Staying One Step Ahead of Iran

New strategies are needed if the U.S. is going to counteract Iranian influence.

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In this Sept. 22, 2011 photo, members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard march in front of the mausoleum of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, during armed an forces parade marking the 31st anniversary of the start of the Iraq-Iran war. Among the many mysteries inside Iran's ruling hierarchy, the Quds Force, which sits atop the vast military and industrial network of the Revolutionary Guard, has a special place in the shadows.

Ten days ago, I wrote here about the issue of "special war" and the threats and opportunities that it raised for the United States. Well, in this week's New Yorker, Dexter Filkins has a long-form piece on such special war as practiced by the commander of the Iranian government's elite Quds force, Qassem Suleimani. (The Quds force is a subunit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for irregular warfare and supporting proxy wars and is listed on the State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism.)

According to Filkins:

Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran's favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. "Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today," John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, "and no one's ever heard of him."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Today, Filkins notes, Suleimani is orchestrating Iran's support for Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. He writes:

Suleimani began flying into Damascus frequently so that he could assume personal control of the Iranian intervention. "He's running the war himself," an American defense official told me. In Damascus, he is said to work out of a heavily fortified command post in a nondescript building, where he has installed a multinational array of officers: the heads of the Syrian military, a Hezbollah commander, and a coördinator of Iraqi Shiite militias, which Suleimani mobilized and brought to the fight. If Suleimani couldn't have the Basij [the conventional arm of the IRGC], he settled for the next best thing: Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, the Basij's former deputy commander. Hamedani, another comrade from the Iran-Iraq War, was experienced in running the kind of irregular militias that the Iranians were assembling, in order to keep on fighting if Assad fell.

This was followed by a sharp increase in flights carrying arms and ammunition to Syria over Iraqi airspace. He reports:

"Instead of a handful a week, planes were coming every day, carrying weapons and ammunition – "tons of it," the Middle Eastern security official told me – along with officers from the Quds Force. According to American officials, the officers coördinated attacks, trained militias, and set up an elaborate system to monitor rebel communications. They also forced the various branches of Assad's security services – designed to spy on one another – to work together. The Middle Eastern security official said that the number of Quds Force operatives, along with the Iraqi Shiite militiamen they brought with them, reached into the thousands. "They're spread out across the entire country," he told me.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Filkins asserts that Iran learned two lessons from the Iran-Iraq war: (1) that they were "surrounded by enemies, near and far" and (2) "the futility of fighting a head-to-head confrontation." And from this, the Quds force emerged as "an ideal tool," whether it be through attacking Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina or by helping to advise and assist Hezbollah in Lebanon or in complicating the political dynamics in Iraq and helping to get Nouri al-Maliki elected there. (Filkins reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's government sends $20 million from oil revenues to Suleimani who then uses those funds to carry out operations.)

As John R. Schindler pointed out, this type of threat is growing and the United States has not yet developed the capability to deal with it effectively. Filkins' piece shows that Suleimani has done a masterful job so far of playing his hand to advance Iranian interests abroad. It is not a stretch to think that others might adopt such strategies – and, in fact, Qatar seems to be executing such a strategy in places such as Libya in 2011 and in current day Syria and, in doing so, appears to be punching above its weight internationally. Former U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel, and assistant director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, David Maxwell has long discussed such matters and has argued that the U.S. "must devise a counter-[unconventional warfare] strategy with supporting campaign plans that will protect our interests."

This form of indirect strategy can be difficult to counter and conduct because it can be calibrated to maximize costs on outside actors such as the United States and it requires long-term commitments, patience and skilled personnel to carry it out. In a time of budgetary constraints here, let's hope that the right decisions are made to maintain and expand, as necessary, the capability to counter and conduct such an indirect strategy in both the military and in other federal agencies or else we may risk getting further behind the eight ball.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.