Politics & Policy

Trouble From Tehran

Iran is making trouble, and finessing it is a dangerous strategy.

Abu Musab al Zarkawi, born Ahmad al Khalayla in Jordan, is the current deus ex machina of the terror war against the Coalition in Iraq. He is credited with numerous assassinations–including that of an American official, Thomas Foley, in Amman–and suicide bombings, along with the spectacular but little-reported attempt to launch a chemical attack against American targets in Jordan. Secretary of State Colin Powell named him on February 3, 2003, in his speech to the United Nations. Powell reported that Zarkawi had been sighted in Baghdad, where one of his legs had been amputated due to injuries sustained in Afghanistan.

Two months earlier, I had written about Zarkawi on the basis of German and Italian intelligence documents, presented by the prosecution in court cases against members of his European network. At that time, I noted that these documents identified Iran as the base of Zarkawi’s operations. Powell was making a case against Iraq, and understandably omitted the Iranian connection, but the evidence of the Iranian matrix has just been reinforced in a book by Stefan Dambruoso (and co-authored by Guido Olimpio, a well-known journalist at Corriere della Sera), one of the Italian judicial officers charged with investigating terrorist activities in Milan. The book is entitled Milan-Baghdad, and excerpts dealing with Zarkawi appear in the current edition of Panorama, the leading Italian weekly newsmagazine.

Dambruoso flatly confirms what I wrote in December 2002: “Our investigations permit us to establish that the country of the Ayatollahs is the preferred springboard for militants headed for Iraq.” Dambruoso lays it out in some detail. Zarkawi had already organized groups of fighters before the liberation of Iraq, and they operate alongside the remnants of Saddam’s killers. The European network is used to recruit new bodies for the jihad in Iraq, and they enter from Iran in groups of three to five, with phony passports and usually pretending to be businessmen (or, I can add, journalists). They rent or buy small apartments in Baghdad, Tikrit, and Ramadi, where they organize larger cells, and then move into the battle area. Zarkawi himself entered Iraq by this method, along with one of the leading ideologues of the jihad, Abu Masaab (a Syrian).

Dambruoso seems to believe that the relationship between Zarkawi and Osama bin Laden is ambiguous, having seen some evidence (primarily the famous letter captured by U.S. special forces late last year) that Zarkawi was unhappy about the lack of support from al Qaeda. But whatever their tactical and personal disagreements (and these can be feigned), they share a common strategy for Iraq: kill members of the Coalition and any Iraqi who cooperates, and provoke internal conflicts among the various ethnic and religious communities. That tracks with my own analysis, which is that we are dealing with several different groups, supported by the various terror masters in Tehran, Damascus, and Riadh, in a joint operation within the overall matrix of Hezbollah–which of course means Iran.

I think Iran’s diabolical hand can also be seen in the evolution of the image of Zarkawi. As Dambruoso points out in his book, the figure of Zarkawi has become more glorious, and he is not only a fighter but a preacher, who, like Osama, posts sermons on jihadist blogs.

Dambruoso explicitly refers to American intelligence sources for some of this information, including the movements from Iran to Iraq. Yet as recently as Saturday, June 12, Robin Wright of the Washington Post was loyally transmitting messages from unnamed “intelligence sources” claiming that Iran was not causing trouble in Iraq, and presenting the usual disinformation about a regime said to be internally divided and strategically paralyzed.

That sort of thing makes one wonder whether anyone at the CIA takes time to read the newspapers, or whether they rely entirely on classified cables from blind men “in the field.” Had they read the newspapers they would have seen the mullahs calling for a new wave of suicide terrorism against us in Iraq, and even the remarkable spectacle of a formal signup sheet for those who want to blow themselves up (it thoughtfully gives the volunteer a choice of becoming a martyr in Iraq, Israel, or elsewhere).

I suppose this doesn’t constitute troublemaking, huh?

Well, how about the news from Agence France Press on June 7 that Ukrainian troops in eastern Iraq arrested “about 40 Iranians trying to enter the country illegally…with assault rifles, Kalashnikovs, hunting guns and ammunition…”

I suppose the CIA thinks the Iranians were members of a peace-loving gun club.

Well, then, how about the report from IDF Chief of Staff Yaalon to the Israeli Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on May 18, which dealt with a massive arms smuggling operation from Egypt to Gaza? Yaalon said that most of the operation was “almost entirely financed by Iran and being conducted via Palestinian groups in Damascus and Hizbullah in Lebanon. He said weapons are also coming from Saudi Arabia and Africa.”

We are inundated from all sides with evidence that should drive our strategy in the Middle East. The war in Iraq is part of a broader struggle, and we will not be able to succeed there unless we also defeat the terror masters who are funding, arming, training, and directing the terror war in Iraq. But instead of going after the Iranian regime by supporting a mass movement to democratize the country, our leaders tell pliant journalists that the Iranians aren’t causing trouble, and the real danger comes from the possibility that Ahmad Chalabi leaked some information to the mullahs.

Did no journalist think to ask an anonymous source the obvious question: If Iran’s not a problem, why are you so upset about the leak? And if Iran is a problem, why don’t we have an Iran policy after four years of discussion? Is there a national-security process or not?

The Bush administration has clearly decided to try to “manage” Iraq and “finesse” Iran, hoping to muddle through until the election and then, if victorious, consider its options in the broader theater. The president and his top advisers evidently want to avoid “new adventures” between now and November.

But this is a very dangerous strategy, because it leaves the initiative, in Iraq and elsewhere, entirely in the hands of people like Zarkawi and his longtime Iranian sponsors. Indeed, it seems to me that doing nothing is an open invitation to “new adventures” in the Middle East, in Europe, and in the United States.

You don’t need classified information to see this; it’s right in front of our noses. Yet we refuse to see it. This is what intelligence failures are really about: denial of the most obvious facts about the world. And it’s what policy failures are about as well: refusal to take the obvious steps to protect our citizens, our allies, and our national interests.

We buried Ronald Reagan. Let’s hope we haven’t buried American courage along with him.

Faster. Please?

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


The Latest