What have Iran and its proxy groups been up to?
Drone and rocket attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria, a drone attack on a commercial ship in the Gulf of Oman, illegal weapons transfers to a terrorist group in Lebanon, illegal weapons transfers to Yemen, firing ballistic missiles at Iraq. The list is long.
However, none of these incidents have led Iran to … be summoned to international courts or receive any kind of real condemnation.
It is a unique aspect of Iran and its proxies that attacks in any country in the Middle East and trafficking arms across the region appear to receive total impunity. This is unique because other countries that have sent weapons to conflicts in the region have been called out.
The UAE, for instance, is currently in the crosshairs of at least one recent article at Foreign Policy slamming the US for not reining in Abu Dhabi; Turkey is accused of a role in Libya; Russia is routinely critiqued for its role in Syria, Libya and other conflicts; Saudi Arabia has gotten slammed for its campaign in Yemen.
Iran’s impunity appears to be large in this respect. No other country in the region has been accused of trafficking drone technology and having proxy militias use the drones to attack third parties.
Other countries have used armed drones, such as Turkey, but their methods are more direct than Iran’s. That doesn’t necessarily make Turkey’s drone war in Iraq and Syria any better, but it makes it easier to trace.
Iran has pursued a strategy of empowering local militias to hollow out their respective states.
Iran, in comparison, has pursued a strategy of empowering local militias, arming them with weapons and having them hollow out their respective states to the point that the armed paramilitary becomes the country itself, taking over its military and guiding its foreign policy.
This is what Kataib Hezbollah and similar groups have done in Iraq. They sent forces to Syria, conducted drone and rocket attacks on US forces and threatened Saudi Arabia. These forces stockpile ballistic missiles, drones and other weapons and operate completely outside of state control, killing academics and threatening politicians who oppose them.
The situation is the same in Lebanon. Hezbollah was supposed to disband, but instead, it has become more powerful than Lebanon’s army. It supplanted the role of Lebanon’s government and armed forces, leading Lebanon to send forces to Syria and threaten Israel.
This terrorist group traffics weapons across Lebanon’s border. There are very few countries in the world that have an armed group that has both seats in parliament and carries out extrajudicial killings and moves weapons across its border.
Iran has set its sights precisely on countries like these.
In Yemen, the same story has played out. Iran empowered the Houthi rebels and used them to attack Saudi Arabia and threaten shipping containers. They have also threatened the UAE and Israel.
The Houthis have become increasingly brazen in these attacks, and their missiles and drones have long ranges thanks to Iranian support. This is not just a rebellion; it has become a major regional issue, as the Houthis now form part of the Iranian network alongside Hezbollah and proxy groups in Iraq. Here, again, this group has supplanted the government of Yemen to the extent that Iran refers to the Houthis as Yemen’s government.
Beyond the fact that Iran arms rebel groups in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and tries to have them act as both parliamentarians and extrajudicial militias, it has also supplied their drones to attack third parties.
US forces, for instance, are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Ostensibly, the Iraqi government should secure the bases where US forces operate facilities. However, pro-Iranian groups in parliament who have armed mafia-like militias also fire rockets at these bases.
In any other state, a mafia group firing rockets at a military base in the country would be detained. But not in Iraq. In Iraq, these groups run part of the country and are actively working to destabilize it.
The US has no choice and is left to use air-defense tactics against the rocket and drone attacks. There is no prediction that Iraq might ever detain the members of these groups. They operate above the law because they are the law.
Iran also carries out attacks on its own. In September 2019, it attacked Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq energy facility with drones and missiles. It also attacked a commercial tanker in July 2021 and has used drones in Syria to fly into Israeli airspace in February 2018 and May 2021.
Tehran fired ballistic missiles at the Asad base in Iraq in January 2020 and shot down a civilian airliner in January 2020. It also fired missiles at Kurdish dissidents in Iraq in 2018. The list goes on and on.
Iran has not received any real condemnation for any of these attacks. It is treated as if it is normal for a country to kill crews on commercial tankers or fire missiles at other countries, with no repercussions. The extraordinary thing is that Iran’s actions are no longer unique. They are part of a wider system now in the region that Iran has exported to the above-mentioned four countries.
There is no trend in which this system is being reduced. Instead, countries have come to accept this layer of illegality as a norm. Drone attacks in Syria and Iraq are not seen as unique. Attacks on shipping containers are greeted with a shrug.
Iran’s unique ability to skirt international norms is key to its destabilization of the region.
This is clear from the May and June 2019 mine attacks on ships and subsequent attacks on ships in 2021. Iran’s unique ability to skirt international norms and laws is a key part of its destabilization of the region.
Lack of accountability has emboldened it and will continue to be a feature of a conflict arc that stretches several thousand miles from Yemen via the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.