Veiled impunity: Iran's use of non-state armed groups.

Author:Petty, Keith A.

The only strength of Iran is the weakness of the international community vis-a-vis Iran.

--Shimon Peres (1)


    In December of 2006, thousands of Hezbollah supporters crowded the streets of Beirut, angrily demanding that Prime Minister Siniora's government step down. This followed several months after armed members of Hezbollah crossed the Lebanese border into Israel and murdered three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, precipitating the July War of 2006. In Iraq, Shi'a death squads--including members of Muqtada al-Sadr's militia--roam the streets of Baghdad, murdering Sunni Arabs and suspected collaborators of the U.S. led coalition. They, along with well placed Sadr supporters in the Iraqi government, seek to change the shape of the political landscape in Iraq, guaranteeing Shi'a dominance. In the Gaza Strip in June 2006, members of Hamas crossed underground into Israel, killed two Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped a third. Only six months prior to this, Hamas won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. Each of these groups--Hezbollah, Mahdi's Army, and Hamas--is a non-state armed group that is financially, politically, and ideologically supported by Iran. As such, their actions may be attributed to Iran.

    Iranian support of non-state armed groups is not limited to the three groups listed above. In fact, Iran provides support to groups all over the world in what has become a cornerstone of its foreign policy. By supporting these groups, Iran seeks to accomplish multiple objectives, including: increasing Iranian influence in the Middle East while limiting Sunni Arab influence, destroying Israel, and limiting or eliminating U.S. influence in the region.

    The level of sophistication of Iran's approach to indirect aggression is particularly noteworthy. Rather than using their own armed forces and engaging in open hostilities with adversaries, Iran cultivates non-state armed groups within the territory of, or directly adjacent to, other States. These non-state armed groups develop parallel military and political branches to rival the target State they seek to destabilize or overthrow. Iranian-backed armed groups are not limited, as are other State sponsored groups, to the blunt use of force to achieve its strategic objectives.

    Surprisingly, Iran's use of non-state armed groups as an extension of its foreign policy has not met significant deterrence. Many still believe that aggression can only be committed when a State openly attacks another State with military force, a misperception of jus ad bellum law. This paper suggests a closer analysis of what constitutes unlawful aggression under international law. Specifically, the issue is whether State support of non-state armed groups as a means of threatening the territorial integrity or political independence of another State constitutes unlawful aggression.

    Several aspects of Iran's involvement with non-state armed groups must be discussed before reaching these determinations. The general framework of these groups and a detailed discussion of Iran's support to Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents, and Harms are found in Section n. Iran's strategic objectives as well as its sophisticated use of armed groups are discussed in Section III. Whether Iran's use of non-state armed groups against target States amounts to aggression is analyzed in Section IV. The final section, Section V, provides recommendations and conclusions for policy and law-makers interested in deterring Iran's use of armed groups as a means of foreign policy.


    Iran is responsible, financially and materially, for a new Shi'a strength in the Middle East due largely to its support of non-state armed groups. (2) Jordan's King Abdullah voiced concern over Iran's new "crescent" of influence running from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. (3) This is a sentiment shared by many Arab leaders, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. (4)

    Non-state armed groups can be categorized into four different groups: insurgents, terrorists, militias, and criminal organizations. (5) The emergence of the increased capabilities of armed groups to attack States in the post-Cold War era had a powerful impact on the State system. (6) Similarly, Iran's use of these groups introduces a new threat within that paradigm. Iran exploits four of the basic characteristics of non-state armed groups to achieve its strategic goals. These characteristics include: challenging the legitimacy of the State, using force as a primary instrument, maintaining local and global capabilities, and failing to recognize democratic principles and the rule of law. (7) Iran, however, changes this dynamic by using armed groups to undermine State legitimacy through methods other than the open use of force.

    Historically, armed groups have used force as their primary method of threatening a State's political independence. In 1977, the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council condemned the unlawful aggression committed by mercenaries against the Republic of Benin. (8) While direct attacks against a State are sometimes committed, these groups tend to employ indirect and prolonged violence to exert their influence. This is the case in Colombia, Lebanon, and the Philippines. (9)

    Some non-state armed groups attempt to legitimize their efforts by establishing a political wing and by providing public services. This can result in a State within a State, as was the case of the Maoist Rebels in Nepal. (10) Of these attempts at legitimacy, one expert comments:

    It is true that some armed groups maintain political and paramilitary wings and that the former may, for tactical reasons, eschew violence. Still, the use of force is a critical instrument for these organizations, regardless of how they may seek to mask that fact, Violence is used instrumentally to achieve political and/or other objectives. (11) In his article, "Era of Armed Groups," Richard H. Schultz discusses six defining aspects of armed groups. They are: leadership, rank and file membership, organizational structure and functions, an ideology or political code of beliefs and objectives, strategy and tactics, and links with other non-state and State actors. (12) The following Section focuses on the last of these, namely, Iran's ties to non-state armed groups.

    1. Hezbollah, Iraqi Insurgents, & Hamas

      Typically, non-state armed groups are used by States to supplement regular armed forces. Iran, however, uses non-state armed groups as a central component of its foreign policy. (13) By providing these groups with a combination of political, ideological, financial, and military backing, Iran exercises a unique sophistication in threatening the political independence of States. Rather than using direct force--and not as innocuous as winning elections--these groups undermine the legitimacy of recognized governments through their actions. (14)

      Some of the groups that Iran supports include: the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic Courts in Somalia, and several insurgent groups in Iraq such as the Badr Organization and Mahdi's Army. For the purpose of brevity, this paper will limit its focus to Hezbollah, Mahdi's Army and the Badr Organization in Iraq, and Hamas.

    2. Hezbollah: A Threat to International Law & Politics

      The most prominent non-state armed group backed by Iran is the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization, designated by the U.S. Department of State as a foreign terrorist organization. (15) But to categorize Hezbollah merely as an organization that commits acts of terrorism is to overlook its dual threat to regional stability--the military and political aspects of the organization. (16) Members of Hezbollah's political wing hold seats in the Lebanese parliament and serve in Prime Minister Siniora's cabinet. The organization also maintains social institutions and provides basic services for southern Lebanon. In fact, it is a parallel political and military organization to Lebanon's duly elected government. (17)

      Hezbollah was Iran's first use of a non-state armed group to achieve its strategic goals. (18) Closely following the aftermath of Iran's revolution several years before, Hezbollah was created in 1982 as a result of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. (19) Its ideology consisted of protecting the Lebanese Shi'a population from Israeli occupation and expanding Iran's brand of Shi'a extremism.

      During the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah carded out attacks against Israeli, Western, and other targets suggesting Iranian involvement. These attacks include: the 1983 suicide bombings of French Headquarters and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 58 French soldiers and 241 Marines; the 1984 hijacking of an Air France passenger jet; and the 1988 bombing near Saudi Arabian Airlines offices in Kuwait City--likely a result of Saudi Arabia's severance of diplomatic ties with Iran just weeks before. (20)

      Following the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1989, Hezbollah was permitted to keep its arms under the Taif Accord in order to continue fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. (21) During the 1990s, Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, developed the organization into a more effective fighting force with international reach. (22) Under his leadership, Hezbollah's network has conducted attacks or operations in Saudi Arabia, South America, Canada, Sweden, and several Asian States. (23) These attacks are closely linked to Iran. (24)

      In spite of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah retained its militant wing. (25) In fact, they stockpiled thousands of medium and long range rockets and missiles, and continued lending operational support to the Palestinian intifada. (26) Hezbollah claims it cannot disarm since it is responsible for preventing further attacks by Israel. (27)

      Today, the...

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