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Iran’s proxies, partners flex weapons-manufacturing capabilities in Middle East

A Houthi-bound cache of Iranian weapons on the deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) after seized from a stateless dhow on March 28, 2016. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iran’s strategy in the Middle East is essentially a take on an old proverb: Give your proxies and partners weapons and you can sustain their battles for a day. Teach them to make weapons and they can fight your enemies for a lifetime.

With Iranian-backed militant groups taking the charge in the Islamic republic’s fight against Israel and the United States, Tehran is seeing its effort to help them acquire their own weapons-manufacturing capabilities pay off.

“Iran has established a network of allies and partners throughout the Middle East, from the Huthis in Yemen, to pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, to pro-Iranian groups in Syria, to Hizballah in Lebanon, to Hamas in Gaza,” said Samuel Bendett of the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses. “And [Tehran] basically feeds some of its technology there directly, or provides kits and parts and other assistance to the local developers from those units, from those groups, and either gives them training in Iran or trains them on their location.”

Increasingly, those Tehran-backed militant groups are turning to weapons they have produced themselves, often based on Iranian blueprints or manufactured or assembled with Iran’s assistance. “Those groups now have a lot of know-how which was provided to them by Iran,” Bendett said. “And they’re now using them against the U.S. and its allies in the region.”

The Iranian-backed Islamic Resistance Movement — better known as Hamas and considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union — utilized a vast array of indigenously produced weapons and employed advanced battlefield tactics during its surprise multipronged attack on Israel on October 7 that left around 1,200 people dead.

The Israeli Defense Forces said they recovered Iranian-manufactured mortars and explosives used by the Palestinian extremist group after the assault, and Israeli military officials have reportedly estimated that up to 10 percent of the weapons used in the attack were made in Iran.

But most were produced or refined by Hamas indigenously in the Gaza Strip, including assault rifles, missiles, rockets, mortars, shells, and ammunition, according to Israeli defense officials.

Some of the at least 19 Iranian proxies and partners in the region that help make up Iran’s so-called axis of resistance have also used Iranian-derived or indigenously manufactured weapons built with Tehran’s help against Israel as well as U.S. troops based in the region since the Hamas assault.

These militant groups boast varying levels of firepower in their respective arsenals made up of Soviet-era, Russian, Iranian, and indigenously manufactured weapons based on Iranian designs. While Iran denies delivering arms to the groups directly, many of the missiles, rockets, and other weapons are similar to those produced by Iran.

Lebanese Hizballah boasts the most formidable arsenal of projectiles among Tehran’s proxies — including its own manufactured or refitted missiles and rockets. Since October 7, Hizballah has launched hundreds of rockets and missiles at Israel.

The Iranian-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen claim to have launched ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as drones, at Israel. On November 8, the Pentagon announced that a U.S. military surveillance drone was shot down off the coast of Yemen by Huthi forces.

In an apparent response to U.S. support for Israel’s retaliatory land invasion and aerial bombardment of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria have launched 58 attacks against U.S. forces in the past month, according to the Pentagon.

Tehran has denied involvement in the Hamas attack, and in early November Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly pressed Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to silence those calling for Iran and Lebanese Hizballah to join the Israel-Hamas war.

According to sources cited by Reuters, Khamenei said during the meeting with Haniyeh in Tehran that Iran would continue to offer political and moral support but would not directly enter the conflict.

But Iran has publicly boasted about the military aid it has provided to Hamas in recent years. And despite international sanctions and a sea and land blockade on the Gaza Strip that was imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2005, experts say it is clear that Tehran has provided assistance to boost Hamas’s fighting capabilities.

Middle East political analyst Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib told RFE/RL that Hamas built up its arsenal by looting weapons from former stockpiles of the Palestinian Authority or illegally purchasing them decades ago from Israeli sources through straw-man sales, smuggling arms and materials across the border with Egypt, and domestically producing drones, rockets, and various munitions.

But there is little evidence that any seaborne smuggling of arms has taken place since Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, he said. And the smuggling from Egypt that reached its height after the Egyptian revolution in 2011 declined sharply after the Muslim Brotherhood government there was overthrown in 2013 and has since “been reduced to a trickle.”

Nevertheless, Alkhatib said, “the weaponry and the arsenal that Hamas has right now has been building up for over a decade” and benefited from thousands of tons of smuggled arms and materials that could be used to manufacture its own weapons.

“Even if the smuggling stopped, those are still significant and vast enough to offer Hamas and other groups the ability to inflict damage as we saw on October 7 and as we’re seeing in their defensive battle with advancing Israeli ground troops,” said Alkhatib, a U.S. citizen from Gaza.

Whereas Hamas historically focused on building up a stockpile of rifles and machine guns, he says, it turned its attention to developing kinetic capabilities — including mines, targeted explosive warheads, improvised explosive devices, anti-tank missiles, and rocket propelled grenades.

Hamas has also invested heavily in developing longer-range rockets and guidance and targeting capabilities as well as a range of unmanned aerial vehicles, including fixed-wing and weaponized commercial-grade drones.

Hamas had a falling out with Tehran, including over the extremist group’s support of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Alkhatib says. But Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, realigned the organization with Tehran “because they have realized that without Iran, their military capability won’t stand a chance in continuing to evolve.”

The realignment “with Iran, with the Syrian regime, and certainly with [Lebanese] Hizballah,” he added, “are directly related to Hamas’s needs and reliance on Iran to procure materials and, more importantly in the era of limited to no smuggling, technologies and know-how to domestically produce [weapons] systems.”

Aided by Iranian weapons blueprints and the use of modern digital platforms for remote training, Hamas has learned how to upgrade old rockets and missiles to expand their range and lethality, he said.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah have also been able to remotely teach Hamas fighting tactics and how to develop its massive tunnel network. “And, more importantly, Iran is also teaching Hamas how to use strategic capabilities,” Alkhatib said, such as how to integrate drones on the battlefield.

“What was particularly spectacular about the October 7 attack,” Alkhatib said, “is that Hamas for the first time demonstrated a combined-arms approach to guerrilla warfare, whereby intelligence was linked with the artillery barrage, was linked with the aerial capabilities of using the paragliders, was linked with the ground troops with the elite forces, with the logistical networks to transport the hostages back to Gaza and to send the attacks in waves with internal operational security.

“This was a qualitative leap forward in Hamas’s fighting doctrine. And it could have only been learned and developed through assistance from Iran, broadly, and more specifically, its proxies and its arms in the region such as Hizballah and the IRGC,” he added.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran’s support for proxies and its involvement in the Syrian civil war now leaves it with a significant number of experienced fighters at the ready for future conflicts.

Alkhatib notes that Iran supported hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite militias and fighters in Iraq and Syria, both to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and to combat the Islamic State (IS) extremist group alongside Syrian and Iraqi government forces.

“Now that both have been largely defeated, IS and the Syrian rebels, Iran was left with these powerful, battle-hardened, well-trained, well-organized militias that had nothing to do,” Alkhatib said. “And so, they have been recycled and repurposed by the IRGC to further bolster the so-called axis of resistance, and to be used in a potential fight with Israel and the United States.”