For a long time, people like myself and a great, great, many others have been talking at length about the fact that the Islamic "Republic" of Iran poses a dangerous threat to the United States, both inside Iraq and worldwide. I noted nearly a year ago and continue to stand by my belief that if the United States suffers a major terrorist attack, nuclear or otherwise, Iran is almost certain to be singled out for US retaliation by virtue of the regime's decisions. Wretchard noted the grim reality of the situation and unfortunately little has occurred to change that analysis over the last year.
Yet one of the things that people continue to ask me is, if all of this is true, where is the evidence from government officials?
This series of analyses will deal specifically with the US News article as well as another published in the Los Angeles Times some time ago. I will also attempt to explain in my final analysis why Iran is a greater threat to the United States than Pakistan, a comparison that some have made in the past as a means of criticizing US Iran policy or lack thereof.
A note on sources ...
Because of the "intelligence duel" that has unfortunately emerged over the issue of pre-war Iraq intelligence in the realm of popular opinion, I recognize that many readers are going to regard this as little more than neocon propaganda. When I last discussed the Iranian threat, one individual noted all of the evidence that appeared to be emerging on the subject of Iran's ties to terrorist groups dismissed as nothing more as "round 2 of the OSP's grand plans" (for oil, power, and Israel, no doubt, the latter being where Jewish American loyalties check in but don't check out). That's unfortunate, because the kind of threat posed by Iran is one that doesn't bother to differentiate between neocons and realists except when it suits their advantages - no more than Osama bin Laden seriously considers distinguishing between red and blue staters when he considers which Americans to kill.
Fortunately, we also have the benefit of having American intelligence with respect to Iran here backed up by British and other European intelligence sources, sources that are presumably untained by the
Jews neocons and their evil plans.
As with Testing the Standard, this analysis will attempt to take the information provided by US News and try to provide additional information and/or context so that readers can better understand what's going on.
And with that, into the fire ...
In the summer of last year, Iranian intelligence agents in Tehran began planning something quite spectacular for September 11, the two-year anniversary of al Qaeda's attack on the United States, according to a classified American intelligence report. Iranian agents disbursed $20,000 to a team of assassins, the report said, to kill Paul Bremer, then the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. The information was specific: The team, said a well-placed source quoted in the intelligence document, would use a Toyota Corona taxi and a second car, driven by suicide bombers, to take out Bremer and destroy two hotels in downtown Baghdad. The source even named one of the planners, Himin Bani Shari, a high-ranking member of the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group and a known associate of Iranian intelligence agents.
Himin Bani Shari, also Romanized as Hemin Benishari, was Ansar al-Islam's top assassin and a member of the group's "Mujahideen Military Council" who went by the kuniyat of Abu Darda'a and escaped into Iran during the US attack on the Ansar enclave. That he was a VEVAK asset hasn't been disclosed to the public until now (though one wonders how well he and Abu Wael got along - more on that a little further down). His being directly involved in planning such an assassination in concert with VEVAK should be seen as a sign of just how important eliminating Bremer was to the organization - as well as just how closely intertwined Salafist groups like Ansar are with Shi'ite government agencies like VEVAK when it comes to planning attacks on US officials. Could this be a "collaborative operational relationship," one wonders?
The alleged plan was never carried out. But American officials regarded Iran's reported role, and its ability to make trouble in Iraq, as deadly serious.
Actually, the timing of the planning for the attack as well as the description of what was supposed to occur makes me wonder if it wasn't so much scrapped as it was altered. Compare the assassination attempt on Wolfowitz in October 2003 in Baghdad (the perpetrators of which included a European national) and what was supposed to happen to Bremer and a number of similarities seem to emerge.
Iran, said a separate report, issued in November 2003 by American military analysts, "will use and support proxy groups" such as Ansar al-Islam "to conduct attacks in Iraq in an attempt to further destablize the country." An assessment by the U.S. Army's V Corps, which then directed all Army activity in Iraq, agreed: "Iranian intelligence continues to prod and facilitate the infiltration of Iraq with their subversive elements while providing them support once they are in country."
That tracks with what the State Department said in their 2003 global terrorism report and fits with all of the reports we've seen of Iran providing cash, weaponry, and medical treatment to insurgent forces in Iran proper and then supporting them once they're in-country. It is also seems to be more or less common knowledge to the Iraqi people if the statements by various Iraqi bloggers and government officials are anything to consider.
Of course, this also kind of derails the idea that we're fighting a "popular resistance movement," unless one wants to explain away the fact that it's led by a Jordanian and backed by Iran's mortal enemy.
With the Pentagon's stepped-up efforts to break the back of the insurgency before Iraq's scheduled elections in late January, Iran's efforts to destabilize Iraq have received little public attention.
Sure it has, just not in the mainstream press. The blogosphere has been tracking Iran's hand in Iraq for quite some time, and the utter failure to make it a major issue in the presidential campaign is something that both candidates should be ashamed of.
But a review of thousands of pages of intelligence reports by U.S. News reveals the critical role Iran has played in aiding some elements of the anti-American insurgency after Baghdad fell--and raises important questions about whether Iran will continue to try to destabilize Iraq after elections are held.
My guess would be yes - a democratic Iraq with a Shi'ite majority that doesn't adhere to vilayet-e-faqih poses an existential threat to the Khomeinist model used by Iran. They simply can't co-exist peacefully with it - the cards are too firmly stacked against them. That's why the Iranians have been so keen to marginalize, subvert, and finally eliminate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who right now posed one of the most formidable challenges to any remnants of Iran's domestic legitimacy.
The classified intelligence reports, covering the period July 2003 through early 2004, were prepared by the CIA; the Defense Intelligence Agency; the Iraq Survey Group, the 1,400-person outfit President Bush sent to Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction; the Coalition Provisional Authority; and various military commands and units in the field, including the V Corps and the Pentagon's Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. The reports are based on information gathered from Iraqis, Iranian dissidents, and other sources inside Iraq. U.S. News also reviewed British intelligence assessments of the postwar phase in Iraq.
Wow. Time to see just how far the tendrils of the neocon conspiracy extend, I guess. And before anybody starts shrieking about defectors because of the situation with the INC or INA with respect to pre-war Iraq, let me just say that then as with now, US intelligence based its intelligence assessments on far more than just some defector's good word, as anybody who has actually read the SSIC report can tell you. Indeed, after all the hype that Chalabi and Co had been afforded by the press, I was quite surprised to see just how little a role they played in the US and British assessments of their pre-war Iraq intelligence.
Many of the reports are uncorroborated and are considered "raw" intelligence of the type seldom seen by those outside the national security community. But the picture that emerges from the sheer volume of the reports, and as a result of the multiplicity of sources from which they were generated, leaves little doubt about the depth of Iran's involvement in supporting elements of the insurgency and in positioning itself to move quickly in Iraq if it believes a change in circumstances there dictates such action.
Given all of the problems, petty rivalries, and press wars that have occurred in the US intelligence community with respect to the issue of intelligence analysis (but not for long, hehehe ...), I'd much prefer "raw" reports to anything else these days. I should also point out that Iran backing the insurgency against the US is pretty much a casus belli if and when Bush should want one, but as the Iranian hierarchy is more or less convinced at this point that the US is coming after them one way or another, their goal is to keep Iraq within the manageable (for them) state of unrest and disorder, at least until their nukes are ready for either defensive or offensive purposes.
"Iran," wrote an analyst with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations on Dec. 5, 2003, "poses the greatest long-term threat to U.S. efforts in Iraq." An analyst at the V Corps summarized matters this way: "Iranian intelligence agents are conducting operations in every major city with a significant Shia population. The counterintelligence threat from Iran is assessed to be high, as locally employed people, former military officers, politicians, and young men are recruited, hired, and trained by Iranian intelligence to collect [intelligence] on coalition forces."
Here again, this tracks with what various people have been saying for awhile. Those "former military officers," I should mention, are likely to have been either Shi'ite conscripts or Shi'ites who formerly collaborated with Saddam Hussein in ruling their co-religionists. While the vast majority of Shi'ites were treated as an underclass under Saddam Hussein's regime, there were a few who rose quite high in the "secular" Baathist hierarchy, with some like Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf even making their way into Saddam's inner court. Now that they're out of power they're likely short a great deal of money - something that Iran has a great deal to offer for those willing to do their bidding.
Even as Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S.-led military were pressing last year to consolidate their grip on Iraq, the intelligence reports indicate, the seeds of the insurgency were growing, in some cases with funding and direction from Iranian government factions. "Iranian intelligence will not conduct attacks on CF [coalition forces] that can be directly linked to Iran," wrote a senior Army analyst, "but will provide lethal aid to subversive elements within Iraq . . . in the form of weapons, safe houses, or money."
This is precisely why Iran has chosen Sunni Islamists like Ansar al-Islam as their preferred in carrying out anti-US attacks. Anything too overtly Khomeinist, like Hezbollah, would lead the US directly back to Iran with dire consequences for the regime (I personally think they went too overtly with Sadr, but the punditocracy seems to disagree with me on that since the Iranians haven't suffered any serious consequences since). Sunnis, however, make ideal proxies since "everybody knows" that Shi'ites hate Sunnis and would never cooperate with them. I guess VEVAK must've missed that memo, though ...
In an interview, David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector for the Iraq Survey Group, said he believes that factions within the Iranian government have been plotting with and funding some insurgency groups. "I think we are in an intelligence war with Iran," Kay said. "There are Iranian intelligence agents all over the country [Iraq]." Another former American official, Michael Rubin, who worked for the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority, agrees. "Iran feels it should be the predominant power in the region," Rubin said. "With the U.S. out of there, they [will] have no real competition."
That seems to be the plan - kick the US out of Iraq and turn it (or at least the southern part of the country) into an Iranian puppet state. As for Kay's formulation there are factions within the Iranian government orchestrating all the nation's meddling in Iraq (which implies that there are others that aren't), he's likely correct but the problem is that the hardline elements of the Iranian hierarchy, such as this Abadgaran movement, are now officially in control of the elected, the clerical, and the military-intelligence elements of the Iranian government. In other words, the bad guys are openly in ascendance in Tehran right now; the inmates have taken control of the assylum.
The intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News appear to support those assessments. Examples:
Oh goody, examples ...
Iran set up a massive intelligence network in Iraq, flooding the country with agents in the months after the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Sources told American intelligence analysts that Iranian agents were tasked with finding information on U.S. military plans and identifying Iraqis who would be willing to conduct attacks on U.S. forces that would not be linked to Iran.
These would be all of those "pilgrims" that flooded across the Iraqi border after Saddam's fall. They were most likely contacting Iranian assets across Iraq as well as reaffirming their ties to the al-Qaeda and allied jihadi forces and the nascent Iraqi Islamists. As I noted above, Sunnis - who formed the bulk of the insurgency from its onset to the beginning of the Sadr Uprising in April 2004 would be the preferred means that the Iranians would use to go after the US.
Iranian intelligence agents were said to have planned attacks against the U.S.-led forces and supported terrorist groups with weapons. Iranian agents smuggled weapons and ammunition across the border into Iraq and distributed them "to individuals who wanted to attack coalition forces," according to one report, citing "a source with good access." Separately, an Iraq Survey Group report said that Iranian agents "placed a bounty" of $500 for each American soldier killed by insurgents and more for destruction of tanks and heavy weaponry.
We knew about the bounty, but I always figured that it was al-Qaeda or members of the Golden Chain who had placed them on US troops. The stuff about smuggling weaponry to insurgent forces is fairly consistent with what captured Ansar al-Islam leaders like Qods and Aso Hawleri have told coalition interrogators.
Iran trained terrorists and provided them with safe havens and passage across the border into Iraq, several of the reports say. The Iranian-supported Ansar al-Islam began carrying out bombings and other attacks against coalition forces and Iraqi citizens in the summer of 2003. One report, describing an interview with a source, said: "There were approximately 320 Ansar al-Islam terrorists being trained in Iran . . . for various attack scenarios including suicide bombings, assassinations, and general subversion against U.S. forces in Iraq." The reports linked Ansar al-Islam to al Qaeda and to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq. "Among the more capable terrorist groups operating in Iraq," an analyst wrote in another report, "are al Qaeda, the al Zarqawi network, as well as Ansar al-Islam."
This tracks with PUK intelligence reports, though they had originally placed the number of Ansar al-Islam trainees at being a lot lower than 320. The convergence between al-Qaeda, the Zarqawi network (i.e. al-Tawhid), and Ansar al-Islam isn't all that hard to imagine, as the leadership of all three appears to be based out of Iran and harbored by the same factions within the IRGC and VEVAK.
Iran has been a principal supporter of Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose black-clad Mahdi Army fighters have clashed often with U.S.-led forces. Months before the worst of the insurgency in southern Iraq began last April, U.S. intelligence officials tracked reported movements of Iranian money and arms to forces loyal to Sadr. According to a V Corps report written in September 2003, "There has been an increase of Iranian intelligence officers entering" Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Basra, and Amarah. Sadr's fighters later engaged in fierce battles with coalition forces in each of those cities.
I told you so at the time, if memory serves.
Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to repeated requests for comment from U.S. News.
They're too busy casing New York City landmarks ...
In a sermon given last April, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading political figure in Iran, said that Americans were "a very effective target" but that Iran "does not wish to get involved in acts of adventurism." Separately, in New York last September, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi denied that his country had funded or armed Sadr's Mahdi Army.
With all the pious denial that one might expect from the Iranians, who if memory serves still officially deny any role in the 1983 Beirut bombings or the attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s. Does the press seriously expect them to come out and openly flaunt the fact that they're engaged in a low-level state of war with the world's sole remaining superpower?
U.S. government officials, questioned about the intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News , say the evidence of Iran's destabilization efforts in Iraq is persuasive. "We certainly do have a lot of evidence of Iranian mischief making," a senior Pentagon official said in an interview, "and attempts [at] building subversive influence. I would never underestimate the Iranian problem. . . . Iran is a menace in a basic sense."
Good to know that somebody is on the case. The problem when it comes to dealing with that menace, however, is that there is no consistent US policy as far as where to proceed. Hopefully that will be cleared up soon but until it is we are left in the position of simply reacting to our enemy. Not a good place to be when you're in the middle of a low-level world war.
Looking at the overall problem in Iraq, however, the official identifies Sunni Muslim extremists as the "hard core" of the insurgency. They include former supporters of Saddam and some foreign fighters--most prominently Zarqawi, whose network has claimed responsibility for some of Iraq's bloodiest bombings and the beheading of American Nicholas Berg and other western captives. Some terrorists, the official noted pointedly, are also using Syria as an outpost and safe haven.
A large number of whom appear to be former Baathists who are seeking aid from their co-ideologists. Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed al-Moali (Khadr al-Sabahi) and about 20-50 of his cronies appear to have sought shelter there, at least on the cash side of the operation, but they're from a different faction of Baathists than the ones that have aligned themselves with Zarqawi.
More than a year ago, the Defense Intelligence Agency reached similar conclusions in a secret analysis headlined "Iraq: Who Are We Fighting?" The analysis cited foreign jihadists as "potentially" the most "threatening." An analyst with the Iraq Survey Group concluded that "[a]s time passes and more and more terrorists and foreign fighters come into Iraq, the situation will become more dangerous because you will get a more experienced enemy, with more training, resources, and experience."
That analysis, by the way, is the perfect rebuttal to charges that the US "knows nothing" about the current state of the insurgency as some have charged.
The pundits weigh in ...
Patrick Clawson, a leading expert on Iraq and Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it is not surprising that Iran is heavily involved in Iraq. "It only makes sense that the government of Iran would want to have a network of contacts with the insurgents, develop friends, develop intelligence sources, provide them information about American assets and capabilities," he said in an interview. " . . . It is in their national interest." At the same time, Clawson says, Iran is playing "a double game"--stirring up trouble in Iraq while publicly professing support for Iraqi elections.
Indeed and that's the problem. Developing an espionage capacity inside Iraq is not in of itself a crime, though the Iraqis might differ with me on this one. It's a legitimate tool of statecraft, which is why Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait likely all have assets of their own there. The difference, however, is that none of those countries' intelligence agencies are actively supporting, arming, financing, or directing attacks on US troops. And that is what makes all the difference in the world.
Understanding Iran's precise motives in Iraq is no simple matter. Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College, says that the Islamic regime in Tehran does not always speak with one voice. "I think Iran has its hand in a lot of what's going on [in Iraq], but we shouldn't assume the government is unified," he says. "When you look at the Iranian system of government, if you say Iran, it could actually be the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the [charitable] foundations, or various agencies of the government. They act almost independently."
That's certainly true, but the "dual government" model for understanding Iran operates is rapidly becoming an antique as the hardliners consolidate their control over all three organs ("elected," clerical, and military-intelligence) of the government. More to the point, many of the establishment "reformists" are with the hardliners on the issue of Iraq because they understand what it means for their little theocracy. The internal Iranian factions may operate independently from one another, but they are quite capable of clamping down when one of their own steps off the reservation - look into the killings following Khatami's 1997 election carried out by "rogue" intelligence officers if you want an example of what I'm talking about. The fact that they haven't done so implies that those factions who were once viewed as restraining influences over the more militant forces in the Iranian hierarchy (a view I think is self-refuting, but nevermind that) either can't or won't stop them from killing US troops in Iraq. Period.
Another Iran expert, Kenneth Pollack, who served in the Clinton White House as director of Persian Gulf affairs on the National Security Council staff, believes Iran does not want chaos in Iraq. "The Iranian leaders are terrified of chaos in Iraq," he says, "and the spillover" aspect. Iran, Pollack adds, wants a stable, "independent" government headed by Shiites.
A little history here I think is worth noting. Pollack is the author of a book which argued in favor of US military action against Iraq on the basis of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's WMDs. He, like most everybody else in favor of the WMD argument for war, got badly burned in the process when the weapons appeared to be lacking. Since then, he seems to have largely taken on a dovish position towards Iran, due in no small part I think because of what happened when he did favor the hard line against Saddam Hussein.
Be that as it may, the evidence cited in this article appears to run counter towards his beliefs. It is true that Iran wants a stable Iraq - but only under their control. In addition, does anyone seriously believe that Iran is going to just sit back and allow Sistani to champion An Najaf as a rival to Qom? To allow such a thing, even on the surface of it, knocks down the last remaining edifices of the regime's domestic legitimacy and makes the new Shi'ite majority Iraq a serious contender to Iran.
The next step of this analysis will go further into the US News article and by the time all of this is over I promise that I will address the question of why Iran is a greater threat to the US than Pakistan.