From the moment the first U.S. warheads detonate over an Iranian nuclear installation, the United States will be at war with the Islamic Republic. A vast tableau of American facilities around the world—as well as the streets of U.S. cities—could be targets for retaliation by Iran’s agents and surrogates. “The Americans should know that if they assault Iran, their interests will be harmed anywhere in the world that is possible,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, warned last month.
The most likely theater of operations in the initial stages of a U.S.-Iranian conflict, however, would be next door—in Iraq. Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iran has methodically built and strengthened its military, political and religious influence in Iraq. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has extensively infiltrated Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior and police force, both mainstays of Shiite power. The hundreds of Iranian mullahs and businessmen who have slipped across the border have a commanding presence in southern Iraq’s commercial and religious sectors.
Iran’s sway over Shiite militias and its considerable paramilitary presence in Iraq give Tehran leverage in the ongoing nuclear stalemate with Washington, and would emerge as a key factor should armed conflict break out. U.S. forces and prestige are vulnerable in Iraq, making them particularly attractive targets. However, should Iran decide to strike in Iraq, it would have to weigh competing priorities: a desire for revenge against the Americans, and the strategic need to both avoid chaos in its western neighbor and bolster the political role of Iraq’s Shiite majority.
How Iran resolves this dilemma would go a long way toward determining the outcome of a U.S.-Iranian conflict—as well as the future of the U.S. war in Iraq.
Iran ’s paramilitary and intelligence buildup in Iraq would put some members of the “coalition of the willing” to shame. Over the past three years, Tehran has deployed to Iraq a large number of the Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force—a highly professional force specializing in assassinations and bombings—as well as officers from the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security and representatives of Lebanese Hezbollah.
The Qods Force has a longstanding relationship with Hezbollah, which it trains and supplies in coordination with Syria through an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps unit in central Lebanon. In the words of Iranian Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the IRGC commander, “The range of [the IRGC’s] duty is not limited to our land and we have extra-border missions.”
Iranian personnel have established safe houses throughout southern Iraq. They monitor the movement of coalition forces, tend weapons caches, facilitate cross-border travel of clerics, smuggle munitions into Iraq and recruit individuals as intelligence sources. Presumably, Tehran has recruited networks within U.S. military bases and civilian compounds that could be activated on short notice. Iran is also believed by regional intelligence agencies to have armed and trained as many as 40,000 Iraqis to prevent an unlikely rollback of Shiite control.
Coalition forces have suffered the consequences of Iran’s military presence. U.S. and British officials contend that the IRGC has introduced into Iraq “shaped charge designs”—powerful bombs that channel the force of an explosion into a narrow path. (Lebanese Hezbollah also has used such bombs effectively against Israeli tanks.) According to the British, at least 10 of their soldiers in southern Iraq have been killed since May 2005 by the combination of such explosives and remote triggering devices. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in a March briefing with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that these makeshift bombs are “traceable back to Iran.”
U.S. troops have improved their force protection skills over the past three years and are more adroit at detecting such bombs. But it is just not possible to fully safeguard 135,000 troops, let alone the 30,000 contractors and civilians working in Iraq. If the IRGC activated its agents within U.S. forward operating bases, or used indirect fire weapons—Katyusha rockets or heavy mortars—Iran could kill sizable concentrations of soldiers in mess halls, sleeping quarters, headquarters tents and other key facilities. The overall level of violence in Iraq—75 insurgent attacks per month in 2006, including 144 bombings that killed more than three people each—would give Tehran some plausible deniability.
Iran ’s clerical regime could complicate matters for Washington even more by pressing its Shiite allies in Iraq to demand a U.S. withdrawal. The leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has counseled patience and refrained from challenging the U.S. military presence; he is also wary of Tehran’s influence over Iraqi politics. However, Abul al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has closer ties to Tehran and has publicly chastised Washington for not tackling the Sunni insurgency. (The council’s armed wing, the Badr Organization, musters thousands of armed members.) And the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr also receives subsidies from Iran.
Although the Islamic Republic may not be able to obtain a fatwa against the United States from Iraq’s most esteemed clerics, it can still count on the backing of important segments of the Shiite community, particularly those jockeying for power within it. This support could quickly produce mobs of young men in the street protesting the occupation.
Tehran is capable of wreaking havoc in Iraq, and it may consider such a move in response to a U.S. attack. However, as Iraq continues its descent into chaos, Tehran must balance its desire to hurt the United States with the equally compelling objective of fostering an orderly transition to Shiite rule in Iraq.
This need for balance is rooted in Iran’s wartime experience during its long conflict with Hussein’s Iraq. As Iran and Iraq are both Shiite-majority nations, the historic animosity between them has had less to do with religion than politics.
Indeed, an uneasy consensus has evolved among the Iranian leadership that the impetus for the war with Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians from 1980 to 1988, lay in the Sunni domination of Iraqi politics. The Sunni minority sought to justify its rule under the Baathist regime by embracing a pan-Arabist program; ultimately, this quest for glory abroad led to an assertion of hegemony in the Persian Gulf region and a devastating war with Iran. Empowerment of the more congenial Shiites in Iraq emerged as a key postwar objective of the Islamic Republic, and that empowerment depends on a modicum of political and social stability.
Ironically, the Iranian clerical hard-liners, so adamant about suppressing the reform movement at home, have emerged as advocates of democratic pluralism in Iraq. The Bush administration’s satisfaction with January’s parliamentary elections was echoed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the reactionary head of the powerful Guardian Council, when he said: “ Iraq is now going through its election cycle. The election results are very good.” Iran’s theocrats appreciate that the surest way to advance their interests is to support an electoral process that will yield a state with strong provinces and a weak federal structure. That would keep the Shiites up, the Kurds in and the Sunnis down.
How, then, will Tehran reconcile its war aims with its determination to preserve stability in Iraq? Look back to the early 1980s, when a U.S.-Iranian confrontation played itself out in hapless Lebanon.
In that conflict, Iran did not subvert Lebanon’s already brittle society by assassinating politicians and damaging the national infrastructure. Iran certainly could have done so, given its extensive network of clerical sympathizers, guerrillas and terrorists. Instead, Tehran opted for an incremental and deadly campaign of violence against the U.S. presence. It was at the behest of Iran that Hezbollah wrecked the U.S. Embassy in 1983, wiping out the CIA’s cadre of Near East experts, and struck American barracks in Beirut in 1984, killing 241 Marines.
In contemplating war with Iran today, the Bush administration should remember the lessons of Lebanon. The U.S. presence in Iraq—with its ubiquitous convoys, vast embassy compound, vulnerable forward operating bases and legions of civilian workers—provides equally tempting targets. The U.S. commitment to Iraq is of course far greater than it was to Lebanon a quarter-century ago. And Washington is unlikely to redefine its interests with the alacrity of the Reagan administration and withdraw as swiftly. Nonetheless, the burden under which the United States now labors in Iraq would become exponentially heavier, with the pressure to exit threatening to overwhelm the strategic need to stay.