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The Defense Department Recognizes Iran’s Proxy War

Does America have a plan to stop the Iranians? Or, is the killing of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan acceptable?

1:00 PM, Apr 20, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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A newly released Department of Defense report on the Iranian military threat is getting a lot of attention because it says Iran may have ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. by 2015. It is understandable that this part of the assessment has gotten so much notice. It clearly contradicts what the Obama administration was saying just several months ago. But there is more to the report, which was submitted to Congress as required by the National Defense Authorization Act and details the “current and future military strategy of Iran.”

Namely, the DoD has confirmed, once again, that the Iranians are in the business of waging a proxy war against America and her allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply put, the Iranians are in the business of killing Americans.

The report’s authors explain Iran’s strategy:

Iran seeks to increase its stature by countering U.S. influence and expanding ties with regional actors while advocating Islamic solidarity. It also seeks to demonstrate to the world its “resistance” to the West. Iran is attempting to secure political, economic, and security influence in Iraq and Afghanistan while undermining U.S. efforts by supporting various political groups, providing developmental and humanitarian assistance, and furnishing lethal aid to Iraqi Shia militants and Afghan insurgents.

 The primary vehicle the Iranian regime uses to implement this policy is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force, which “clandestinely exert[s] military, political, and economic power to advance Iranian national interests abroad.”

The DoD says the IRGC-QF’s “global activities include: gathering tactical intelligence; conducting covert diplomacy; providing training, arms, and financial support to surrogate groups and terrorist organizations; and facilitating some of Iran’s provision of humanitarian and economic support to Islamic causes.” The IRGC is also the chief Iranian benefactor of Hezbollah in Lebanon and elsewhere. In fact, as the DoD goes on to note, the IRGC has been responsible for launching terrorist attacks against Americans, such as the 1983 embassy bombing in Lebanon and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. Both of those attacks were Hezbollah operations.  

Afghanistan

The DoD hones in on Iran’s duplicitous behavior in Afghanistan. Overtly, Iran pledges its support and continued assistance, while also portraying itself as the peacemaker. However, Iran also supports the actors who seek to destabilize and overthrow the Afghan government. 

Here is the key paragraph on Iran’s relationships with the Afghan government’s opposition:

Tehran has also leveraged long time relationships with numerous officials such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ismail Khan, both of whom lived in Iran for a period of time. Arms caches have been recently uncovered with large amounts of Iranian manufactured weapons, to include 107mm rockets, which we assess IRGC-QF delivered to Afghan militants. While it is difficult to determine the exact time the arms were brought into Afghanistan, their recent manufacture date suggests lethal support is ongoing. Tehran’s support to the Taliban is inconsistent with their historic enmity, but fits with Iran’s strategy of backing many groups to ensure that it will have a positive relationship with the eventual leaders.

There are three bad actors mentioned in the paragraph. First, there is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is a longtime powerbroker in Afghanistan and was once the nation’s prime minister. Hekmatyar lost the contest for control of Afghanistan in the 1990s to the Taliban. He then relocated to Iran, where he lived for several years. After 9/11, Hekmatyar left Iran. He and his organization have coordinated mostly small-scale attacks on American forces along with al Qaeda and the Taliban ever since. Hekmatyar has been one of Osama bin Laden’s close allies for decades.

Like Hekmatyar, Ismail Khan once opposed the Taliban, then lost, and was later forced to flee to Iran. After the Taliban fell from power, he took over as the governor of the Herat province for a time until he was ousted from that position. Khan was given a cabinet seat as the minister of water and energy in Karzai’s government and then lost that, too. It is not clear, from the DoD’s report, what allegedly nefarious activities Khan and the Iranians are colluding on.

Finally, there is the Taliban. Despite being longtime enemies, the Taliban and Iran are cooperating against American-led forces in Afghanistan. The DoD’s report echoes what has been said before by other military and intelligence officials. In his own report on Afghanistan, for example, General Stanley McChrystal said that the IRGC-QF “is reportedly training fighters for certain Taliban groups and providing other forms of military assistance to insurgents.”

And in written testimony given to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2009, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair noted:

Iran's policy calculation in Afghanistan currently emphasizes lethal support to the Taliban, even though revelation of this activity could threaten its future relationship with the Afghan government and its historic allies within Afghanistan. … Taliban commanders have publicly credited Iranian support for their successful operations against Coalition forces.

So, the DoD report is just the latest assessment to confirm what we should all know by now: Iran and the Taliban are allied against America.     

Iraq

In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, the Iranian regime’s real policy is duplicity. The DoD reports: “Iran continues to provide money, weapons and training to select Iraqi Shia militants and terrorists despite pledges by senior Iranian officials to stop such support.”

The IRGC has stationed its members in key diplomatic outposts. Both Iran’s outgoing and incoming ambassadors to Iraq are officers in the Qods force. But while the Iranians continue to conduct their version of “diplomacy” through the IRGC, the regime also continues to provide weaponry and explosives to their proxies. This includes: “Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) with radio-controlled, remote arming and passive  infrared detonators,” Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), anti-aircraft weapons, mortars, 107 and 122 millimeter rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, as well as other explosives.

The DoD is explicit about Iran’s targeting of U.S. forces. It is worth quoting the following key paragraph in full: 

Iran also offers strategic and operation guidance to militias and terrorist groups to target U.S. Forces in Iraq and undermine U.S. interests. In addition to providing arms and support, IRGC-QF is responsible for training Iraqi insurgents in Iran, sometimes using Lebanese Hizballah instructors. Lebanese Hizballah provides insurgents with the training, tactics and technology to conduct kidnappings, small unit tactical operations and employ sophisticated IEDs. In addition to weapons and support, Iran continues training Shia militants in the use of IEDs, EFPs, and the counter-measures designed to defeat these weapons and the networks that design, build, emplace and fund them draw persistent counter-responses. The flow of new IED technologies and highly creative emplacement and employment methods underscore the enemy’s ability to adapt and react quickly and efficiently to CF countermeasures.   

As in Afghanistan, therefore, the Iranian regime sponsors America’s enemies.

Not “Rogue” Operations

There is one final paragraph that is especially noteworthy in the DoD’s report. It reads:

Iran established the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) in 1990 as an elite unit with the IRGC. Although its operations sometimes appear at odds with the public voice of the Iranian regime, it is not a rogue outfit; it receives direction from the highest levels of government, and its leaders report directly, albeit informally, to Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, employing complementary diplomatic and paramilitary strategies.

This is correct. But you may recall a few years back, when reports of Iranian IEDs ending up in Iraq continued to mount, that the DoD and the American press pretended as if they did not know whether or not the Iranian government was aware of this activity. The IRGC was portrayed as “rogue” outfit. For instance, on February 17, 2007, the New York Times ran a piece titled, “Iranian Force, Focus of U.S., Still a Mystery,” which encapsulated the thinking then.

“We know that the Quds Force is involved [in supplying IEDs in Iraq],” Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quoted as saying. “We know the Quds Force is a paramilitary arm of the I.R.G.C.”

“So we assume that the leadership of the I.R.G.C. knows about this,” Gates surmised. “Whether or not more senior political leaders in Iran know about it, we don’t know.” And just this past March, military officials continued to pretend that they did not know whether the Iranian regime approved of Taliban fighters being trained on Iranian soil.

In this latest report, the DoD drops this claim of ignorance. The DoD now concedes that the IRGC “is not a rogue outfit.”

That is, the Iranian regime is waging a proxy war against America and her allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The IRGC is the instrument by which the regime carries out its designs. And they know full well what they are doing and have a plan for continuing to do it. 

Does America have a plan to stop the Iranians? Or, is the killing of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan acceptable?

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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