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The U.S. is demanding Iran rein in its proxy groups. Is that actually possible?

Houthi fighters stage a rally in support of the Palestinians in Gaza and against the U.S.-led airstrikes on Yemen, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 29.
Osamah Abdulrahman
Houthi fighters stage a rally in support of the Palestinians in Gaza and against the U.S.-led airstrikes on Yemen, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 29.

When the U.S. launched airstrikes over the past week in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the idea was to send a message to another country: Iran.

And the message, per the White House, is: rein in your proxy groups — groups that Iran funds, arms or otherwise supports.

This prompts questions: is it clear Iran can do that? How much control does Iran have over the so-called "Axis of Resistance"?

Norman Roule — a 34-year veteran of the CIA, and a former mission manager for Iran for the Director of National Intelligence — speaks to All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about these pressing questions.

Roule says Iran isn't actually seeking to control the proxy groups, and it's not reasonable to expect that U.S. strikes will accomplish the goal of getting Iran to rein them in.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: Understanding there is a range, understanding that the Houthis are not Hezbollah, etc., broadly speaking, how much control does Iran have over its proxies?

Norman Roule: Broadly speaking, Iran has sufficient control over its proxies to control or modulate their behavior because it controls their weaponry, their funding and it has significant political relationships with their key leaders.

Kelly: And how do we know that? I mean, when the U.S. contends that Iran is providing money and weapons and intelligence, how do they know?

Roule: Well, the evidence is significant, and it's even open information. We have literally tons of weapons made in Iran captured from boats originating in Iran or weapons that have been fired against U.S. and partner forces with made-in-Tehran nomenclature.

These weapons are not available, for the most part, anywhere else in the world. They're not available in an open market. Likewise, Iran's leaders tout their support for all of the militias. There are frequent visits by militia leaders to visit Iran's leaders, and they broadcast these meetings. And last, the militia leaders thank Iran for their support. I suppose I should also add that, periodically, there is evidence that an Iranian is present in various militia meetings.

Kelly: What about money trails? Is the CIA doing foreign asset tracking, that type of thing?

Roule: The U.S. intelligence community has a robust and generally successful capacity to follow money. But when Iran provides its cash in bags of money delivered via aircraft couriers, that's obviously much more difficult to follow. What's more easy to understand is when significant sanctions are placed on Iran, we are able to determine — and proxies complain publicly —that their budgets are reduced because of sanctions pressures on Iran.

Kelly: Characterize what kind of control Iran has. Like, does Iran control what and where these groups would target?

Roule: Well, the control will vary by group and by actor, but I think it's important to begin with an understanding that control is not what Iran seeks. Iran seeks the product of militia actions, not the process of controlling them. And Iran's limited personnel that it applies to this target abroad means that it can't be there day by day.

Your listeners may want to think of Iran as an arsonist that then subcontracts out to other arsonists it believes will be ideologically and energetically pursuing Iran's goals. And then Iran empowers them with money, political support, weaponry, training and lets them do what they do because their success is Iran's success.


Kelly: Can we make this concrete? Is there an example you can think of where Iran told one of these groups, "Hey, stop, knock it off," and they complied?

Roule: There is reporting that during the U.S. presence in Iraq, that warnings by the United States, from then-Secretary of Defense Panetta, reduced the number of attacks Iran and its personnel were making against U.S. forces in that country.

Kelly: So at the end of the day, these retaliatory strikes by the U.S. — you believe they have the potential of accomplishing the goal that has been laid out of getting Iran to rein in its proxies?

Roule: No. And I don't think that that's something that's reasonable to expect. The goals of the strikes conducted by the U.S. will certainly degrade proxy capacity. There's no question about that, and that will improve the safety of our personnel in the region.

They will, to a limited extent, disrupt proxy activity as proxies leave these areas because they don't want to be caught in the attacks. But none of these strikes touch equities important to the leadership of Iran or proxies themselves. Until that is done, you can't expect to shift proxy behavior.

Kelly: And give us a little bit of a ranking — you know, there's Hezbollah; there's the Houthis; there's Hamas; there's groups in Iraq — in terms of which are most closely allied with Tehran.

Roule: I'm not sure that's a profitable way of looking at it simply because Iran has supported Sunni as well as Shia actors, the Taliban, al-Qaida — there's no question Iran has enabled their operations, but they would have the loosest relationship with Tehran. Lebanese Hezbollah would be the closest to Tehran as a large structure. But there were certainly some elements of the Iraqi militias, of which there are a number, who would be ideologically, of varying degrees, associated with Tehran. And of course, the Houthis would be the most distant. But again, for Iran, the goal of pressure against the United States' Western partners and Israel is more important than any specific degree of ideological command and control.

Kelly: And one last question, just to focus on Hamas, which is a little bit of an outlier here as a Sunni Muslim group — Iran and these others that we're talking about are Shiite — what does that relationship look like with Iran?

Roule: Well, the relationship has been mixed. For example, during the Arab Spring, when attacks were taking place against Bashar al-Assad, the Iranians were quite unhappy with Hamas' refusal to support Assad, and that relationship cooled. But nonetheless, the relationship returned, and Iran has provided it with millions of dollars, advanced training, training in Iran and some degree of weaponry. Over the years, Iran has provided this weaponry through Red Sea weapons pipelines and reportedly through training camps in Sudan, which were shut down some years ago by U.S. diplomacy.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Kathryn Fox