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Iranian Proxies: An Intricate and Active Web

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By Scott Stewart

For the past few years, STRATFOR has been carefully following the imbroglio over the Iranian nuclear weapons program and efforts by the United States and others to scuttle the program. This situation has led to threats by both sides, with the United States and Israel discussing plans to destroy Iranian weapons sites with airstrikes and the Iranians holding well-publicized missile launches and military exercises in the Persian Gulf.

Much attention has been paid to the Iranian deterrents to an attack on its nuclear program, such as the ballistic missile threat and the potential to block the Strait of Hormuz, but these are not the only deterrents Iran possesses. Indeed, over the past several years, Iran has consistently reminded the world about the network of proxy groups that the country can call upon to cause trouble for any country that would attack its nuclear weapons program.

Over the past several weeks, interesting new threads of information about Iranian proxies have come to light, and when the individual strands are tied together they make for a very interesting story.

Iran's Proxies

From almost the very beginning of the Islamic republic, Iran's clerical regime has sought to export its Islamic revolution to other parts of the Muslim world. This was done not only for ideological purposes -- to continue the revolution -- but also for practical reasons, as a way to combat regional adversaries by means of proxy warfare. Among the first groups targeted for this expansion were the Shiite populations in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and, of course, Lebanon. The withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon in 1982 left behind a cadre of trained Shiite militants who were quickly recruited by agents of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These early Lebanese recruits included hardened PLO fighters from the slums of South Beirut such as Imad Mughniyah. These fighters formed the backbone of Iran's militant proxy force in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which, in the ensuing decades, would evolve from a shadowy terrorist group into a powerful political entity with a significant military capability.

One of the most impressive things about these early proxy efforts in Lebanon is that the IRGC and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security were both very young institutions at the time, and they were heavily pressured by the 1980 invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which was backed by the Gulf states and the United States. The Iranians also had to compete with the Amal movement, which was backed by Libya and Syria and which dominated the Lebanese Shiite landscape at the time. Projecting power into Lebanon under such conditions was quite an amazing feat, one that many more mature intelligence organizations have not been able to match.

Though these institutions were young, the Iranians were not without experience in intelligence tradecraft. The years of operating against the Shah's intelligence service, a brutal and efficient organization known as the SAVAK, taught the Iranian revolutionaries many hard-learned lessons about operational security and clandestine operations, and they incorporated many of these lessons into their handling of proxy operations. For example, it was very difficult for the U.S. government to prove that the Iranians, through their proxies, were behind the bombings of the U.S. Embassy (twice) and Marine barracks in Beirut or the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon. The use of different names in public statements such as the Islamic Jihad Organization, Revolutionary Justice Organization and the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, when combined with very good Iranian operational security, served to further muddy the already murky waters of Lebanon's militant landscape. Iran has also done a fairly good job at hiding its hand in places like Kuwait and Bahrain.

While Iran has invested a lot of effort to build up Shiite proxy groups such as Hezbollah and assorted other groups in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the Iranians do not exclusively work with Shiite proxies. As we discussed last week, the Iranians also have a pragmatic streak and will work with Marxist groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, Sunni groups like Hamas in Gaza and various militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan (they sought to undermine the Taliban while that group was in power in Afghanistan but are currently aiding some Taliban groups in an effort to thwart the U.S. effort there). In an extremely complex game, the Iranians are also working with various Sunni and Kurdish groups in Iraq, in addition to their Shiite proxies, as they seek to shape their once-feared neighbor into something they can more-easily influence and control.

More than Foot Stomping

For several years now, every time there is talk of a possible attack on Iran there is a corresponding threat by Iran to use its proxy groups in response to such an attack. Iran has also been busy pushing intelligence reports to anybody who will listen (including STRATFOR) that it will activate its militant proxy groups if attacked and, to back that up, will periodically send operatives or proxies out to conduct not-so-subtle surveillance of potential targets. Hezbollah and Hamas have both stated publicly that they will attack Israel if Israel launches an attack against Iran's nuclear program, and such threats are far more than mere rhetorical devices. Iran has taken many concrete steps to prepare and arm its various proxy groups:

  • On Dec. 11, 2009, authorities seized an Ilyushin-76 cargo plane in Bangkok that contained 35 tons of North Korean-produced military weapons that were destined for Iran (though Iran, naturally, denies the report). The weapons, which included man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), were either equivalent to, or less advanced than, weapons Iran produces on its own. This fact raised the real possibility that the Iranians had purchased the North Korean weapons in order to distribute them to proxies and hide Iran's hand if those arms were recovered after an attack.
  • In November 2009, Israeli naval commandos seized a ship off the coast of Cyprus that was loaded with hundreds of tons of weapons that were apparently being sent from Iran to Hezbollah. The seizure, which was the largest in Israel's history, included artillery shells, rockets, grenades and small-arms ammunition.
  • In August 2009, authorities in the United Arab Emirates seized a ship carrying 10 containers of North Korean weapons disguised as oil equipment. The seized cache included weapons that Iran produces itself, like rockets and rocket-propelled grenade rounds, again raising the probability that the arms were intended for Iran's militant proxies.
  • In April 2009, Egyptian authorities announced that they had arrested a large network of Hezbollah operatives who were planning attacks against Israeli targets inside Egypt. It is likely, however, that the network was involved in arms smuggling and the charges of planning attacks may have been leveled against the smugglers to up the ante and provide a warning message to anyone considering smuggling in the future.
  • In January 2009, a convoy of suspected arms smugglers in northern Sudan near the Egyptian border was attacked by an apparent Israeli air strike. The arms were reportedly destined for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and were tied to an Iranian network that, according to STRATFOR sources in the region, had been purchasing arms in Sudan and shipping them across the Sinai to Gaza.

As illustrated by most of the above incidents (and several others we did not include for the sake of brevity), Israeli intelligence has been actively attempting to interdict the flow of weapons to Iran and Iranian proxy groups. Such Israeli efforts may explain the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, whose body was discovered Jan. 20 in his room at a five-star hotel in Dubai. Al-Mabhouh, a senior commander of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, lived in exile in Damascus and was reportedly the Hamas official responsible for coordinating the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hamas forces in Gaza. A STRATFOR source advised us that, at the time of his death, al-Mabhouh was on his way to Tehran to meet with his IRGC handlers. The operation to kill al-Mabhouh also bears many similarities to past Israeli assassination operations. His status as an Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades commander involved in many past attacks against Israel would certainly make him an attractive target for the Israelis.

Of course, like anything involving the Iranians, there remains quite a bit of murkiness involving the totality of their meddling in the region. Hezbollah sources have told STRATFOR that they have troops actively engaged in combat in Yemen, with the al-Houthi rebels in the northern province of Saada along the Saudi border, and have lost several fighters there. Hezbollah also has claimed that its personnel have shot down several Yemeni aircraft using Iranian-manufactured Misagh-1 MANPADS.

The governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia have very good reason to fear Iran's plans to expand its influence in the Gulf region, and the Yemenis in particular have been very vocal about blaming Iran for stirring up the al-Houthi rebels. Because of this, if there truly were Hezbollah fighters being killed in Saada and signs of Iranian ordnance (like MANPADS) being used by Hezbollah fighters or al-Houthi rebels, we believe the government of Yemen would have been documenting the evidence and providing the documentation to the world (especially in light of Yemen's long and unsuccessful attempt to gain U.S. assistance for its struggle against the al-Houthi insurgency). That said, while Hezbollah MANPADS teams are not likely to be running around Saada, there is evidence that the Iranians have been involved in smuggling weapons to the al-Houthi via Yemen's rugged Red Sea coast. Indeed, such arms smuggling has resulted in a Saudi naval blockade of the Yemeni coast. Reports of al-Houthi militants being trained by the IRGC in Lebanon and Iran are also plausible.

Iran has long flirted with jihadist groups. This support has sporadically stretched from the early days of al Qaeda's stay in Sudan, where Hezbollah bomb makers instructed al Qaeda militants in how to make large vehicle bombs, to more recent times, when the IRGC has provided arms to Iraqi Sunni militants and Taliban factions in Afghanistan. Iran has also provided weapons to the now-defunct Supreme Islamic Courts Council in Somalia and one of its offshoots, al Shabaab.

Over the past several months we have also heard from a variety of sources in different parts of the Middle East that the Iranians are assisting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some reports indicate that a jihadist training camp that had previously been operating in Syria to train and send international fighters to Iraq had been relocated to Iran, and that with Iranian assistance, the jihadists were funneling international militants from Iran to Yemen to fight with AQAP. Other reports say the Iranians are providing arms to the group. While some analysts downplay such reports, the fact that we have received similar information from a wide variety of sources in different countries and with varying ideological backgrounds suggests there is indeed something to these reports.

One last thing to consider while pondering Iran's militant proxies is that, while Iranian missiles will be launched (and mines laid) only in the case of open hostilities, Iranian militant proxies have been busily at work across the region for many years now. With a web of connections that reaches all the way from Lebanon to Somalia to Afghanistan, Iran can cast a wide net over the Middle East. If the United States has truly begun to assume a defensive posture in the Gulf, it will have to guard not only against Iranian missile strikes but also against Iran's sophisticated use of proxy militant groups.

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