Monday, July 02, 2007

Iran in Iraq

The U.S. military says it has more evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq:

Iranian operatives helped plan a January raid in Karbala in which five American soldiers were killed, an American military spokesman in Iraq said today.

Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the military spokesman, also said that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has used operatives from the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah as a “proxy” to train and arm Shiite militants in Iraq.

There are three main bits of evidence pointing to Iranian involvement:

1. The sophistication of the attack itself, using English-speaking attackers wearing stolen U.S. uniforms and armed with detailed knowledge of the base's operations. It wasn't the sort of thing you'd normally expect the Shiite militias to pull off by themselves.

2. Militant testimony. Much of the additional proof is based on what the military says captured militants revealed under interrogation. According to them, the militans all report receiving aid from Iran or working on behalf of Iran. Damning stuff, but this is the weakest link in the chain, because there's no independent confirmation of the accounts and there's always the suspicion that "interrogation" actually means "torture" and thus the resulting information is suspect.

3. The fact that one of the captured militants, Ali Mussa DaqDuq, is a senior Hezbollah bombmaker. This is direct evidence of Hezbollah's involvement. However, it is only indirect evidence of Iranian involvement. It's always possible to argue that Hezbollah was acting on its own. On the other hand, several observers note that Hezbollah had little to gain from getting involved in Iraq; angering the United States would not help its efforts in Lebanon, and meddling in Iraq would make it seem more like the Iranian puppet it has long denied being.

So this is very close to a "smoking gun" of Iranian involvement -- and certainly enough to justify some blunt measures aimed at limiting Iranian influence, such as restricting the number and movements of Iranian representatives in Iraq, pressuring Iran diplomatically and economically and stationing significant forces on the Iranian border to stop cross-border smuggling.

All three have drawbacks. The first requires cooperation from the Iraqi government, which sees Iran as more ally than enemy; the second assumes we have any meaningful diplomatic or economic leverage; and the last may be unrealistic for several reasons: A lack of troops, the length and porousness of the border, and the fact that any buildup there will be taken as a sign of possible aggression by Iran.

Which points up a maddening fact about the situation: It may be difficult to mount much meaningful pressure on Iran over this. Hezbollah, likewise, is somewhat protected from retaliation, because an aggressive move against them could cause a further deterioration of the situation in Lebanon, something nobody in the region wants. Such a move would also be opposed by those European countries that have troops in the beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force there -- troops that would become high-value targets if we turned the Hezbollah-Israel confrontation there into a Hezbollah-versus-the-West battle.

So the situation may simply call for hard-nosed forebearance: aggressively pursuing Iranian operatives in Iraq, accumulating evidence of Iranian involvement and using targeted strikes to take out clearly identified targets supporting the effort -- like, say, a Quds staging area just inside Iran or a Hezbollah training camp in Lebanon. As long as the strikes are carefully tailored and limited -- attacking a Hezbollah location implicated in Iraq operations, for example, not launching a broad attack on Hezbollah in general -- we could send some pointed messages while avoiding a broader conflict.

One other thing is crucial: support from the Iraqi government for moves against Iran. If that's not forthcoming -- and it may not be -- then there's no point in taking many of the other steps. Iraq has to decide if it wants Iran meddling in its affairs. If it doesn't, we can take vigorous steps to combat it. If they don't mind, it's just one more reason why we should pull out sooner rather than later.

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