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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Behrouz Mehri/Getty Staff, Anadolu Agency/Getty Contributor, Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Contributor

Iran has built up a vast network of proxies through which it wields influence across the Middle East, and which could take action to stoke tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Why it matters: The political parties and militias that are influenced by and act on behalf of Iran likely pose a more direct threat to U.S. targets than Iran itself, the Washington Post writes.

  • Iran could direct the proxy groups to strike American military assets in areas where Iran has strong influence, such as with Hezbollah in Lebanon, The New York Times notes.

Worth noting: Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike, was the mastermind behind Iran's proxy network, according to the Middle East Institute.

Iranian proxies in the Middle East:

Iraqi militias:

  • How it started: Iran has since the 1980s supported Shiite militias that opposed Saddam Hussein's Sunni government, the Post notes.
  • Iran's influence and political power grew following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and continued to grow as the same militias took on ISIS, AP reports.
  • Who's in charge: The Popular Mobilization Forces is an umbrella group for numerous Iranian-backed militias, and was run by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed alongside Soleimani in the U.S. drone strike, AP notes.
  • Iraqi protesters have recently demonstrated against Iranian influence in the country.

Hezbollah in Lebanon:

  • How it started: Hezbollah is Iran's earliest and most successful proxy, per the Post. The Shiite paramilitary group formed in the early 1980s during the Lebanese civil war and later found success as a political party. The U.S. has said Hezbollah receives financial support from Iran, but the group consistently denies the claim.
  • Who's in charge: Hassan Nasrallah is Hezbollah's current secretary-general.
  • Hezbollah pledged loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini, who took power in Iran following the 1979 revolution, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
    • Nasrallah promised Hezbollah would begin targeting U.S. forces following the killing of Soleimani, Al Jazeera reports.

Houthis in Yemen:

  • How it started: The Houthi Shiite rebel group rose to international prominence in 2015, during the Yemeni civil war, nearly 25 years after its founding, according to the Guardian.
  • Who is in charge: Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi founded the group, but was killed in a 2004 rebellion against Saudi Arabia. His brother, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, is the current leader.
  • Iran began to support the Houthis more actively after the start to the Yemeni civil war, the Post writes. The Houthis are financially and militarily independent of Iran, per the Post.
  • Flashback: Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for rockets that hit a Saudi oil facility in September 2019, but the U.S. government blamed Iran for the strike.

Iran's power in Syria:

  • Iran has mobilized some of its proxy groups, most notably Hezbollah, to fight in Syria's civil war on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad — one of Iran's few Arab allies.
    • Iran has sent Iraqi militias and Shiites from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in the Syrian civil war, Bloomberg reports.

The U.S. on Iran's proxies: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran in mid-December that using its proxies to harm Americans would result in a “decisive U.S. response," Military Times reports.

  • Pompeo has also claimed Iran is working with militants in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 2 mins ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

2 hours ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.

3 hours ago - World

UAE asks U.S. to reinstate Houthi terrorist designation after attack

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (left) listens to United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a joint news conference at the State Department iin October. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a phone call Monday to re-designate the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, a senior Emirati official told Axios.

Why it matters: Less than a month after he assumed office, President Biden rolled back the Trump administration’s decision to make the designation. He said it hampered humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Since then, the Houthis have escalated their attacks against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region — including an attack Monday in Abu Dhabi.