IRAN'S STRATEGY FOR UNDERMINING
THE POSITION OF THE U.S.A. IN IRAQ:
ARE WE PLAYING FOR KEEPS?
By Dr. Michael Rubin
Ambassador Khalilzad is not responsible, nor is Washington, despite the U.S. policymaking elite's tendency to self-flagellate. Blame for terrorism rests solely upon its perpetrators and their sponsors. Here, though, the White House has lost focus. While journalists concentrate on the daily blood, Iraqis describe a larger pattern which U.S. officials have failed to acknowledge, let alone address: Step-by-step, Iranian authorities are replicating in Iraq the strategy which allowed Hezbollah to take over southern Lebanon in the 1980s. The playbook -- military, economic, and information operation -- is almost identical.
Hezbollah's story begins in 1982. As the Israeli army evicted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon, Ayatollah Khomeini dispatched his elite Revolutionary Guards to the Bekaa Valley to arm and organize its Shiites. Hezbollah was born. Iranian authorities simultaneously built Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah's Sunni equivalent. (The idea that Shiites do not arm Sunnis is taken far more seriously in Langley than in Lebanon.) Tehran was so brazen in its support that, until the early 1990s, it even carried a budgetary line-item. The investment paid off: Even after last year's Cedar Revolution, southern Lebanon remains under Hezbollah's control. Islamic Jihad remains a force.
Just as the Revolutionary Guards helped hone Hezbollah into a deadly force, so do they train the Badr Corps, SCIRI's militia. The Badr Corps infiltrated Iraq even before U.S. forces reached Baghdad. This was reflected in the black market of Sadr City, where the prices of Iraqi documents rose, while those of Iranian passports fell. The Iranian strategy was laid bare with its choice of representations. Its first chargé-d'affaires in post-Saddam Iraq was Hassan Kazemi Qomi, the Revolutionary Guard's former liaison to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nor did SCIRI hide its affiliation. In January, 2004, a yellow Lebanese Hezbollah flag flew from SCIRI's headquarters in the southern city of Basra.
Iraq's subsequent experience reflects the evolution of Hezbollah tactics. In Lebanon, Revolutionary Guard advisers imbued young Lebanese with a cult of martyrdom. Hezbollah suicide bombers moved with deadly accuracy, ultimately driving U.S. and multinational peacekeepers out of Lebanon. In 1984, Hezbollah added kidnapping to its repertoire. The Revolutionary Guards provided intelligence to the kidnappers and, in some cases, interrogated the victims. Hezbollah seized several dozen foreigners, including 17 Americans. Just as in Iraq, journalists received no immunity. In 1987, Hezbollah held ABC's chief Middle East correspondent hostage for two months. Just as in Iraq, the kidnappers sought both to win material concession and shake Western confidence.
Increasingly sophisticated bombs also accompanied Hezbollah's rise. The improvised explosive device has become the bane of Coalition patrols. In October, 2005, Tony Blair confirmed that bombs used to kill eight British soldiers in Iraq were of a type used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and its Hezbollah proxies. When pressed in a November, 2005, meeting in Sweileh, Jordan, an Iraqi Sunni insurgent leader acknowledged to me the "possibility" that some Iraqi Sunni insurgents took Iranian money, albeit unknowingly.
While Washington wrings its hands over the Samarra bombing, it should not play into Iranian hands and repeat the mistake of Najaf: Following the August 29, 2003, bombing at the shrine of Imam Ali, Coalition authorities acquiesced to demands to empower militias for security. Once implanted, militias take root. Iran is patient. While Washington rejoices in shortterm calm, Tehran looks to longterm influence.
As in southern Lebanon, what cannot be won through bribery is imposed through intimidation. Neither Hezbollah nor Iraq's Shiite militias tolerate dissent. Constitutions mean little and law even less. In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is judge, jury, and executioner. In Iraq, the Shiite militias do likewise. Militiamen have broken up coed picnics, executed barbers and liquor store owners, instituted their own courts, and posted religious guards in front of girls' schools to ensure Iranian-style dress.
Force, though, is not the only component of the Hezbollah playbook. In Lebanon, Hezbollah used Iranian money to create an extensive social service network. It funded schools, food banks, and job centers. It's a tried and true strategy. When I lived in Dushanbe toward the end of Tajikistan's civil war, babushkas lined up under Khomeini's portrait to pick up food from the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. Driving through Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, similar scenes unfold. While the U.S. Embassy boasts billions of dollars spent, it has little to show ordinary Iraqis for its efforts. Not so the Shiite militias. Mr. al-Hakim's son Amar has opened branches of his Shahid al-Mihrab Establishment for Promoting Islam throughout southern Iraq. They distribute food and gifts of money, so long as patrons pledge their allegiance. For impoverished Iraqis lacking electricity and livelihood, it's an easy decision.
U.S. officials have no strategy to counter this. At a recent American Enterprise Institute panel, James Jeffrey, the U.S. State Department's Iraq coordinator, said, "We don't believe in bags of money in the middle of the night like [the Iranians] do." In principle this is fine; in reality it is a recipe for defeat: While Tehran understands the importance of patronage networks, Washington does not. While U.S. funds go to Bechtel and Halliburton, Iran-backed groups address Iraqis' immediate needs. And, not only is U.S. policy ineffective, but Foggy Bottom ineptitude has bolstered Tehran. Take Bayan Jabr, a SCIRI functionary who, with U.S. acquiescence, became Iraq's Interior Minister: He has transformed the Iraqi police into a Badr Corps jobs program. According to one Iraqi minister, he has employed 1% of the Najaf workforce. These recruits do little, they receive a salary courtesy of the U.S. Congress, and the Badr Corps reaps the gratitude.
The final part of Hezbollah's strategy is information warfare. Since 1991, it has used al-Manar TV to spread its message. Iran founded al-Alam for the same purpose and succeeded in beginning broadcasts three months before the U.S.-funded Iraqi Media Network commenced. Well-endowed, al-Alam provided cars and video cameras to students, making them correspondents and promising rewards to those providing footage embarrassing to the U.S. mission.
It is in the info-war that Washington has stumbled most severely. The U.S.A. operates in Iraq as if the country is a vacuum. Sheltered within the Green Zone, diplomats are oblivious to enemy propaganda. Resistance to occupation is Hezbollah's mantra. It is a theme both the Badr Corps and firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army adopted. Why then did Foggy Bottom acquiesce on May 22, 2003, to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483, which formalized the U.S.A. and Britain as "occupying powers." What U.S. diplomats meant as an olive branch to pro-U.N. European allies was, in reality, hemlock. With the stroke of a pen, liberation became occupation: Al-Manar and Al-Alam barraged ordinary Iraqis with montages glorifying "resistance." They then highlighted U.S. fallibility with images of withdrawal from Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia.
Tehran has a formula for success in Iraq; Washington does not. Victory will require U.S. diplomats to recognize that any successful policy must include strategies not only to promote U.S. and Iraqi interests, but also to derail our adversaries' strategy. Iran's methods are clear. Less clear is U.S. resolve. The stakes in Iraq are high, and one side is playing for keeps. Are we?
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
The Middle East & the Problem of Iran
Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
Page Three Page Two Page One
War & Peace in the Real World
Page Two Page One
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
Counterterrorism & U.S. National Security
U.S. National Security Strategy
Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2006, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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