Friday, January 26, 2007

Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert

Jim Henley is throwing haymakers at the Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball piece that probes intelligence reports related to Iran's involvement in the Iraqi IED business. In particular, Henley focuses on the evidence that supposedly connects Iran to Iraq's IED trade: the use of infrared radio sensors as a triggering device for IEDs, and Iran's reported purchase of large quantities of the same.

Are you kidding me? Dollar doodads that anyone can buy show up in (a minority of) IEDs in Iraq, often in combination with shaped charges, a technology that goes back to World War II, and it’s supposed to prove that the Persian superrace is behind it all? Are we supposed to believe that Iraqis and “foreign fighters” are like the hominid tribe at the beginning of 2001, incapable of doing more than bashing heads with heavy bones without alien guidance? These things are used “to turn on lights or burglar alarms,” and we’re supposed to believe that Iraqis have never seen these things? That Iraq lacks electronics technicians who could understand them and figure out how to use them for harm? That Iraq lacks former army demolitions experts who could figure out how to fashion their own shaped charges? And on alternate Thursdays hawks tell doves that we’re selling the Iraqis short, that we’re a bunch of racists?

I was equally underwhelmed by this tenuous link. John Robb summed it up best back in August of 2005 (about a year and a half ago!):

This innovation may be due to Iranian involvement, but a more probable explanation is that the insurgency itself is finding low-tech solutions to difficult problems through an open source development process.

It ain't exactly, er, rocket science after all. Furthermore, even if this cutting edge technological breakthrough was passed on to certain Shiite factions from Iran, due to the "open source" nature of modern guerrilla warfare, it could have likely spread to Sunni elements without Iran directly collaborating with them - despite some of the more breathless claims popping up in some neocon periodicals.

One of Henley's commenters (he attracts a fine crop), Bill Woolsey, offers a few more plausible scenarios by which tactics and technology can be transferred via osmosis, cross pollination and other similar diffusion-of-knowledge mechanisms.

Many pundits here in America claim that if the U.S. goes to war with Iran, Shia forces in Iraq will retaliate. If this is true, isn’t it likely that Iran is doing something now to prepare for this possibility? Or more likely, has been doing this for some time?

Actually, now would be a good time to interrupt Mr. Woolsey with a supporting anecdote from Spencer Ackerman via the notorious E.L.I.:

Eli Lake has a story I wish appeared under my byline, about how the intelligence community, though divided, assesses Iran's penetration of the Iraqi Shiites as thorough and near-complete. How deep? To give just one example, in 2004, for the low-low price of $140,000 up front, Iran recruited 70,000 conscripts for one Shiite militia alone. (Badr? Probably.) According to a paper written by a Fort Leavenworth-based Army Reserve sergeant, all of the Shiite and Kurdish allies America relies on in Iraq are also Iranian allies. Indeed, Iran started reaching out to Shiite proxies like SCIRI as early as November 2001 to prepare for what Teheran accurately forecast as an inevitable U.S. invasion. Unlike us, Iran had a Phase IV in place for what came next.

So Iran has definitely been preparing, hedging and attempting to cover all bases. It's involvement with Shiites in Iraq is evident and, for that matter, such influence isn't going anywhere any time soon either. As Spencer points out later in that same post:

So let's review administration strategy here. In Iraq, the plan is to escalate the war in order to buy time for Iraqi politics... which is thoroughly dominated, according to U.S. intelligence, by Iran. The best case scenario for us in Iraq is handing Iraq to Iran even more than we already have.

So whither the Iranian/Sunni ties, and evidence of Iranian expertise supporting attacks on US and Iraqi government forces via Sunni insurgents? Back to Woolsey:

While the dominant Shia factions in Iraq appear willing to let the U.S. kill Sunnis and wait for the U.S. to leave them the country, surely some of them must be preparing for the possibility that the U.S. will refuse to leave them in control. Such preparations would involve preparing to fight a guerrilla war against the U.S. With, of course, Iranian help. Shouldn’t we expect such preparations today? [ed note: easy answer - yes]

Even if Iran is supporting the watch and wait strategy of their friends in SCIRI and Dawa...various loose cannon Shia groups may well get so mad at coalition forces that abilities and materials that are supposed to be held in reserve get used now against U.S. forces. [...]

And, of course, the efforts of Shia forces (whether they are officially in the government or not) to clear out Sunni “traitors” from the government, would naturally involve Iranian supported forces killing Iraqi government forces (that are Sunni.)

While helping the Sunni forces a bit to bleed the U.S. might make some sense from Iran’s point of view, the fact that the Sunni forces are mostly targeting Shia elements of the Iraqi government as well as Shia civilians makes this very unlikely. It is hard to believe that some Shia Persians wouldn’t tell some Shia Arabs ruining the hoped for alliance. I can’t believe that “our” allies in SCIRI and Dawa are that beholden to Iran that they would agree to accept mass murder of their people in order to bleed their purported U.S. allies.

I don’t see a lot of claims by the U.S. that Iran is helping the Sunni guerrillas. It is all a bit vague. The Sunnis are doing nearly all of the attacks on the U.S. There are claims that Iran is helping some body or other in Iraq. This help might be used against U.S. forces (maybe in the future) or Iraqi government forces (like the Sunni VP or Sunni defense minister?) And we know that some Shia do attack some coalition forces from time to time. That is a big part of the limited attacks against the British in the south.

To sum up, it seems likely that Iran is helping the Shia forces (which mostly are the government of Iraq) and some of their efforts spill over into minor attacks on U.S. forces, the “tough” tactics against Sunnis, and internecine Shia battles.

This allows me the opportunity to clarify some of the things I have been suggesting with respect to Iran's involvement in Iraq for some time. While I do believe that Iran has been trying to frustrate our efforts in Iraq by creating a certain level of controlled chaos, and outflanking our attempts to forge alliances with regional players that Iran understands better and to which Iran shares more in common, I think that Iranian support of Sunni elements has been greatly exaggerated. This doesn't mean that we don't stand to gain by fruitful negotiations with Iran since their influence in Shiite (and Kurdish) circles is significant.

It is quite possible that very early on in the game Iran was helping Sunni insurgents in order to bleed our resources and restrict our ability to attack Iran in short order - especially because at the time, those insurgents were mostly targeting coalition forces and not Shiite factions as such. On the contrary, most of the sectarian inspired violence targeting Shiites in the early days was spearheaded by Zarqawi and his cohorts. But when the insurgency morphed into a broader sectarian conflict with regional Sunni powers (ie, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) getting sucked in closer and closer to Sunni insurgents as a means to counterbalance burgeoning Iranian influence, it becomes less and less likely that Iran would be arming and training this rival faction that could soon become its major battlefield opponent.

For the above reasons, using Iran's involvement in sharing weapons and technology with Iraqi militants as a cassus belli becomes more and more questionable.

Also, instructing our soldiers to start shooting at the Iranians in their midst probably runs afoul of the alliances and ties nurtured by the very Iraqi government we are supposedly trying to protect and enable. It is that same government that is closest to Iran out of all of Iraq's many players. They may not appreciate that.

It would be generous to label this strategy as merely contradictory and incoherent, yet it is quintessential Bush administration fare.

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