The dominant concern arising from Iran’s militarist actions in the Middle East is the instability they cause and their potential to incite sectarian divisions and foment retributions. The question being posed then is how to maintain relative stability in a highly flammable region where Iran’s destabilizing extraterritorial actions (IDEAs) are likely to spark further conflict? The answer would appear to arise in consciously establishing and maintaining what could be referred to as “moral bridgeheads”. The just war tradition (JWT) can help with that task.

Controlling bridgeheads constitutes a key strategic position during war, and they were critical during the Iran-Iraq War when much of the conflict occurred over the Shatt al-Arab. When it comes to moral considerations, establishing a “moral bridgehead” defends against losing ground to injustice. Moral bridgeheads represent strategic and tactical approaches to conflict settings based on principles of JWT. It is a figure of speech that conceptualizes a response to the very real risk of losing ground to an enemy in asymmetrical engagements in which gaining the support of indigenous populations is as important as gaining physical ground. Under certain circumstances, moral bridgeheads can be equated to “soft power”, depending on the definition of soft power.

Iran’s current course requires powers like the United States to maintain moral bridgeheads against it. After the Iran-Iraq War, Iran became further radicalized and militarist while pursuing nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, IDEAs have been implemented not merely to defend the country’s borders but also to counteract internal political struggles. Iran must therefore export its revolutionary ideology in order to salvage and consolidate its own Islamic revolution from within.

What may appear to be merely a Middle Eastern regional crisis caused by IDEAs is actually a more complex global crisis due to Iran’s relations with North Korea. Going back to the Iran-Iraq War, North Korea served as a key supplier of arms and military support to Iran. Today their cooperation helps Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which cannot be ignored when considering how Iran’s policies destabilize the Middle East.

The question then is how should the United States reckon with IDEAs while creating moral bridgeheads?

It is safe to say that there is no outstanding jus ad bellum (the JWT criteria for when a legitimate actor may go to war) case for direct war against Iran, yet. Jus ad bellum on the grounds of self-defence or United Nations authorization has not been established. However, there are significant grounds to suspect Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps—Quds Force (IRGC-QF)—currently supports state (Syria’s Assad Regime) and non-state (Hezbollah) terrorism in the Middle East. Counter-terrorism (CT) measures are therefore warranted. But what CT measures are justified?

In its involvement in Syria and Iraq, Iran appears careful to avoid direct association between its support of terrorism and specific cases of mass killings of civilians, which would further weaken Iran’s claim to moral bridgeheads in the region. And yet, as was the case in the Iran-Iraq War, Iran may be supporting tactics similar to a “war of cities”. The popular mobilization units (PMUs) in Iraq are supported by Iran’s IRGC-QF and have positioned themselves to become the liberators of key Iraqi cities in the fight against Daesh (Islamic State or ISIS). The threat of ethnic cleansing (i.e. terrorism) by these PMUs is high. And it should be recalled that confronting IDEAs is conditioned by the broader war on terror, the war on Daesh and al-Qaeda.

If we do not engage Iran directly in war, it would seem counter-productive to talk about jus in bello (the JWT principles for how one fights in war). However, even when limited to confronting terrorism directly and state sponsors of terrorism indirectly, jus in bello principles provide a useful framework. Targeting terrorists for “prosecution” through targeted killing is only justified so long as such actions effectively differentiate between combatants and non-combatants, which is part of the jus in bello principle of discrimination. Failing to discriminate would be paramount to failing to establish a moral bridgehead.

True, this is a moral bridgehead that is at times extremely challenging to hold, due to issues of effective intelligence and terrorists’ use of human shields. But the challenges of holding a bridgehead during war do not reduce in any way the strategic value of holding that bridgehead.

While targeted killing of terrorists may apply to confronting Daesh and al-Qaeda, it may not apply to confronting IDEAs. But jus ad vim (just use of force-short-of-war) provides alternatives. S. Brandt Ford explores this concept in the Routledge Handbook of Ethics of War. According to him, jus ad vim allows for a “hybrid ethical framework”[1] for dealing with conflicts outside the context of direct war between states. Sanctions would fall under the concept of jus ad vim, and I would argue that targeted sanctions could be a forceful and effective tool to alter an actor’s sponsorship of terror.

Given the subtle nature of Iran’s support of terrorism in the Middle East and the fact that it does not present an imminent threat from a nuclear stand point yet, the only justifiable approach to confronting and containing IDEAs—for the foreseeable future—is through jus ad vim. Following this concept could help powers like the United States maintain moral bridgeheads and provide them with soft power leverage in the region against Iran. A key component of jus ad vim, in the case of Iran, should be the use of targeted sanctions against IRGC-QF.

If countries like the United States wish to return the lost “baggage” of the Iran-Iraq War and make amends for the errors made following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s version of Ba’athism, engaging IDEAs will require establishing moral bridgeheads based on JWT while keeping justice in mind. So long as Iran does not project an ugly head and only reveals soiled hands, any action beyond jus ad vim would not be consistent with maintaining a moral bridgehead.

Jean Pierre Chabot is a principal analyst at Conscious Consensus Services (CCS).

Photo Credit: IRGC Ground Force Commandos training. By Hossein Zohrevand for Tasnim News, via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Ford, S. B. (2013). Jus Ad Vim and the Just Use of Lethal Force-Short-of-War. In Allhoff, F. et al, Routledge Handbook of Ethics and War: Just war theory in the twenty-first century (pp. 63-75). New York: Routledge.