INFER explores how Iranian influence on violent non-state actors (VNSAs) will develop in the near future

Nov 02, 2023 07:13PM UTC

INFER has launched a new strategic topic to support a U.S. Government stakeholder who wants to understand the future outlook of Iran’s influence on violent non-state actors. 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 support for 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 Iranian influence on VNSAs 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 question: How will Iranian influence on violent non-state actors develop in the near future? As part of the scoping discussion, we identified three potential scenarios:

  • Iranian influence will decrease: Iran's support for proxies declines as economic sanctions and military pressure limit its capacity to fund and arm VNSAs.
  • Iranian influence adheres 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.
  • Iranian influence 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 of Iranian influence on VNSAs. Movement within each driver (i.e., change in the likelihood of certain events occurring) can provide a better picture about how likely Iranian influence on VNSAs is to decrease, remain the same, or increase.

  • Iranian desire to influence VNSAs: This driver includes events that would determine Iran’s decision-making power to influence VNSAs, such as having a stable domestic and political environment within Iran centered around this goal, 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 capabilities to actually support VNSAs if it chooses to. 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 Iran issues a 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. A few questions are now live tagged under “Iranian influence on VNSAs,” and more will be published in the coming weeks. We will also be releasing the snapshot reports that we send periodically to U.S. Government stakeholders on our reports archive.

You can start forecasting on this topic with these questions:

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