INFER explores how Iran will use violent non-state actors (VNSAs) to advance its agenda

Nov 02, 2023 07:13PM UTC

Updated March 2024: The strategic topic described in this post has been slightly edited since initial publication. 
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INFER has launched a new strategic topic to support a U.S. Government stakeholder who wants to understand how violent non-state actors could advance Iran’s agenda. This issue is at the forefront for analysts and policymakers given the rapid developments and web of regional implications of the Israel-Hamas War.

Iran's influence on violent non-state actors (VNSAs) like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis has long been a source of instability in the Middle East. However, the extent, objectives, and future of Iranian influence on these groups depends on a confluence of complex factors – many of which are colliding in the current crisis in the Middle East.

INFER facilitated a workshop with U.S. Government subject-matter experts in the intelligence and defense communities, in which we decomposed the issue of how Iran will use VNSAs to advance its agenda into the possible scenarios, drivers and signals that would help us determine how the future would shape out.

The issue was scoped into the strategic topic: Violent Non-State Actors Advancing Iran's Agenda. As part of the scoping discussion, we identified three potential scenarios:

  • Advancement of Iran’s agenda will decrease: Iran's influence on proxies is hindered due to economic sanctions and military pressure, limiting Iran’s capacity to fund and arm VNSAs.
  • Advancement of Iran’s agenda will adhere to the status quo: Iran maintains financial and military assistance to key VNSAs like Hezbollah and Houthis, preserving some regional sway though still constrained by its enemies.
  • Advancement of Iran’s agenda will increase: Iran leverages its influence capabilities in the Middle East to gain greater control over VNSAs, bolstering its regional reach and ability to indirectly challenge opponents.

Below is a high-level visualization of the issue decomposition, from the strategic issue down to the drivers and sub-drivers:

As shown above, we prioritized three key drivers that would most likely impact the extent to which VNSAs advance Iran’s agenda. Movement within each driver (i.e., changes in the likelihood of certain events occurring) can provide a better picture about how likely the advancement of Iran’s agenda is to increase, decrease, or remain the same.

  • Iranian desire to influence VNSAs: This driver includes events that would determine Iran’s decision-making power to influence VNSAs, such as Iran having a stable domestic and political environment, support from senior leadership, the emergence of threats to Iran or Iranian-favored groups and allies, and a perceived threat of a stronger U.S. posture in the Middle East. Changes in these areas, among others, could substantially alter Iran's motivation and willingness to leverage relationships with VNSAs to project power in the region. If Iran faces greater external opposition or domestic turmoil, it may rely more heavily on asymmetric proxies. Alternately, periods of détente could weaken these ties. 
  • Iranian influence capabilities: This driver focuses on Iran's ability to actually support VNSAs. Iranian influence capabilities are impacted by a number of more specific issues, including its ability to leverage religious support, its economic health, the amount of instability in the region, and Iran’s own international alliances and relations. Events in any one or more of these areas could strengthen or weaken Iranian capabilities. For example, if an Iranian cleric issues a relevant fatwa, that could increase its religious support and enhance recruiting for Iranian-aligned VNSA groups.
  • VNSA objectives and capabilities: This driver focuses on the VNSA groups themselves, and whether they have the desire and ability to act as proxies for Iran. We identified two areas determining VNSA propensity to support Iran: VNSA groups’ alignment with Iranian objectives and external threats to VNSA groups. In the third area, we can measure the potential success of the VNSA groups to determine whether Iran will see supporting them as a worthwhile endeavor.

Each of these three drivers has a number of signals from which we’ve developed a list of forecast questions. You can find the questions under the tag: Iran–VNSAs. To see the snapshot reports on this issue that we send periodically to U.S. Government stakeholders, visit our reports archive.

Start forecasting on this topic with these questions:

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