Ahmadinejad and Support of Non-State Armed Groups

Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Columbia University caused quite a bit of controversy. Although his responses to questions about human rights, the absence of homosexuals in the Islamic Republic, and the need to revisit the research behind the holocaust were somewhat amusing and perhaps revealing; the questions he did not answer are particularly noteworthy.

Specifically, how does he reconcile a claim to peacefulness and also want to wipe Israel off the map? Why doesn’t he fully cooperate with the UN with respect to his nuclear facilities? And why does Iran continue to support armed groups as a cornerstone of its foreign policy?

Regarding the latter, while a great deal of attention is given to Iranian involvement in the Iraq conflict, the comprehensiveness of Iran’s support to armed groups worldwide is often overlooked. In a recently posted article, “Veiled Impunity: Iran’s Use of Non-State Armed Groups,” Keith Petty examines the legal underpinnings of Iran’s support of armed groups and the legitimate threat this policy poses (full disclosure, I’ve worked with Keith on counterterrorism issues, he’s a bright legal scholar, an Iraq veteran and previously worked on international criminal law issues at the ICTY so he knows his stuff). Keith’s article focuses primarily on Iran’s backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, and Mahdi’s Army in Iraq, and the threat these groups pose to their host States. Keith writes:

“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.”

International law supports defining Iran’s support to these groups as unlawful aggression. Mr. Petty states that there may be “an ‘effective control’ or ‘acknowledgement’ basis for imputing [the armed groups’] actions to Iran as required by the Nicaragua and Hostage cases [of the ICJ]. Further support is found in General Assembly Resolution 3314, which classifies the “sending by or on behalf of a State of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, as an act of unlawful aggression.”

In spite of these standards, Iran’s support likely will not fit classic understandings of unlawful aggression, particularly where that finding would lead to the authorization of the use of force. He goes on to recommend timely deterrence options short of armed force, and proposes a mixed-bag of policy proscriptions.

Keith sums up his multi-faceted approach stating: “It is uncertain whether Iran’s support of non-state armed groups is tantamount to aggression vis-à-vis the host States [of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Mahdi’s Army]. The need to deter Iran’s conduct, however, is clear. While coercive measures have been considered, these are unlikely to be effective. For one, the use of force seems disproportionate to Iran’s more sophisticated, clandestine operations within the target States. As mentioned above, outright armed force has not been Iran’s policy. Rather, an equally sophisticated and multi-faceted approach is required to deter Iran’s foreign policy objectives.”

Such a timely piece is definitely worth the download and is sure to be cited by many. Full text available here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1013415