Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been considered one of the actors par excellence of the gray zone — a strategy which activities lie between peace and armed conflict, including economic manipulation, influence operations, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks, among many others, with the aim of thwarting, destabilizing, weakening, and attacking an adversary.
“Its modus operandi is influenced in its entirety by this particular form of warfare […] except when waging ‘imposed wars’ such as the Iran-Iraq War and the Syrian civil war,” Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program, said in his report, Operating in the Gray Zone: Countering Iran’s Asymmetric Warfare Mode.
According to Eisenstadt, Iran found in this form of warfare a safer, less costly, and politically unpressured alternative to advance its strategic ambitions and attempt to become a dominant Middle Eastern power. The gray zone strategy, experts say, has been escalating rapidly, becoming today one of the greatest threats to world order.
Iran has used unconventional tools to penetrate and expand its influence in other regions of the world, including Latin America. Trying to avoid an armed conflict, Iran bets on psychological operations, covert actions, and even attacking its enemies, as long as they are far from its borders.
One of the main tools used is its worldwide network of embassies. Jorge Cachinero, a Spanish expert in government relations and political risks, points out in a report that through these diplomatic representations Iran “deploys complex, sophisticated, long, and strong tentacles of covert agents and quasi-military force.” Likewise, he adds that “Iran uses energy diplomacy and the benefits of its oil wealth to finance its various causes and campaigns.”
Another tool Iran employs is the use of indirect allies. As Cachinero explains, the terrorist group Hezbollah would be the clearest example of the indirect forces Iran employs to achieve its global strategic interests, including in Latin America. “None is more powerful than the terrorist organization Hezbollah — ‘the party of God,’ in its original meaning — the main actor of hybrid warfare in the world […],” Cachinero said.
Behind these indirect alliances is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iranian state armed forces charged with defending the Iranian revolutionary regime, which several countries consider a terrorist group. “The IRCG is the paramilitary enforcer of Iranian policies through third parties, as evidenced by its close ties with groups such as the aforementioned Hezbollah,” Cachinero said.
The hybrid threat
Experts adopted the term “hybrid threat” to refer to “the integration of unconventional and irregular tactics, techniques, and procedures, mixed with terrorist acts, propaganda, and connections with organized crime,” Spain’s University of Navarra explained in its report, The Hybrid Threat: Unpredictable Warfare. The objective is simply to achieve results without resorting to war, confronting societies and not armies, and its cost falls directly on the population, with military objective taking second place, the study indicates.
According to Eisenstadt, one example where Iran carried out such actions to disproportionate measures is the October 1983 Marine Barracks bombing, which forced U.S. peacekeepers out of Lebanon. Another example cited by the author is the September 2019 drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil processing facilities, which demonstrated Tehran’s ability to disrupt oil production in the region.
These actions, experts say, are carried out with indirect alliances that sometimes include local manpower to commit the attacks. In Latin America, for example, Iran has focused on gaining partners in countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Colombia to carry out its tasks through Unit 840 of the Quds Forces. Examples of this is the mysterious Venezuelan-Iranian plane, grounded in Argentina in 2022, whose pilot Gholamreza Ghasemi has known links with the Quds Force, or the 2021 attempted assassination of two Israeli businessmen in Colombia, Argentine news site Infobae reported.
Episodes such as these have alerted countries of the region to Iran’s growing influence and its hybrid threats to achieve its strategic ambitions. “Such growing access and vague motives should serve as a warning to countries in the region to be wary of new dealings with Iran and keep a close eye on its intentions,” Eisenstadt said.