Washington and Tehran appear poised for a confrontation. U.S. military officials presented evidence they say shows Iran’s government has been supplying weapons (NYT) to Iraqi Shiite extremist groups. The munitions include mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and armor-piercing explosive devices, called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), all bearing serial numbers that U.S. officials claim link them to the Iranian regime. The Los Angeles Times offers photographs of the weapons. U.S. officials allege that Iran’s Quds Force—an elite component of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—supplied the weapons, and that they were responsible for 170 American deaths and hundreds more casualties. Confronted by skeptics, President Bush at a Wednesday press conference reiterated the charges, saying “The Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs.” This Backgrounder examines the role of Iran and its Quds Force in Iraq.
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the assertions in an ABC News interview, saying the U.S. charges were part of a case Washington is building to justify military action against his country. Some experts and lawmakers say the Bush administration needs a convenient scapegoat (NYT) and question the timing of the disclosure, given that the allegations of Iranian support for Iraqi militias stretch back to 2004. Even General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doubts the reports of Iranian involvement in Iraq (MSNBC). In this Podcast, Georgetown University’s Paul R. Pillar agrees there is scant evidence to prove Tehran is directly orchestrating attacks against U.S. forces, while others say Washington is ignoring Saudi Arabia’s support (CSMonitor) for Sunni insurgents, who are responsible for a larger number of attacks against U.S. forces than Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Reasons to avoid a direct military confrontation with Iran run the gamut (Economist). Domestically, any escalation will solidify Iran’s hardliners, postpone political reform, and potentially trigger a retaliation “that could spiral out of control,” predicts a new report from the International Crisis Group. Better not to isolate Iran but rather integrate it into the global economy, argue CFR Senior Fellows Vali R. Nasr and Ray Takeyh in the Washington Post, because “the regime's influence would inevitably yield to the private sector, with its demands for accountability and reform.” A military conflict with Tehran also could paralyze global energy markets, economists say, given that Iran sits atop 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia.
But some experts say these fears may be overblown. Any disruption to Iran’s oil exports would disrupt its already frail economy, argues Arnon Gutfeld of Tel Aviv University. “[T]he West may actually be better able than Iran to tolerate a shutdown of Iranian exports,” he writes. A spike in domestic demand for energy, fueled by artificially low prices and a booming population, has far outstripped production. Roger Stern of Johns Hopkins University predicts Iranian oil exports could decline to zero by 2015 unless there is a surge in foreign investment or decline in domestic production. Conditions have deteriorated to the point where Iran has begun rationing its gasoline, writes Abbas William Samii of the Center for Naval Analyses in the Weekly Standard. With global oil prices on the wane, some experts advocate a “do-nothing” approach that allows Iran’s economy to collapse under its own misguided energy policies. Others advocate ratcheting up financial pressure, as the U.S. Treasury has been doing in recent weeks to starve Iranian banks from financing atomic energy projects.