Continuing on with my post from yesterday, I'm going to continue dissecting the US News and World Report article on the subject of Iran's meddling inside Iraq among other things.
Also, in the comments yesterday a number of readers noted that I didn't mention the comparable threat posed by Saudi Arabia in yesterday's piece. That's true, though I did mention Syria's harboring of the surviving Iraqi Baathist leadership and financiers (now subordinated to their Syrian counterparts, in contrast to the al-Douri Baathists who have folded into Zarqawi's organization). If you want to know about Saudi Arabia, I have plenty of back posts on the subject - Riyadh Bombings Retrospective is an old favorite of mine and I will no doubt write more and more on the subject of the Magic Kingdom in the future.
Right now, however, I'm talking about Iran.
Continuing from where we left off
Whatever its objectives in Iraq, Iran has a well-documented history of supporting terrorist groups. For years, the State Department has identified Iran as the world's pre-eminent state sponsor of terrorism. American officials say the regime has provided funding, safe havens, training, and weapons to several terrorist groups, including Lebanon-based Hezbollah. The commission investigating the 9/11 attacks said in its final report that al Qaeda has long-standing ties to Iran and Hezbollah. Iran favors spectacular attacks, officials say, citing its alleged role in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen. Six of the Hezbollah terrorists indicted in the attack "directly implicated" senior Iranian government officials "in the planning and execution of this attack," former FBI Director Louis Freeh wrote last year.
As the 9/11 commission and others (myself included) have noted, there is a great deal of evidence that the Khobar Towers bombings were a joint operation carried out by both Iran and al-Qaeda, which would seem to more than satisfy the demands of a "collaborative operational relationship." More to the point, as I and others have repeatedly noted, Iran is now harboring the surviving al-Qaeda leadership, including possibly even bin Laden himself. The network's shura majlis has been reformed from the safety of IRGC bases and villas in eastern and north-central Iran and if one accepts the belief, echoed by many a government official, that al-Qaeda is the greatest threat to US national security at the moment, what does that say about the government that willingly harbors its leaders?
Alliances of convenience
Nor does it seem that the Khomeinists are going to allow such trivial matters as past animosities to get in the way of fighting the Great Satan:
Freeh named two Iranian government agencies, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite fighting unit and enforcer for the clerical regime. As the insurgency developed in Iraq, both played central roles in planning and funding some of the attacks on coalition forces, according to the intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News. Early on, MOIS and the revolutionary guard corps were tasked with the job of creating instability in Iraq, the reports say. In some cases, Iran's agents allegedly worked with former Saddam loyalists, an odd marriage but one that shared a common goal: to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. The reports detail how Iranian agents sought to recruit former regime loyalists and how one former Iraqi Intelligence Service officer, who had close ties to Saddam's late son, Uday, reportedly set up a front company for Iranian intelligence operations in Baghdad.
The Mukhabarat working with VEVAK post-invasion (and VEVAK's willingness to work with the former) should drive the final nail in the coffin of the belief that ideology determines alliances. Just to put all of this in perspective, Iraq and Iran fought a long and very bloody war during the 1980s, a war that killed many of the best and brightest of Khomeini's Islamic Revolution. During that time and well afterwards, the Mukhabarat assassinated or attempted to assassinate any number of Iranian officials and directed the communist Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) against Iranian targets. If you want a perfect example of long-standing and bitter rivals, it's tough to find a better fit than the Mukhabarat and VEVAK - I doubt the ISI and RAW could even top them much in the mutual animosity department.
Yet here they are, working together to undermine coalition control of Iraq.
Now one can argue that the Mukhabarat thugs couldn't quibble much about who they work with these days, but VEVAK certainly could. I mean, it's not like they planned on keeping someone with close ties to Uday Hussein alive very long after they ran the US out of the Iraq. Here again, this is the kind of pragmatic approach that is the hallmark of VEVAK - and the reason why no one should make any, and I mean any assumptions on the issue of who VEVAK will or will not work for. After all, they had a perfect incentive to work with the Baathists - no one would suspect it because "everyone knows" that Baathists and Khomeinists hate one another.
There are other reasons besides simply plausible deniability for the Iranians to enlist Baathists to do their dirty work, however. The al-Qaeda and allied forces that were active in Iraq before the war aside, they weren't anywhere near as numerous or as well-versed in the country as their Baathist counterparts were. The latter knew Iraq like the back of their hand and had already been making plans for a post-regime insurgency for many months prior to the war at the behest of Tahir Jalil Habbush, who is still at large and belongs to al-Ahmed's wing of the Baathists (or perhaps the other way around) these days. VEVAK was probably aware of Habbush's preparations months before the war ever started (I know that MEK had spies inside the Badr Brigades and vice versa) and it would be quite interesting to learn whether or not he was directly involved in setting up an alliance between the Baathists and VEVAK and if so when.
Setting the stage for Sadr
Only weeks after Saddam was ousted, in April 2003, Iran publicly signaled support for violence against the coalition. In a sermon on May 2, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary general of Iran's powerful Council of Guardians, called on Iraqis to stage suicide attacks to drive U.S.-led forces from Iran. The Iraqi people, he said, "have no other choice but to rise up and stage martyrdom operations. . . . The Iraqi people were released from the claws of one wolf and have been caught by another wolf."
Ayatollah Jannati, I should probably mention, is also among the most vocal voices for ditching the Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether and going forward with their nuclear program. Whether or not somebody as pragmatic and scheming as Rafsanjani clearly is would launch a nuclear attack on Israel given the capability to do so is an open question (I personally think he would), but I can tell you right now that Jannati almost unquestionably would.
Two months later, U.S. News has learned, coalition forces uncovered a document describing a fatwa , or religious edict, that had reportedly been issued in Iran for its Shiite supporters in Iraq. The fatwa urged "holy fighters" in Iraq to get close to the enemy--the U.S.-led troops. These fighters, the fatwa said, should "maintain good relations with the coalition forces" but at the same time create "a secret group that would conduct attacks against American troops." U.S. analysts could not confirm that the ruling was issued by Iranian clerics, but they believe it was credible. Wrote one analyst: "It seems that they [the Iranians] want them [Iraqi Shiite supporters] to be close to the coalition forces and outwardly respect them so that they can gather intelligence that will assist them in their mission."
For those interested in understanding SCIRI's behavior to date, there you have it. This fatwa, I should mention, was not based on the consensus of the entire Iranian leadership, which is why the familiar litany of senior IRGC commanders had to keep themselves amused supporting al-Qaeda until Sadr and his Mahdi Army were ready. It was, however, the accepted wisdom among the senior clerics and the Supreme National Security Council, which is why it was the party line for Iranian officials post-OIF. The "holy fighters" being referenced here, I should add, are the members of Badr Brigades and a number of smaller organizations, while the "secret group" has come up in conversation a number of times under a variety of names, the Iraqi Hezbollah being the most common of them with none other than Muqtada al-Sadr as its declared head. Whether or not that's what Sadr himself refers to his street toughs as is another point, but that's what the Iranians see him as: an analogue to the role that Hezbollah played in Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s against the Israelis.
Before long, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security stepped up its intelligence operations in Iraq, many of the intelligence reports suggest. Agents set up "significant" intelligence cells in key Iraqi cities, several reports said, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Kut, Basra, and Kirkuk.
They've been involved in stirring up ethnic tensions between the Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen inhabitants of Kirkuk.
Kut is a little bit of a more interesting beast, since the Iranians were fairly overt in their efforts to establish themselves in the city through proxies like Said Abbas and weren't entirely run out of town until April 2004 in the Sadr Revolt.
And of course, we know what the Iranian pawn Sadr did to Abdul Majid al-Khoei in An Najaf no sooner than had Saddam's statue fallen in Firdus Square.
MOIS agents also set up a "listening post" in a city in southeastern Iraq to monitor the activities of U.S. forces. In southern Iraq, 10 Iranian agents reportedly began operating out of two rooms at a Shiite mosque. Iran, according to the reports, also sought to place spies within Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, then running Iraq's affairs, and they followed and photographed coalition forces.
Did they succeed? That would be interesting to know ...
The listening post in southeastern Iraq, incidentally, was also intended as an early warning system for the Iranian military in the event that the US was planning to move in force against Iran. This also raises a new problem for the idea of using Iraq as a base from which to attack Iran - as long as those spies are intact, the mullahs will be able to get at least some advance warning of any potential strike.
Four Iranians, believed to be MOIS agents, were detained in late July 2003 for photographing a hydropower plant near the central city of Samarra. Power plants became a frequent target of insurgents. In one case, U.S. intelligence officials learned that a MOIS agent, a man named Muhammad Farhaadi, videotaped coalition operations in Karbala, a city south of Baghdad, then took the tape back to Iran.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, however. The Iranians have also been involved in sabotaging oil pipelines throughout southern Iraq (not sure about what role, if any, they had in the northern attacks) as part of a bid to keep Iraq's economy in as much uncertainty as possible.
During the summer and fall of 2003, U.S. analysts' reports describe how MOIS and its operatives sought to develop information from Shiites in the south and from Sunnis in the north on the activities of U.S.-led forces. In the fall of 2003, an analyst for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations wrote: "Iranian intelligence has infiltrated all areas of Iraq, posing both a tactical and strategic threat to U.S. interests."
Quite true, and any belief that our crushing the Mahdi Army has put an end to all of this is a fool's delusion - Sadr was always just the opening act, the fact that the Badr Brigades didn't break with the Iraqi government to fight at his side is proof enough of that in my mind. If and when Iran decides to make a full play in southern Iraq, they'll throw everything they've got (Mahdi Army, Badr Brigades, Hezbollah, et al.) against us to such an extent that even their apologists in Western Europe will be hard-pressed to deny the aggressive and, dare I say it, imperialist character of the regime.
The intelligence reports detail precisely what Iran was after. Its "collection priorities" included finding out what weapons U.S. troops were carrying and what kind of body armor they were wearing. Iranian agents also sought information on the location of U.S. Army and intelligence bases; on the routes traveled by U.S. convoys; on the operations of the Special Forces' elite Delta Force; and on the plans of the U.S. military and intelligence inside Iraq. A military report said a source had reported that the Iranians were pressing to find out whether the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, was active in Iraq. According to the report, MOIS directed its agents "to collect information on the Israeli intelligence presence in northern Iraq." Iran's "primary objective in Iraq," wrote another analyst, citing a good source, "is to create instability so coalition forces will focus on controlling the unstable situation rather than concentrating on reconstruction efforts."
The Israeli presence in northern Iraq is, as his supporters will no doubt remind us, something that Seymour Hersh has written a great deal on (at least some of his sources also appear to share my views with respect to the Mahdi Army and Ansar al-Islam, but that's neither here nor there). To a certain extent, at least some of this is stuff that any number of states do when they engage in espionage activities, but the primary difference here is that the information being gathered by VEVAK and its assets aren't being used for information or even national security purposes - they're being used to assist the very people who are killing US troops. And that, I think, makes all the difference in the world.
MOIS agents carried cash, reports said, to bribe Iraqi border police in order to obtain safe passage into Iraq. In reality, however, all the Iranians had to do was walk across the border at any number of crossing points, where they could blend in amid Iranians coming to Iraq to visit relatives, do business, and worship at Shiite shrines, according to the intelligence reports and several senior Army officers interviewed by U.S. News. "The borders were wide open," says one senior officer. "It suggests that terrorists could come over pretty easily. My God, there were busloads of Iranians crossing the border without interference." Another U.S. Army officer was so concerned that Iranian spies and Islamic jihadists were crossing into Iraq that he visited a border site in a mountainous region northeast of Baghdad last January. "I saw over 1,200 people come over [to Iraq] in an hour, and there were no [coalition] troops there," the officer recalls. "I did not see them armed, but then a lot of them came across in carts and some in vehicles and donkeys, and you wouldn't know. If only 1 percent of them were combatants," he adds, "you can see the problem."
The failure to seal the Iraqi borders following the invasion will be remembered, at least in my mind, as chief strategic mistake of the war. We can debate how or why things reached that point and what the consequences for those responsible should be, perhaps more honestly now that there's no presidential election to cloud our judgement, but the simple fact is that it happened and we have to deal with it.
While we're processing all of that, here's a little challenge I'm honestly curious about in the meantime: how many troops (American or Iraqi) would we need to secure the whole of the Iranian border to prevent what they can?
The Badr Brigades
Iranian agents had plenty of help waiting inside Iraq. Numerous intelligence reports say that members of a Shiite militia group in Iraq known as the Badr Corps aided Iran in moving agents, weapons, and other materiel into southern Iraq--sometimes under the cover of humanitarian organizations.
The Saudis, as you can see, are not the only ones well versed in the art of "dual use" charities. The Badr Brigades were basically the Iranian answer to the MEK, made up of Iraqi Shi'ites supported by Tehran. In another era, the two nations might have sponsored pretenders to one another's thrones.
The Badr Corps has served as the armed wing of one of the most popular Shiite political parties in southern Iraq, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. The leaders of both SCIRI and the Badr Corps, which now calls itself the Badr Organization, have maintained close ties to Iran for about two decades. Iraqis associated with SCIRI and Badr opposed Saddam's regime and fled to Iran in the early 1980s, where their organizations were established. They began returning to Iraq in droves after U.S.-led troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, prompting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to warn the Badr Corps not to interfere in Iraq. Badr leaders say they have no hostile intentions toward U.S. forces, but their loyalties remain much in doubt. Just last month, Iraq's national intelligence chief, Mohammed al Shahwani, accused the Badr Organization of killing 10 of his agents on orders from Iranian leaders. Badr, which denied the charges, was said to have disarmed this past summer, as part of an agreement with the new Iraqi government that would allow its members to serve in the new Iraqi Civil Defense Force.
Badr Brigades fighters, it should probably be noted, have taken part in both the fighting in Fallujah and sided with the US during the Sadr Revolt along with the Ansar al-Sistani and the Thulfiqar Army, the last two of which seem to have disbanded following defeat of the Mahdi Army in An Najaf. They're likely still playing a double game, as I noted earlier in the post, but to be as cynical as possible, their fighters bleed just as easily as anybody else's. Using them to fight the Sunni insurgency enables to the US to accomplish a number of objectives: it weakens the Badr Brigades, weakens the Sunni insurgents, helps to force a divide between Iran and the Sunni Islamists it backs by using the most pro-Iranian group against them, and places the Badr leadership in the most uncomfortable position of explaining to the faithful why they have to help the US.
Yet Badr's historical ties to Iran, as described in U.S. and British intelligence reports, offer little in the way of reassurance. While saying that SCIRI and Badr have "made some attempts to emphasize independence from Iran," a British Defence Intelligence Staff report on "Armed Groups in Iraq," dated Nov. 21, 2003, says that the Badr Organization retains "strong links" to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps." The IRGC, the report says, "has funded, trained, and armed" the militia group, whose membership it estimated at between 18,000 and 20,000. The report says that some Badr members were unhappy with their leader, Abul Aziz al-Hakim, who commands both SCIRI and Badr, and had returned to Iran. At the time, the report says, Badr was "well equipped" with "small arms, mortars and RPG s [rocket-propelled grenades]," T-55 series tanks and a "variety of artillery and antiair pieces." Other intelligence reports say that an Iranian government agency--probably the IRGC--had provided Badr with global positioning systems to better target U.S.-led forces.
Except that Badr isn't involved, at least on the operations side, in the anti-US insurgency - the Mahdi Army and the Lebanese Hezbollah are. As long as they continue to assist the central government against the Sunni insurgents, Iran can probably get away with financing SCIRI and arming Badr. I would still be extremely wary about trusting SCIRI or Badr any further than either organization can be thrown, no matter how non-threatening they appear for the time being. I would also be very interested in making sure that all of the weapons that Badr's turned in to date accounts for everything that we know they've received from the IRGC.
Something else to consider ...
I'll deal with this in greater detail tomorrow, but for the meantime I would suggest reading this article by the late Constantine Menges from earlier this year on Iran's strategy inside Iraq. The information is to a certain extent dated, but I still think that the arguments and conclusions raised in the article are well worth considering with respect to what the Iranians want inside Iraq.