February 16, 2007


Inside the Quds Force: America's New Enemy?: Bush blames Iran's Quds Force for a spike in anti-American violence in Iraq. Who are they, and how tight are their ties with Tehran? (Michael Hirsh, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Mark Hosenball, Feb. 15, 2007, Newsweek)

The Quds Force was created by the IRGC--the powerful institution created to defend Iran's 1979 Islamist revolution--toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Its purpose: to conduct operations inside Iraqi territory, especially the Kurdish region that operated somewhat autonomously from Saddam Hussein's government. "Quds" means "Jerusalem" in Arabic, and the goal of the Islamist revolutionaries who started the group was to take over Jerusalem after capturing Baghdad. Even after the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, the Quds Force, or Quds Brigade as it is also called, maintained three major foreign operations: supporting the Kurds in Iraq against Saddam, backing the Muslim Bosnians against the Serbs and working with Masoud and his Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. After Masoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives on Sept. 9., 2001, Quds Force members helped the U.S.-assisted Northern Alliance cross the Kokcha River between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and advance toward Kabul to oust the Taliban, according to Iranian officials.

Perhaps no one has benefited from the Quds Force's patronage more than the current president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, who is also a close U.S. ally. Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party was Iran's main ally in northern Iraq during the 1980s. When fighting broke out between rival Kurdish groups in the mid-'90s, the Quds Force fought on Talabani's side against Massoud Barzani, whose Kurdish party had asked for Saddam Hussein's help.

Today, the Iranian government still maintains that its officials enter Iraq only at the invitation of the Iraqi government. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, said his Shiite nation's "interest is in not undermining the current Iraqi government," which is Shia-dominated. "That's the most important issue," he said, adding that the Bush administration's own recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq said the violence in Iraq was largely "self-sustained."

The confusion over the Quds Force--what exactly they're doing in Iraq and how they came to be there--has created a dangerous ambiguity about the Iranian operatives who are now being targeted by U.S. forces. That became clear late last year when key Iraqi politicians complained that U.S. troops had arrested two Iranians who were guests of the Iraqi government. The incident occurred after Talabani hammered out a security agreement with Iranian officials last fall. In December, two IRGC officials were invited to Iraq, including a man believed to be the third most senior Quds Force official, Mohsen Chizari. U.S. troops arrested the men, even though they had diplomatic passports. Talabani demanded immediate release of the Iranians and confirmed that they had been invited by the Iraqi government.

On the night they were detained, the two Iranians had met with Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organization, once the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Ameri also heads up the security committee in the Iraqi National Assembly. The two officials had come, Ameri told NEWSWEEK, to discuss security issues. Ameri said two top Iraqi government officials, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and national-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, had asked the Iranian government to help rein in the Mahdi Army, the rival Shiite militia directed by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that is believed to be responsible for death squads and other sectarian violence, as well as attacks on U.S. troops. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki "wanted Iran's help and said you can influence this issue," Ameri said in an interview. "This led to the Iranians sending the group with the diplomatic passports." He added: "They had a meeting with me and we talked about how to put pressure on the Jaish Mahdi [Mahdi Army] not to attack Sunnis ... how to prevent the Jaish Mahdi from working against the government and not to raise their weapons illegally."

The spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, later said that U.S. soldiers had found long lists of weapons inventories in the SCIRI compound where the Iranian officials were staying. He said SCIRI representatives told the Americans the weapons were for their protection. The upshot is that while the American military is blaming the Quds Force and IRGC for all sorts of misdeeds, the highest officials in the U.S.-backed Iraqi government appear to be buying weapons from them and asking for their help on security issues.

Yet even if elements of the Quds Force are involved in weapons trafficking, it is unclear if they are being directed by Tehran or if they are freelancing. After the war in Bosnia in the '90s, some former Quds Force members were known to engage in smuggling, apparently without the knowledge of their central command.

One of the things that keeps Iran from having a particularly repressive regime is how widely diffused power is.

U.S. has little data on Iranian unit under suspicion (Scott Shane, February 17, 2007, NY Times)

Questions about what exactly Quds Force officers have done and whether they acted at the direction of the Iranian leadership have taken on particular urgency as the Bush administration sends more troops to damp the violence in Baghdad and ratchets up its rhetoric against Iran.

Administration officials have made new claims that advanced improvised explosive devices are being provided by the Iranians. Even so, they have vehemently denied they have any plans to go to war against Iran.

Though the U.S. allegations about the Quds Force have received attention from administration officials and the media only in recent weeks, they are not new. On several occasions over the last year, senior Pentagon officials have spoken publicly about the Iranian role in Iraq.

But by all accounts, the imperfect nature of U.S. intelligence agencies' reporting on Iran makes certain conclusions difficult to reach. "I just don't think we have a very acute understanding of the internal workings of the regime in Iran," said Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The competing power centers inside the Iranian government, and the intense secrecy that obscures decision- making, make answers elusive.

"We know that the Quds Force is involved," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters on Thursday. "We know the Quds Force is a paramilitary arm of the IRGC," he added, using the abbreviation for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"So we assume that the leadership of the IRGC knows about this," Gates said. "Whether or not more senior political leaders in Iran know about it, we don't know."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2007 11:35 AM

One of the things that keeps Iran from being part of the 'community of nations' (and in the Axis of Evil) is all the private armies and gangs. They may play off each other inside their borders, but outside, all the links to terrorism, assassination, shady nuclear business, and the like, do not provide a basis for normal diplomatic relations. Neither do such 'cross-matrices' provide plausible deniability (in D.C.-speak).

And I'm sure "reformers" within Iran are disheartened to know that there is no real accountability for the government.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 16, 2007 12:28 PM

Jim is on the right track here. One of the very reasons the lands under the dominion of the spiritual jailhouse are in such bad straits is that "confusion" some of us keep writing about.

That is one of their great weaknesses, but is is one they are wielding as a weapon. Because the various cell blocks do not exercise the responsibilities of sovereignity, but attempt to claim its privileges, they are waging war against the house of war without accepting accountability.

Consider the recent debate about weapons coming from Iran in support of bandit activity in Iraq. Are those weapons coming from the "highest circles of government," or are they coming out from the confusion that is the jailhouse?

Should it matter to us? Not really, I would posit. Whether the wardens of the "Iran" cell block will to send the weapons, or suffer the weapons to be sent, or are incapable of preventing the weapons being sent, the effect is the same.

We need to understand that our categories and concepts do not fit over there. If we were to pretend that they did, we would be setting ourselves up to be manipulated the way we should be manipulating.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 16, 2007 2:14 PM

Lou said it best.

About a month ago, at the secret Mr. Cohen's place, he posted a lengthy paragraph on why 'relating' to Iran is so difficult (I attribute my comment pretty much to him). Right now, Iran is able to act out on the international stage because no one can prove that Khameini is the evil mastermind of everything bad there (if he is). Or perhaps it is all Ahmadinejad's fault. Or Yazid's (and who has ever heard of him?). Or perhaps Khatami fooled us all.

And when students are beaten and/or expelled from the universities, who is to blame? When newspapers are closed and websites shut down - who is doing it? Who is taking land from families in the agricultural north? The Revolutionary Guards? The local police? The religious police? Private goons for hire? The Basij? The Quds? The army? The Proud Pious Protectors of Ali Khameini's Black Turban?

It could just be nobody really knows. Or it could be like when Stalin was arresting all the old Bolsheviks. When the OGPU knocked at Ordokhonidze's door, he called Stalin on the phone, and Stalin said "I didn't send them and I can't stop them. They might come for me next".

That is why Iran is not a democracy, and why structural change is necessary, not just tweaks. And it isn't a Shi'a thing, or even a Muslim thing; it's a human thing.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 16, 2007 3:39 PM

You're all creeping towards an insight here. Iran (like S. Lebanon and Palestine and so on) will become a more normal nation as it develops a more centralized government that exercises greater day-to-day power over people's lives. That's one of the ways that oil is poisonous to them--it prevents a thorough tax regime.

Its great problem is that it is not as repressive as a modern Western nation-state.

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2007 3:50 PM

So, it's not an equal-opportunity oppressor? A strange way to put it.

Centralization will help, if the 'state' can become more transparent. Right now, Iran is as murky as the Cuyohoga River on that fateful day in 1969.

Posted by: ratbert at February 16, 2007 4:22 PM

No, it's not as oppressive as modern states are.

Posted by: oj at February 16, 2007 10:03 PM