MANPADS for Hezbollah?

In the August 9th edition of Jane’s Defense Weekly, Deputy Editor Robin Hughes reveals alleged plans by Iran to supply Hezbollah with “a steady supply of weapons systems,” including Chinese QW-1 and its own Mithaq (or Misagh) man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). The article cites unnamed western diplomats, who also claim that Iran agreed to provide, “at a later date,” several different types of Russian missiles, including the sophisticated SA-16.

Assuming the information is accurate, the missile transfers are significant for several reasons. First, the missiles are a potential threat not only to Israeli military aircraft but also commercial airliners worldwide. Hezbollah has a long history of terrorist attacks against civilian targets. According to Georgetown Professor Daniel Byman, the organization “was perhaps the world’s most active terrorist organization,” and had a hand in several high profile attacks, including the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985 and the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Its involvement in such acts has waned in recent years, but there is no guarantee that it won’t resume these activities, or retransfer the missiles to terrorists with immediate designs on commercial airliners.

Secondly, the transfers violate a nascent but critically important international norm against the transfer of MANPADS to non-state actors, which is codified in resolutions, declarations and agreements adopted by members of several multilateral forums. Some of these agreements explicitly ban the transfer of MANPADS to non-state actors, while others do so indirectly by limiting such transfers to “foreign governments or to agents specifically authorised to act on behalf of a government after presentation of an official EUC certified by the Government of the receiving country.”

The ban is important because missiles transferred to non-state actors are particularly vulnerable to misuse and diversion, as the CIA discovered after dozens, possibly hundreds, of the Stingers it gave to Afghan rebels in the 1980’s ended up in the arsenals of terrorists, insurgents and hostile governments.

Iran is not a member of any of the above-mentioned forums and therefore is not bound by their agreements.* But even if it were, ensuring that Tehran complied with them would be difficult. As the Government Accountability Office has pointed out, these forums lack “mechanisms to monitor or measure members’ implementation” and have “no explicit tools to enforce members’ compliance with their commitments.” In other words, it is up to individual member states to monitor compliance and punish violations.

For these reasons, the onus is on responsible members of the international community, and particularly the countries that stock Iran’s arsenals, to enforce the ban. If they haven’t done so already, these countries should launch an immediate and thorough investigation into the alleged transfers. If Tehran did provide MANPADS to Hezbollah, its trading partners should take immediate steps to discourage similar transfers, including banning future arms sales until Iranian stewardship of its MANPADS meets international standards.

*Iran is a member (or Contracting State) of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the UN General Assembly, both of which have passed resolutions on MANPADS control, but the resolutions are weak, merely “encouraging” or “urging” member states to ban transfers to non-state actors or comply with MANPADS control agreements negotationed in other forums.

For more information, see

ASMP Issue Brief #1: MANPADS Proliferation

Iran Answers Hizbullah Call for SAM Systems, Jane’s Defense Weekly

Bid to check arms flow to Hezbollah, Los Angeles Times

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