On 8 April 2021, the Bussola Institute, in partnership with the Atlantic Council, hosted a webinar addressing Iran’s regional policies in relation to small arms and illicit weapons. These policies are widely considered to be the product of a number of competing priorities centred around the ideology of Iran’s Islamic revolution and the perception of threats to the regime from external interests. Iran supports and supplies a range of armed non-state actors as part of its foreign policy objectives. The extent and impact of the security threats have been established in the recently released report by the Atlantic Council, A Guide to Illicit Iranian Weapon Transfers: The Bahrain File, authored by Tim Michetti. The report highlights the necessity of developing transparent monitoring systems in the Gulf region for stopping illicit weapons transfers. This webinar examined what actions could be taken to support regional and international measures to address the threats posed by illicit weapons transfers in the Gulf. As the US administration considers re-joining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a range of confi¬dence-building measures will be necessary in the pursuit of regional cohesion. This webinar explored how the EU can work with Gulf states in support of effective security measures for the region.



Bussola Institute


August 3, 2021





Iran, Armed Non-state Actors and Small Arms A key dimension of Iran’s foreign policy is the support of armed non-state actors across the Gulf, Middle East, and the wider world. With this backing, the provision of weaponry, including small arms and light weapons, components, and ammunition is commonplace (hereafter, the term small arms will be used to cover the full range of materiel in question). Support for armed non-state actors is morally and politically problematic and often runs contrary to international legal obligations related to responsibility in armed conflicts. Furthermore, the 2030 Agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 16.1) seeks to significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates and this includes the impact of small arms. The supply of small arms to armed non-state actors has a destabilising impact on security in the Gulf region, impeding e orts to realise sustainable peace and security. Iran makes widespread use of armed non-state actors for diverse foreign policy and security objectives. It is currently backing various Iraqi militias for the purpose of expanding Iranian influence within Iraq. These militias are typically well-organised military units and have a significant impact on the political situation in Iraq. A number of the Iranian-backed militias are suspected of involvement in arbitrary killings and criminal activities. Iran’s support for Hezbollah is widely known and Hezbollah’s involvement in conflict zones around Lebanon and further a¬field has also been well documented. Hezbollah is also known to be widely involved in terrorist acts and violent criminal activity around the world, including in the European Union. Iran saw an opportunity to extend its support to Ansar Allah in Yemen as part of Iran’s objective to create instability in the wider Gulf region. This support has varied over time, initially involving small arms and escalating to the provision of material for short-range ballistic missiles. Iran’s ongoing funding and assistance to armed non-state actors is a point of debate and disagreement regarding responses and responsibility.

As some of the groups that Iran supports are also involved in acts of social and economic governance, analysts tend to excuse the involvement of Iran in supporting these groups as they engage in armed conflict or criminal activities. Hezbollah and Ansar Allah are the more prominent examples of this, and illicit weapons found in Bahrain have been similar to and part of the same trafficking networks used by these groups. Hezbollah has been able to build a global transnational criminal network through its Iranian support, as well as being an active participant in the Syrian conflict. Ansar Allah continues to frustrate attempts at bringing peace to Yemen as Iran’s backing, including the provision of materiel and technical support, allows the group to continue its armed campaign. There is a tendency to marginalise the relevance of Iran’s support for armed non-state actors as it is seen as a secondary matter in comparison to the attention given to global diplomacy seeking to regulate Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. The report published by the Atlantic Council, A Guide to Illicit Iranian Weapon Transfers: The Bahrain File, provides essential evidence on the extent of Iran’s role in supporting armed non-state actors through illicit weapons transfers. While current attention remains focused on Iran’s nuclear situation, the continued support by Iran for armed non-state actors is arguably a more dangerous situation for regional and global security. Iran’s supply of arms and related items is often done through illicit channels which is an illegitimate activity in any legal system. Equipping armed non-state actors that then carry out attacks contrary to international humanitarian law raises issues about state responsibility in the conflict. As Hezbollah and Ansar Allah have been documented as being responsible for terrorist activity, Iran’s supply of small arms to these groups raises issues of state responsibility. The Bahrain File exposes the extent of Iran’s activities and their impact on the GCC states. To address Iran’s activities concerning the illicit trafficking of small arms, it is imperative to ensure the development of a regional system for regulating the manufacture, import/export, and distribution of small arms. For states committed to multilateralism in the pursuit of peace and security, cooperation through such a regional framework brings obvious benefits. For the GCC states, given the conflicts surrounding their region and the negative impact of small arms entering their territories, a regional framework to limit Iran’s activities in this space would be a significant contribution to sustainable peace and well-being in the region.

Learn more in the PDF of the report on this page.