in supporting these groups lies in leveraging them to deter and harass U.S. forces in the region.
  • Deterrers are groups that Tehran cultivates primarily to deter and impose costs on regional rivals. These rivals include Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
  • Stabilizers are groups employed to stabilize Iran's allies, such as Syria.
  • Influencers are groups that allow Tehran to expand influence within states.

The ITN is Tehran's most potent deterrent at its disposal against the United States

  • The ITN is presently—and likely to remain well into the future—Tehran's primary means of power projection and preferred instrument of influence in the Middle East.
  • ITN members—not Tehran—are most likely to launch attacks against U.S. and other targets.
  • The ITN poses a broader dilemma for the United States, because rising U.S.-Iran tensions have required the United States to increase its posture in the Middle East and decrease its resources for other U.S. defense priorities.
  • It is important that the U.S. government adopt a multidimensional approach to counter Iran's use of the ITN to undermine U.S. interests or potentially harm U.S. military and civilian personnel.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. government and U.S. Army should formulate specific responses to each category within the ITN rather than a general counter-ITN approach, recognizing their different weaknesses, levers of influence, and relations with Iran to better counter the ITN.
  • Because the Targeters are designed to counter U.S. presence—and, by extension, U.S. influence—in the Middle East, it poses the greatest threat from the ITN to the United States. These groups have evolved into hybrid groups now incorporated into the Iraqi political system and security forces. The U.S. Army should be careful to avoid inadvertent security cooperation activities with these groups.
  • The Deterrers do not pose direct threats to the U.S. homeland and the U.S. Army, but do pose a threat to regional partners. Therefore, U.S. Army efforts to build partner capacity to enable U.S. regional partners to be responsible for their own security are essential.
  • Some members of the Stabilizers are likely to challenge U.S. presence in the region as they seek to stabilize Iranian allies. Therefore, the U.S. Army should identify critical signals when these groups might seek to take action against U.S. equities to enhance force protection.
  • The Influencers are likely to continue pursuing violent activities in the Middle East and South Asia to undermine stability and strengthen their influence in their respective countries. To dampen their ambitions, the U.S. Army should continue to strengthen military-to-military relations with key partners in the region to send a deterrent message and build partner capacity to counter the ITN.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within RAND Arroyo Center.

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