On the same day that Tony Blair debuted in Portugal as Middle East envoy for the Quartet, a group attempting to advance peace efforts in the Middle East, another kind of meeting convened in Syria. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met in Damascus on July 19 with leaders from Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas to chart a different course for the Middle East. Asked in a joint press conference with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad if he expected another “hot summer,” Ahmadinejad said, “We hope that the hot weather of this summer would coincide with similar victories for the region’s peoples and with consequent defeat for the region’s enemies.”
Indeed, although a number of conflicts could erupt in a variety of Middle Eastern countries this summer, Iran is the common denominator among them. Iran’s leaders understand that they have a real chance to drive the United States out of Iraq and substantially weaken the U.S.’s position in the region.
Iran’s most obvious maneuverings have been in Iraq, where it has long aided insurgent factions. During a recent trip to Baghdad, where I was embedded as a reporter, I found that virtually every American soldier feared the explosively formed projectile (EFP). This kind of bomb has been described as uniquely dangerous because “when it detonates, the concave end blows outward and melts into a bullet-shaped fragment that slices through armor and flesh.” Captain Greg Hirschey of the Army’s 717th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company told Wired of an incident where an EFP went through a Humvee, taking off both of the driver’s legs and also an arm. Lieutenant Patrick Henson of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery told me that he saw video in which an EFP went straight through a heavily armored Humvee and left an impact on the curb on the other side of the road. (Several Army sources corroborated his account.) Iran has been providing Shia insurgents with these deadly weapons. In 2005, Time reported that Iranian operative Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, who headed an insurgent network created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, introduced EFPs to Iraq. In February of this year, the American military stated that EFPs had killed “170 American and coalition troops in Iraq,” and the numbers have continued to rise since then.
Iran has also trained Shia insurgent factions. Recently, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner said that Shia insurgents have been “taken to Iran in groups of 20 to 60 for training in three camps ‘not too far from Tehran.’” According to Brig. Gen. Bergner, when they returned to Iraq, the trainees “formed units called ‘special groups’ to carry out attacks, bombings and kidnappings.”
It seems that Iran has even provided active direction to Shia militias. Brig. Gen. Bergner stated in a press conference that U.S. forces recovered a 22-page planning and lessons learned document relating to the January 20 attack in Karbala, in which 12 men disguised as U.S. soldiers mounted an attack that killed five. He noted that the document shows that Iran’s elite Qods force “had developed detailed information regarding our soldiers’ activities, shift changes and fences, and this information was shared with the attackers.” Iran also likely provided the attackers with “American-looking uniforms, vehicles and identification cards” that helped them penetrate their target and “achieve surprise.”
Although it is a Shia theocracy, Iran has not limited itself to support of Shia insurgents. In January, the New York Sun reported that Iranian documents captured by American forces showed that Iran also supported Sunni insurgents. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the military’s chief spokesman in Iraq, has also stated this publicly in press conferences. In addition to trying to drive the U.S. out of Iraq, Iran’s support for Sunni insurgents seems to be a form of hedging its bets by providing something of value to all insurgent factions.
Analysts believe that the fact that the administration has staked so much politically on how much progress is made by September provides Iran with an incentive to ramp up violence in Iraq during August.
Nor is the chaos in which Iran has involved itself limited to Iraq. The country that was central to the long, hot summer of 2006 — Lebanon — sits directly to the west of Iran’s strategic partner Syria. With elections just around the corner, chaos could again break out in Lebanon this summer.
The political situation in Lebanon has been precarious since Syrian withdrawal in 2005. One of the most destabilizing forces has been Hezbollah, which is strongly aligned with Iran: the first generation of Hezbollah’s leadership pledged their loyalty to Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1982, and since then Iran has been a primary source of financial support and training for Hizballah’s fighters.
Hezbollah’s war against Israel last summer was dramatically destabilizing. There has also been a rash of political assassinations inside Lebanon. While suspicion for these incidents focuses on Syrian intelligence, high-ranking sources in American intelligence believe that Hezbollah facilitated the assassinations by aiding the assassins’ entry into Lebanon, helping to put them in a position where they could carry out the attacks, and facilitating their exit. (Hezbollah, it should be noted, receives sponsorship from Syria as well as Iran.) Hezbollah also played a small but not insignificant role in the recent month-long struggle between Lebanon’s military and the militant Fatah Islam group, which had been holed up in a refugee camp outside Tripoli. During this conflict, Hezbollah made noise about siding with the Sunni militant group against Fouad Siniora’s government.
Hezbollah also periodically leads street protests with the explicit purpose of toppling Lebanon’s government. This is a powerful symbol of the Siniora government’s impotence, as the street protests have been able to paralyze the capital city of Beirut. Lebanon’s military is not up to the task of clearing Hezbollah out.
Iran’s reach extends also to the Palestinian territories, which have been wracked by violence between Hamas and Fatah. Iran contributed to the violence that flared up in the Gaza Strip in June: Iran, Syria, and a number of private Saudi donors emboldened Hamas by proclaiming their unconditional support. This helped to give Hamas the confidence it needed to take over the Gaza Strip, where it seized Fatah’s compound and forced Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to declare a state of emergency. As Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit stated, “Iran’s policies encouraged Hamas to do what it has done in Gaza.” Indeed, as Hamas’s number one single donor, Iran has a great deal of leverage over the group.
Chaos in the Palestinian territories always presents a risk of escalation. Israel often faces violent provocations from those areas. If last summer’s battle against Hezbollah demonstrates one thing, it is that Israel is hesitant to back down from a fight. Israel already fought something of a two-front war against Iranian clients last summer, as it fought Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Both Hezbollah and Hamas are stronger now than they were last summer.
There are other areas where Iranian actions are of great concern. Al Qaeda leaders who are under “house arrest” in Iran, such as Saif al-Adl and Saad bin Laden, have reportedly been able to communicate with the outside world. In his book At the Center of the Storm, former CIA chief George Tenet reveals that while al-Adl was in Iran, senior al Qaeda leaders in Saudi Arabia were able to seek his advice as they negotiated the purchase of Russian nuclear devices. Al-Adl replied that no price was too high, but cautioned “that al Qaeda had been stung by scams in the past and that Pakistani specialists should be brought to Saudi Arabia to inspect the merchandise prior to purchase.”
Meanwhile, Iranian presence is visibly increasing in South America’s tri-border region. Hezbollah also has a presence in Venezuela, where it maintains a base in Margarita Island. The increasingly cozy relationship between Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez — and in particular, their announced “axis of unity” — makes it likely that Hezbollah’s presence will continue to grow there. Hezbollah also has a presence in the United States, with past involvement in drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and sending money and equipment back to the Middle East. Although there are no known instances of Hezbollah cells in the U.S. going beyond logistical support for the terrorist group and becoming “operational,” this is not outside the range of possibility. Several Hezbollah cells have cased potential targets, and operatives who have had military training could be turned operational without great difficulty. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate certainly considers this a risk, noting that Hezbollah “may be more likely to consider attacking the Homeland over the next three years if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran.”
Against this backdrop, Iran continues to pursue its nuclear capabilities. Although estimates within the intelligence community concerning how far along Iran’s nuclear development has come vary widely, the bottom line is that Iran does not appear to be backing down in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
In its actions, Iran is pursuing multiple goals. Since the 1979 revolution, it has tried to position itself as a regional hegemon, and the past five years have made these designs more likely. Nuclear development fits neatly with Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, and seems tied to the regional chaos that it has stirred up. As Ahmed Al-Jarallah, editor-in-chief of Kuwait’s Arab Times, wrote in a recent editorial, “[w]henever the US forces Iran into a corner over its nuclear programme, Tehran works hard to shift this battle to Arab countries.” Indeed, last summer the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah was precipitated the same day that Iran was supposed to report to the International Atomic Energy Agency about its nuclear program: Hizballah’s incursion into Israel came on July 12, the date of the IAEA deadline.
According to a senior American military intelligence source, Iranian factions are debating whether they would like chaos to embroil multiple areas in August and September in a bid to force the United States out of Iraq. Some factions disagree, arguing that it would be foolish to fight a war on so many fronts, and that they should conserve their resources for the U.S.’s withdrawal from Iraq.
Expect Iran to turn up the heat in Iraq in August. But don’t be surprised if Tehran’s “global warming” agenda reaches far beyond that.
– Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.