ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

The Hizballah Surprise

By Dan Darling

With all the discussion, analysis, commentary, and recrimination that has surrounded U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq, it is surprising that so few parallels have been drawn to the situation in Lebanon. As in the case of Iraq, it appears there was an intelligence failure of some magnitude. This time, to be sure, it was an underestimate of the size and quality of the enemy's arsenal. But the sophistication of Hizballah's Iranian-built missiles, stockpiled since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, appears to have "caught the United States and Israel off guard," the New York Times reports, "and officials in both countries are just now learning the extent to which the militant group has succeeded in getting weapons from Iran and Syria."

From the Iranian variants of the Chinese Silkworm missile to more conventional Syrian-made warheads--innovatively filled with ball bearings so as to maximize damage to humans and property--Hizballah's rockets have proved more formidable than expected. Moreover, combat between Hizballah and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon has revealed the degree to which the terrorist organization improved the abilities of its irregular troops--to the point where the reported casualty ratios released by the Israeli government and various media outlets suggest that Hizballah's fighters are more capable than the vast majority of conventional Arab armies.

Hizballah owes all these improvements to generous support from Syria and Iran. What does it say about the state of Western intelligence that these nations were able to provide such support, including sophisticated missiles
and training, without our knowledge?

One thing it points to is a pattern of intelligence failures--or of an intrinsic inability of the intelligence community to perform at the level policymakers expect. In the post-Cold War era alone, numerous examples can be cited, including the failure to predict the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the advanced status of the Iraqi nuclear program at the time of that invasion, the successes of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs, the extent of Libya's weapons of mass destruction programs, the activities of the Abdul Qadeer Khan proliferation network, and so on. In light of this history, the overestimation of Iraq's WMD program at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion stands out as an unusual exception to the recent rule, which has been one of underestimating our opponents. In deed, as more information has become available regarding the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, it appears increasingly clear that both are further along than U.S. intelligence initially assessed them to be.

If there is one productive development from the fighting in Lebanon, it would be the insight it has given us into the views of the Iranian leadership on a number of topics, ranging from terrorism to their willingness to deliver sophisticated weaponry to nonstate actors. And all of it appears to add up to a disturbing portrait that the United States and its allies will need to factor into their calculations of how to deal with Iran.

With regard to terrorism, Iran appears quite willing to use Hizballah as its proxy, continuing to support the group with advanced weapons, training, and some unknown number of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel from the elite Qods Force unit. All of this suggests that the Iranian leadership has embraced revolutionary hostility toward Israel.

However the Iranian regime regards its economic and political ties with European governments, it appears that these ties are of no consequence when it comes to persuading the Tehran regime to end its support of one of the world's most infamous terrorist groups. Indeed, Iran appears to have boosted rather than cut back its support for Hizballah in recent years. It's hard, therefore, to see a rational basis on which engagement with Iran can be expected to deter it from employing terrorism as a tool of statecraft, particularly if the Islamic Republic suffers no consequences from its role in the current fighting in Lebanon.

This is not an abstract consideration, given Iran's continued role in issues directly related to U.S. national security. For instance, as recently as June 23, the Washington Post quoted General George Casey, commander of the allied forces in Iraq, as saying, "We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, IED [Improvised Explosive Device] technology, and training to Shia extremist groups in Iraq, the training being conducted in Iran and in some cases probably in Lebanon through their surrogates." Casey went on to say that the Iranians were "using surrogates to conduct terrorist operations in Iraq, both against us and against the Iraqi people." The extremist groups referred to by Casey are, among others, Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, members of which have cut a bloody swath of sectarian violence through Baghdad in recent weeks.

Likewise, National Journal recently reported that "U.S. officials have openly accused Iran of offering safe harbor to top al-Qaeda officials who escaped the U.S. dragnet in neighboring Afghan istan"--among them the organization's de facto ministers of war and propaganda. National Journal quoted the former head of the CIA's Usama bin Laden unit as saying "there is no denying that Tehran allowed al-Qaeda fighters to transit its territory and offered them occasional sanctuary for R&R. . . . It's a reminder that the Iranians have always been very clever in determining exactly what level of terrorist support they can blithely engage in without putting themselves in our bull's-eye."

Supporting Shi'a extremist groups in Iraq and harboring key members of the surviving al-Qaeda leadership is alarming enough. But the ease with which Iran has been able to amplify the capabilities of Hizballah without drawing the attention of Western intelligence agencies means one must wonder whether Iran is engaged in even more alarming activities both in Iraq and with regard to al-Qaeda. How would we know?

Similarly, Iran's willingness to provide sophisticated missile technology to Hizballah belies the common argument among both diplomats and intelligence officials that the regime considers such weapons too valuable to hand out to proxy groups. According to the New York Times, "Western intelligence services did not know that Iran had managed to ship C-802 missiles to Hezbollah." (The C-802 is the sophisticated Chinese antiship missile used by Hizballah in its attack on an Israeli warship on July 14.)

If Iran is willing to transfer such weaponry to Hizballah, where does it draw the line? Would it one day do the same with a nuclear warhead? For that matter, what about its existing chemical and biological weapons stockpiles? Such a scenario may seem alarmist, but given the intelligence failures that have occurred to date with regard to Hizballah's arsenal, can anyone in the intelligence community offer believable assurances that this will not occur? Or that we would be aware of such transfers before it was too late?

Ultimately, one lesson policymakers should draw from the fighting in Lebanon is that they will never have the degree of certainty about intelligence that they would like. There will always be what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld termed "known unknowns," i.e., those things that we know that we don't know with regard to the capabilities of our enemies. Another lesson is that if we prepare for the worst, the surprises we encounter are more likely to be pleasant.

[The Hizballah Surprise is reprinted courtesy The Weekly Standard]