HE was a slight man, serious in demeanour and dressed in the familiar all-black ­uniform of the Shia militias. It was only when two US military helicopters passed high overhead that his mood lightened, albeit with a touch of black humour.

“The Americans,” he said, pointing skywards with a smile, “perhaps they are coming for us here.” It was three years ago now while making a documentary film in Iraq that I met Haji Abu Turab Al Hilali, deputy ­commander of Hashd al-Sha’bi in ­Nineveh Governate north west of the Iraqi city of ­Mosul.

Sometimes otherwise known as the Popular Mobilisation Units or PMU, Hashd al-Sha’bi emerged back in 2014 in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

It was then that the Iranian-Iraqi ­scholar, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa against IS bringing into being a new predominately Shia militia umbrella organisation, Hashd al-Sha’bi, to help fight against the Sunni jihadist group.

Although created in Iraq and ­comprised of myriad component militias, many ­within the PMU plead allegiance to Iran and today the PMU are viewed by most Middle East watchers as a proxy of the predominately Shia republic.

Though it might not be a fully accurate description of the PMU’s role, there’s no doubt of its strong connections to Iran, something I was reminded of that day three years ago in Iraq as I arrived at the headquarters of Al Hilali’s unit close to the village of Badoush.

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Driving up past the main gate, a long avenue was lined with ­photographs of 42 PMU ­martyrs or “shahid”, who lost their lives fighting IS in the area. Dotted around too were giant posters of Iran’s most ­powerful military commander, ­General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic ­Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the senior commander of the PMU – both of whom were assassinated in a US drone strike in 2020.

It was earlier this month on January 3 in Iran’s south-eastern city of Kerman that two suicide bombers killed almost 100 Iranians who had gathered to mark the anniversary of the US’s ­assassination of Soleimani. While IS claimed ­responsibility for last month’s ­bombing – outwardly at least – Iran’s leadership ­displayed no doubts over the ­perpetrators, with Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi flatly accusing Israel.

Whoever was responsible, the ­bombing was just the latest in a series of hostile acts over the past weeks directed at Iranians as well as senior leaders of the republic’s proxies of which the PMU is only one.

Just yesterday, those hostile acts had another uptick following reports from the Syrian capital Damascus that four ­Iranian IRGC officials were killed in an alleged ­Israeli airstrike. According to sources in the regional pro-Syria alliance, a multi-storey building used by Iranian ­advisers supporting Syria’s government was ­entirely flattened.

If confirmed, it will be the second ­Israeli strike in Syria targeting Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders and personnel following one at the end of ­December.

Other strikes too against Iran’s ­allies followed, including one that killed Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s deputy political ­leader, in southern Beirut – a stronghold of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militant movement that is Iran’s most powerful proxy.

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All of these attacks in turn have ­compelled Iran to respond with attacks of its own across the Middle East and wider region.

In a span of a few days, the IRGC has unleashed a barrage of missiles and drones on targets across three neighbouring countries: Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan.

Iran too has increasingly mobilised what some in the West have dubbed ­Tehran’s so-called Axis of Resistance – which includes militant groups in ­Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – to lead the military response, launching ­missile, drone and rocket attacks against ­Israel, US forces in the region and global ­shipping in the Red Sea.

All this escalation, of coursem comes in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel which in turn triggered the war on Gaza which this weekend entered its 107th day.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ­Netanyahu sees it, Iran lies squarely ­behind the turmoil in the region.

“Iran is the head of the octopus and you see its tentacles all around from the Houthis to Hezbollah to Hamas,” warned Netanyahu these past few days, referring to its proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza.

Some analysts would agree with the Israeli leader’s assessment, insisting that Iran remains the overriding ­singular ­entity bearing responsibility for the ­wider escalation of the conflict rippling out from the war in Gaza. For that ­reason, they argue that dealing with Iran’s ­proxies is all well and good but ultimately it’s the regime behind the Islamic republic itself that needs to be confronted.

“Tehran has meticulously cultivated a decades-long legacy of establishing and sustaining terrorist proxies in the region. And Hamas’s attacks on southern Israel on October 7, 2023, which triggered the current conflict, is intricately ­connected to this strategic framework,” insisted Chuck Wald a retired US Air Force ­general and former deputy commander of US European Command.

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Using a similar metaphor to ­Netanyahu, Wald writing in Politico magazine ­recently, described Tehran as the “head of the snake”, and this is where efforts to resolve the current crisis in the Middle East should be focused he said.

Wald went on to make the case that alongside sanctions and diplomatic ­pressure, the US and its allies should “bolster opposition movements dedicated to undermining Tehran”.

To that end, he points to the pro-democracy and plethora of other groups that challenge the regime, though what Wald is ultimately advocating for here is regime change with all the attendant dangers that process would bring about.

Certainly, there is an argument that Iran’s lashing out perhaps derives as much from a sense of insecurity within the regime as an overt attempt to openly attack its enemies of which Israel and the US top the list.

Some observers even go as far as to ­suggest that Iran might not be ­operating from the position of authority that it would like Israel and the West to believe it is.

“Iran hasn’t been the brilliant mastermind some perceive that is operating with a clear strategy, concrete objectives and clever manoeuvring,” says Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at Crisis Group. “A lot of its actions seem reactive, scrambling, short-sighted and impetuous.”

Speaking to the Financial Times this weekend, Vaez is cited as saying: “Contrary to what Iranian leaders say …the strikes against commanders in the guards, Hezbollah and the Iraqi militia have diminished Iran’s efforts to project regional deterrence through the axis and put it on the back foot”.

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Iran’s leaders are doubtless very well aware of their regime’s vulnerability both internally and externally. They know too that purely in terms of conventional ­weapons capability, both Israel and the US totally outgun the republic and for that reason and despite Israel’s targeting of their personnel and allies within the axis, the use of proxies is the best and “safest” – albeit with obvious dangers – way of flexing its political muscle across the Middle East and beyond.

Sina Toossi, a senior non-resident ­fellow at the Center for International Policy and an expert on US-Iran relations also ­believes that Iran’s recent missile strikes “cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather as a part of the deepening regional rivalry between Israel and the so-called axis of ­resistance led by Iran and its allies”.

He points to the IRGC’s recent strikes on Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan which it claims hit targets linked to ­Israeli spy agency Mossad and that they were part of the retaliation for Sayyed Razi ­Mousavi, the IRGC commander who was killed by an Israeli strike in Syria at the end of December.

Toossi believes that Iran is “field testing” its weapons and showing off its prowess with its recent missile strike across the region.

“Iran fired 24 missiles from three different ­regions within its borders to hit targets in Syria and Iraq. One of the missiles used in the strikes was the Kheibar Shekan (or the ‘fortress destroyer), which has a range of 900 miles and had never been used,” he explained in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.

“This missile is widely regarded as ­[being] designed [to] target Israel, and its use in the strike on the alleged IS-linked ­targets in Syria’s Idlib province can be seen as a major field test aimed at ­showing the weapon’s precision, power, and range to Israel and the United States,” he went on to add.

Toossi’s assessment chimes with the claim of Iranian hard-line politician ­Hamid-Reza Taraghi who boasted ­recently that the post-October hostilities in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel have provided a “good military drill” for the Axis.

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But it was Iran’s missile and drone strikes against Pakistan last week that had analysts briefly puzzled and rushing to examine where this latest flashpoint fits in with ongoing conflicts involving Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In a series of tit-for-tat attacks, first Iran then Pakistan in retaliation said they were apparently targeting hideouts of armed non-state actors – Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan, and the Balochistan Liberation Army and the Balochistan Liberation Front in Iran – that each country accuses the other of harbouring.

Iran’s target inside Pakistan was the ethnic Baloch and Sunni group known as Jaish al-Adl, meaning Army of Justice, which surfaced around 2012.

It purports to fight for better ­living ­conditions in the south-eastern ­Sistan and Baluchestan province, which is Iran’s most impoverished and the ­long-standing scene of border tensions.

“The group has taken shelter in some parts of Pakistan’s Balochistan ­province. We’ve talked with Pakistani officials ­several times on this ­matter,” Iran’s ­foreign minister Hossein ­Amir-Abdollahian said last Tuesday from the Swiss city of Davos.

While Pakistan and Iran have ­already agreed to de-escalate tensions, the ­ episode reveals a lack of trust between the neighbours that will continue to plague relations even after the missiles and ­accusations have subsided.

But the motive behind Iran’s ­unprovoked attack – beyond its claim of ­targeting Jaish al-Adl – especially at this volatile time across the wider ­region ­remains something of a mystery to some analysts.

“The Iranian calculus is rather ­complex. Perhaps Iran overplayed its hand. They thought Pakistan would absorb the strike and would show restraint, or at most, a ­verbal protest,” Islamabad-based expert on security issues Syed Rifaat Hussain told broadcaster Al Jazeera.

This seems to be the consensus among many analysts who say that, put simply, Iran “overreached” in its apparent need to demonstrate strength.

One of the biggest concerns among many diplomats and analysts is that should Iran’s use of proxies, missile and drone attacks fail to provide the ­leverage it seeks, it could up the ante with the US by reinvigorating its nuclear ­programme.

Before the war in Gaza, there at least were small signs that the West and Iran were beginning diplomatically to look again at the thorny issue of Tehran’s ­nuclear ambitions.

But last December, a report by the ­International Atomic Energy Agency said Tehran had increased its rate of ­production of uranium enriched up to 60% purity — close to weapons-grade — to levels reported in the first half of 2023. As Ali Vaez at Crisis Group told the ­Financial Times this weekend, echoing the concerns of others: “I’m afraid Iran’s ­nuclear calculus could change – and in very problematic ways”.

Whether all this recent uptick in Iran’s activity through direct strikes and ­proxies signals that Tehran may have ­decided to prioritise a more forceful ­national ­security strategy over its ­diplomatic ties remains to be seen.

Many still maintain that the last thing Iran wants is a full-blown conflict with ­Israel and its Western backers. But if that is indeed the case then the Islamic ­republic is playing a dangerous game in the extent to which it is bringing what up until now has been its shadow war, out into the open.

Looking back to that moment three years ago when US helicopters passed overhead in Iraq and Haji Abu Turab Al Hilali, deputy ­commander of Hashd al-Sha’bi jibed about the Americans ­“coming for us” suddenly doesn’t feel as funny as it did back then when to all intents and purposes, the PMU and the Americans had at least a common enemy in IS.

Pledging allegiance to Iran – as many within the PMU do alongside other ­proxies willing and able to do Tehran’s bidding – has taken on a whole new uneasy feel these past months.