James Kitfield, National Journal:
What if the United States went to war with the wrong country? The firestorm sparked by the Iranian-backed Islamic extremist group Hezbollah in the past week, and the host of crises erupting in the Middle East with Tehran's fingerprints on them, recall just how fateful a decision the Bush administration made in choosing Iraq as the main battlefield in its global war on terrorism. READ MORE
After 9/11, with U.S. military forces having quickly toppled the Taliban and routed Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and with much of the world united in what was seen as a just cause against terrorists, American coercive power was at its pinnacle. Iran, flanked by U.S. forces to the east that were deposing the rival Taliban, and lumped by President Bush into an "axis of evil," actually opened secret negotiating channels to Washington in an effort to accommodate the wrathful superpower.
At that moment of maximum leverage, the Bush administration shifted its gaze and much of the world's attention next door -- to Tehran's old nemesis in Baghdad. That decision helps explain the escalating crisis in the region over the past week and also explains why a greatly emboldened Iran is becoming the greatest impediment to the U.S. campaign to stabilize the volatile Middle East and win Bush's "global war on terror."
In focusing on Iraq, the Bush administration argued that secular dictator Saddam Hussein was the central player at the nexus of terrorism, rogue-state support, and weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, more than a decade of United Nations sanctions had weakened and isolated Iraq, and undeniably made Saddam the low-hanging fruit among the "axis of evil."
But was Saddam really the figure most central to the radical Islamic insurgency that struck the United States on September 11, 2001? Was it Iraq, or the mullahs in Tehran, who provided the most ideological and financial succor to Muslim extremists and their cause of establishing an Islamic caliphate? Who was closest to having a nuclear weapon that might one day threaten the United States? Which nation had really engaged in a low-grade, undeclared war against America?
Define your enemy as "global terrorism," and a war against any rogue state will do to teach the evildoers a lesson. The venom unleashed on America five years ago, however, had a very specific nature. Failure to grasp the varied sources of that poison and to sever the most-lethal nonstate terrorists from the support and technology of their most sympathetic rogue state has worked to empower the very forces threatening the United States.
"Invading Iraq played directly into the hands of Tehran, because we removed its historical rival and made Iran the unchallenged superpower in the Persian Gulf," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle Eastern expert at Sarah Lawrence College, speaking from Beirut, Lebanon, where he was trapped by the present hostilities. "Now Iran sees the U.S. military held hostage to the shifting sands of Iraq. Tehran is flush with oil money, and they are making a determined effort to destabilize the region and acquire nuclear weapons."
Gerges and other counter-terrorism experts believe that when world leaders at the G-8 summit in Russia indicated their intention to send Iran's nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council, Iranian leaders green-lighted their proxy Hezbollah's attack on Israel, in part to relieve the international pressure and drive a wedge between the United States and other members of the Security Council.
"I expect we will soon see a similar escalation in violence in Iraq, because Iran is emboldened and radical forces throughout the region are feeling similarly empowered," said Gerges, author of the 2006 book "Journey of the Jihadist." Indeed, the hugely destructive bombings in Iraq in recent days may be a portent. "You cannot understand what Hezbollah did in southern Lebanon, in killing and kidnapping those Israeli soldiers, without grasping how radical groups in the region feel that their prospects have improved considerably."
Hezbollah's reemergence as a key player in the ongoing crisis also underscores just how short of the mark the U.S.-led global war on terror has fallen in de-legitimizing terrorism or ending its state sponsorship. Tehran's willingness to grant safe passage and sanctuary to Al Qaeda and to fund Hezbollah to the tune of $100 million annually have made a mockery of Bush's warning, delivered shortly after 9/11: "If anybody harbors a terrorist, they're a terrorist. If they fund a terrorist, they're a terrorist. If they house terrorists, they're terrorists."
Frances Townsend, the White House's chief counter-terrorism counselor, readily concedes that the international community continues to conduct normal business with a regime in Tehran that harbors, funds, and trains extremists and terrorist organizations that have continually spilled American blood.
"The unfortunate current events unfolding right now in Lebanon and Israel are only the latest manifestation of the state sponsorship of terrorism, which remains a huge problem. Let's not forget that before 9/11, the greatest loss of life for U.S. citizens from a terror act was committed by Hezbollah in the 1983 bombing of our Marine barracks in Beirut," Townsend told National Journal in an interview. "Frankly, nothing makes me angrier than states like Iran who continue to use terrorism as a deliberate extension of their foreign policy. I simply don't understand why the international community doesn't have the same sense of outrage over states using terrorism as a foreign-policy tool as they have over other scourges such as slavery and genocide."
To put Tehran's role in context of the conflagration now under way in the Middle East, imagine for a moment the case the United States might have made against Iran when the world was still listening -- before the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or any solid links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Imagine where the United States would be in its global war on terror if it had succeeded, through diplomatic coercion or force, to get Iran out of the business of state-sponsored terrorism. Then ask yourself: Did the United States confront the wrong country?
Ties To Al Qaeda
In making the case for invading Iraq, Bush administration officials pointed in part to reported ties between Iraqi intelligence and Qaeda operatives. As the 9/11 commission report made clear, however, this connection originated from a single source in Czech intelligence who thought he saw 9/11 leader Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official together in Prague in April of 2001. After a subsequent investigation by the Czech government and the FBI, the 9/11 commission concluded, "The available evidence does not support the original Czech report" of a meeting between Atta and the Iraqi intelligence official.
In contrast, U.S. intelligence services have found strong evidence of ties between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, even though the two groups stand on opposite sides of Islam's Shiite-Sunni divide. Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa testified in court of meetings between Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyah, an Iranian who heads Hezbollah's terror wing.
In fact, Al Qaeda's simultaneous suicide truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 raised disturbing echoes of Hezbollah's 1983 simultaneous suicide truck bombings of buildings in Beirut housing French paratroopers and U.S. marines. Mugniyah, who along with two other Hezbollah leaders is on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists, has been directly tied to the 1983 bombings and to numerous other Hezbollah operations.
The 9/11 commission cited intelligence suggesting that as many as 10 of the 19 hijackers of September 11 traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001. In interrogations, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other detainees described the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of Qaeda members. Iranian border guards were instructed, for instance, not to place telltale stamps on Qaeda operatives' passports because they might draw the attention of Western border control agents.
In one especially suggestive case that is obviously based on communications intercepts, the 9/11 commission reported that Hezbollah operatives in Tehran in the 2000-2001 time period were expecting the arrival of a group important enough to merit the attention of "senior figures" in the terrorist organization. Perhaps coincidentally, but perhaps not, three of the future 9/11 hijackers and a close associate of a senior Hezbollah operative were all on the same plane to Iran during that time.
"In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers," the commission report concluded. "There also is circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran.... We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.... We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."
Surely after 9/11, Iran would dissolve any ties to Al Qaeda, heeding President Bush's warnings about supporting the group. Well, not exactly. U.S. officials have openly accused Iran of offering safe harbor to top Qaeda officials who escaped the U.S. dragnet in neighboring Afghanistan, reportedly including at least one and possibly more of bin Laden's sons, as well as Qaeda military commander Saif al-Adel and spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith.
"As far as we could tell, Iran didn't cooperate with Al Qaeda on an operational level, but there is no denying that Tehran allowed Al Qaeda fighters to transit its territory and offered them occasional sanctuary for R&R," said Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit and author of the 2004 book "Imperial Hubris." "Most indications suggest that the 20 or so important Al Qaeda fighters now in Iran are under a sort of house arrest, possibly to be used as bargaining chips. It's a reminder that the Iranians have always been very clever in determining exactly what level of terrorist support they can blithely engage in without putting themselves in our bull's-eye," Scheuer continued. "Clearly, they've determined that level includes allowing Al Qaeda to transit their country and find safe haven."
The Hezbollah Factor
On September 20, 2001, President Bush identified the threat that confronted the country after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there," he declared. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated."
Counter-terrorism and intelligence experts had little doubt that the president was referring first and foremost to Hezbollah, by far the most deadly and widely emulated of the Islamist terror groups that had sprung up around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Formed in 1982 by Iran's Revolutionary Guards to serve as a proxy in fighting Israeli forces that had invaded and seized the southern half of Lebanon, Hezbollah rapidly evolved and grew in Lebanon's almost perfect terrorism incubator of civil war, sanctuary, and massive state support from Iran and Syria.
The organization established a headquarters in the Muslim slums of Beirut, ran numerous terrorist training camps in the Bekaa Valley, and created a network of international cells for operations and fundraising that reached every continent. Hezbollah has its own propaganda wing that includes satellite television and radio stations and a splashy Web site.
"Hezbollah, as an organization with capability and worldwide presence, is Al Qaeda's equal, if not a far more capable organization," then-CIA Director George Tenet testified before Congress in 2003. "I actually think they're a notch above in many respects."
Almost from the beginning, Hezbollah displayed a superior operational competence. The group pioneered the tactic of suicide attacks that have increasingly come to define today's terrorist threat, and it quickly gained a reputation for producing the master bomb makers in the terrorist pantheon. Hezbollah's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983, vaporized the building's lobby and killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, eight of whom worked for the CIA. It was the worst one-day loss of life in CIA history. Reportedly, the only traces left of the marine standing guard were the melted brass buttons of his tunic.
Hezbollah's simultaneous suicide truck bombings of the French and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut six months later were even more devastating, killing 58 French paratroopers and 241 marines, the single largest peacetime loss for the U.S. military. The 19-ton blast was so powerful that the building's windows disintegrated into a molten glass spray that left surrounding trees glistening.
The group was also behind or closely connected to the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the murder of a U.S. Navy diver in 1985; the kidnapping of numerous Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s; the taking of 18 American hostages there in the same period (three of the Americans were murdered, including the CIA's Beirut station chief William Buckley); the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people and wounded hundreds; and the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Jewish Mutual Association building in Argentina that left 86 people dead. At Iran's behest, Hezbollah was behind the murder of numerous Iranian dissidents in Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Bruce Hoffman, a longtime counter-terrorism expert at the Rand think tank, participated in the investigation of the Hezbollah bombings in Argentina and was struck by the group's close operational ties to Iran. "There were a lot of suggestions that Iranian diplomatic personnel were directly involved in facilitating those attacks, and Hezbollah's Mugniyah was indicted by an Argentine court, but Iran still managed to skirt any international sanction," he said. "It shows you how skilled Iranian security service personnel and the Revolutionary Guards are at operating in the shadows."
Hezbollah And Palestinians
The symbiotic relationship between senior Iranian officials and their Hezbollah proxies was revealed in painstaking detail, however, during the investigation of the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers dormitory in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen. In a recent article, former FBI Director Louis Freeh charged senior members of the Iranian government, including officials in the defense ministry, the intelligence and security ministry, and the spiritual leader's office, with directly commissioning the Saudi arm of Hezbollah to carry out the attack. According to Freeh, the bombers admitted that they were trained by Iranian external security services in Hezbollah's Bekaa Valley training camps and said they got their passports at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, Syria, along with $250,000 cash for the operation.
According to the popular narrative, Hezbollah evolved in the last decade from its roots as a terrorist organization to a resistance movement focused on using guerrilla warfare to expel Israeli forces from Lebanon. The group perfected its hit-and-run attacks in that war, lowering the casualty ratio between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers from 10-to-1 to 1-to-1.
The withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation was a propaganda bonanza for Hezbollah. Many in the region gave the group credit as the only Arab force in arms ever to cause the Israelis to retreat. Today, Hezbollah has 23 members in the Lebanese parliament and operates a social-services network that includes hospitals and schools in many communities in southern Lebanon, a stronghold sometimes dubbed "Hezbollahland."
While some commentators believe that Hezbollah has truly moderated, counter-terrorism experts say that the organization has instead turned its focus to training and equipping Palestinian terror groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Those ties go back at least to the early 1990s, when 450 Hamas activists expelled from Israel reportedly ended up in Hezbollah's Lebanese training camps.
In this view, it was no coincidence that the current intifada by Palestinian militants began when Israel was vacating Lebanon and Hezbollah was looking for ways to carry on the fight. Of course, the most recent crisis began when Hezbollah timed its July 12 attack to open a second front for Israeli forces already engaged in fighting in the Gaza Strip -- following an almost identical hit-and-kidnap operation by Hamas.
"I think it's nothing more than wishful thinking to say that Hezbollah has moderated," Hoffman said. Working through Palestinian terror groups and doing Iran's bidding behind the scenes, he said, are consistent with Hezbollah's history. "The present crisis in Lebanon and Gaza is tailor-made to suit their agenda. Just when it looked like we were making some progress in stabilizing Lebanon's democracy, Hezbollah has once again provoked a crisis and an Israeli response that has driven a wedge between the U.S. and many of its allies and partners, and has diverted attention from Iran's nuclear program. And given the radical views expressed by Iranian President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," Hoffmann added, "we have to assume there's a strong signal coming from Tehran for Hezbollah to pursue a more radical agenda in Lebanon but perhaps elsewhere as well."
When Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion, he was given rare permission as a top U.S. official to speak directly with one of his Iranian counterparts. The United States and Iran had had no diplomatic relations since shortly after the 1979 revolution and the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. To break the ice, Khalilzad joked with his Iranian counterpart that one day the United States was going to send Tehran the bill for taking care of its regional Taliban antagonists to the east and its nemesis Saddam Hussein to the west. On a recent trip to Washington, Khalilzad, now the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, wasn't joking anymore.
"We have to be candid in acknowledging the challenge posed by a few countries, such as Syria and Iran. Iran has played a role in providing extremist groups with arms, training, and money.... Iran is playing a double role.On the one hand, it's got good state-to-state relations, but on the other hand, it's also helping extremist groups and that is not acceptable," said Khalilzad, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
If Iran persists in its efforts to destabilize Iraq, Khalilzad warned, the Iraqi government and the United States are developing a campaign and an array of countermeasures to thwart its activities in Iraq. "Strategically, it's possible that since Iraq was a balancer vis-a -vis Iran, and Iran sees itself as the natural hegemon, entitled to regional domination, that it doesn't want Iraq to reemerge to play that role."
That Iran would feel emboldened to play such a risky double game, and to arm militia and extremist groups that regularly spill the blood of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq speaks volumes about how weak the Iranians judge the U.S. position to be in the region. With more than 150,000 U.S. troops tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran clearly believes that Bush's warnings of "regime change," which appeared very serious just three years ago, now amount to empty threats.
An attack on Iran that mirrored the light force-to-population ratio that the United States employed in the invasion of Iraq would require nearly half a million troops, a nonstarter for a U.S. military already stretched dangerously thin. The distances from the border to Tehran are also much longer than the run to Baghdad was, and the routes span mountainous terrain and contain numerous potential chokepoints.
Given Americans' dwindling support for the Iraq war and given the global alarm over the record price of oil, Tehran is also betting that the United States is unlikely to win international support for any action that might risk closing the strategic oil sea lane at the Strait of Hormuz, even temporarily.
"The Iranians see big, bad America bogged down in a quagmire in the region, and think they smell strategic weakness," said Paul Pillar, formerly the CIA's top intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. "Iran is still avoiding the really nasty stuff it did in the 1980s such as fomenting revolutions in the Persian Gulf states and assassinating Iranian dissidents all over Europe -- which has rehabilitated Iran's image to the point where the United States is really the odd man out internationally in imposing sanctions," Pillar said. "But Iran continues to foment violence against Israel, it has maintained its relationship with Hezbollah, and it is helping to arm and train Shiite militia groups in Iraq, while falling short of instigating actual attacks."
In Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces believe they recognize the fingerprints of a familiar hand. Last year, for instance, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that a bombing that killed eight British soldiers in Iraq bore the hallmarks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah. American military officials strongly suspect that Iran is helping to arm the militia of renegade Iraqi cleric Moktada al-Sadr, which engaged U.S. forces in pitched battles in the spring of 2004 and precipitated the worst crisis of the U.S. occupation.
In fact, Iranian efforts to arm and train al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" disturbingly resemble the blueprint Iran followed with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza and the West Bank. Earlier this year, al-Sadr traveled to Tehran and publicly pledged to come to Iran's defense if it was attacked by the United States.
"Iran continues to provide militias in Iraq with 'shaped charges' that can penetrate our armor and are responsible for a great deal of the catastrophic injuries that coalition and Iraqi forces are suffering, so we do have that ax to grind," said a knowledgeable U.S. military officer. "But as usual, Iran has walked a fine line and maintained plausible deniability by using proxies like Hezbollah and these Shiite militia groups, and we've done a poor job of defining red lines that they cannot cross without paying a disproportionate price."
Looking at the situation from Tehran's perspective, the officer said, it's easy to see why Iran is feeling emboldened. "We've removed the Taliban threat from the east and the Iraqi threat from the west, and that's given them a lot of operational breathing room. The only force that can challenge them in the region is the U.S. military, which I believe is helping generate Iran's push to acquire nuclear weapons in order to deter us."
When the Bush administration built its case in 2003 that Iraq was imminently close to acquiring nuclear weapons, officials relied on intelligence indicating that Saddam had sought aluminum tubes for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium, and "yellow cake" uranium ore from Niger. Most of the rest of the administration's evidence on Iraq's supposed nuclear program was more than a decade old. As it turned out, the aluminum tubes were intended for rockets or artillery, and the "yellow cake" purchase probably never happened.
By contrast, in 2002 an Iranian dissident group had revealed -- and the International Atomic Energy Agency later confirmed -- that Iran had secretly constructed two nuclear facilities, including a uranium enrichment plant in the town of Natanz. That was a clear violation of Iran's commitment to transparency as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. IAEA inspectors and U.S. intelligence had also tied Iran to the black-market nuclear-smuggling ring of A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb who was also peddling nuclear weapons technology and blueprints to North Korea and Libya.
"There's a host of evidence suggesting that Iran has been engaged in undeclared nuclear activity for 18 years with the goal of acquiring a weapon, and every time they've been confronted with evidence of their concealment, the Iranians just say, 'Oh, that was an oversight,'" said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "It's impossible to know for sure when Iran might produce a nuclear weapon, but at this rate I'd say it could be sometime in the next one to four years."
After the election of the radical and former Revolutionary Guardsman Ahmadinejad as president of Iran last year, that prospect has become even more alarming. Since taking office, Ahmadinejad has famously declared that Israel should be "wiped from the face of the Earth." And in a baffling speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he pronounced as his divine purpose preparation for the second coming of the "12th Imam," which a Shiite religious cult claims will occur only after the Apocalypse. Ahmadinejad, who fired 40 Iranian ambassadors and replaced them with hard-liners who come mainly from the Revolutionary Guards, has also stated that "a world without America" is "attainable and surely can be achieved."
Larry Haas, a visiting senior fellow at Georgetown's Environmental Affairs Institute who has written extensively on Iran, says, "I think with Iran we're in a uniquely dangerous situation. We now have the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism headed by a president with a shaky grasp on reality, who believes it's his religious destiny to provoke a confrontation with the West as a prelude to the end of the world and the return of the 12th Imam."
Nor is the hot rhetoric coming solely from Ahmadinejad. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has publicly promised to share nuclear capability with allies and friends such as Sudan, a former sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda. One of Khamenei's top aides claims to have a strategy drawn up "for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization," down to a level of detail of "29 sensitive sites in the U.S. and West" that Iran has "already spied on, and we know how we are going to attack them." Haas says, "I think prudence demands we take these people at their word, because the world will be a very different place if they acquire nuclear weapons."
Journalism does not allow for "counterfactual history," or a clear look down the road not taken at historic turning points. Yet it's tempting to wonder how different the world might be if then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had been armed with the facts about Iran instead of Iraq when he addressed the United Nations and the world on February 5, 2003:
"When we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction, and provides haven and active support for terrorists, we're not confronting the past, we are confronting the present," Powell said that fateful day. "And unless we act, we are confronting an even more frightening future."