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Nuclear Blips On The Terrorism Radar

With Iran, America Seems Intent On Tracking The Wrong Blip

By Steve Schippert | March 8, 2007

Ahmadinejad’s trip to Saudi Arabia and subsequent talks with the Saudis is being praised as a giant leap forward in some quarters. It can be found described as a “landmark event” that has "set a new tone for the hitherto elusive ‘Islamist solution’ to the multiple crises." In order to take this leap of faith, however, one must first believe that Ahmadinejad and the government he represents are sincerely seeking a peaceful resolution to the “multiple crises” Iran is deeply enmeshed in, including Iraq.

Iran’s hand in the sectarian strife, which is not limited to but centers around the bloodshed between the Shi’a and Sunni in Iraq, is difficult to question in light of the weaponry, training and personnel found in Iraq. In fact, the #3 Quds Force commander reportedly remains in US custody following a December US raid in Baghdad. There is a relatively small circle of observers who acknowledge this as a cause for concern. This group includes military and intelligence personnel on the ground in Iraq. Yet outside that warrior's circle, the level of awareness of Iranian actions in Iraq and the common concern dissipate rapidly.

One wonders just how this can be. Hundreds of world class Austrian Steyr .50 caliber sniper rifles captured in US raids have been traced back – by serial number - to an Iranian order fulfilled in 2006. Iranian dissidents not only revealed that deadly Iranian EFPs were being shipped over the Iranian border into Iraq, but they identified the Iranian facilities that were manufacturing the concave milled copper projectiles. What’s more, the infrared triggering mechanisms for roadside bombs that have proven so difficult to detect and defeat have been sourced back to Iranian origin. Not by conjecture, but once again by tracing the serial numbers to an order fulfillment, this time from China.

Yet, as echoed loudly by detractors and dissenters, the Iranian intelligence ‘smacks of pre-war intelligence on Iraq all over again.’ On display are not satellite photos and labels of what one or another building must certainly be. No, on display are Iranian weapons, with instances of traced serial numbers back to point of purchase. Hardly shades of 2003.

The argument once was whether or not Iran has played a role in fomenting violence and killing Americans, Iraqis and Britons. That argument has clearly been ceded and thus transformed into the unnatural question of whether ‘top Iranian regime officials’ personally ordered the weapons shipments. This is nearly an impossible standard to prove. An American special prosecutor with access to offices and records cannot prove who knew what CIA agent’s name, when or who he or she may have told. And we are to expect our intelligence community – with highly limited assets and access in Iran – to devine the inner communications of the secretive Iranian Quds Force and their regime superiors?

These arms are not simply supplied to Shi’a militias, but also to al-Qaeda and aligned movements (AQAM). This according not to Washington think tanks or analysts, but by the men who face and find these weapons and those who field them. Men who often die from them. Why would Iran take such actions?

The Iranian government recognizes both the opportunities and the potential risks associated with American success in Iraq. Iran recognizes that it can destabilize Iraq, and by doing so it will prevent unification and a coherent Iraqi identity from developing. Likewise, destabilization weakens perceptions of the United States throughout the region and in Iraq, which results in other Middle Eastern states offering lesser aid to Iraq, to the War on Terror and generally hedging their bets on our success.

By doing this, Iran gains for itself greater influence in the region. In the long term, Iran thus exerts further force on the primarily Sunni peoples of the Arabian peninsula through their ties with Shi'a opposition groups in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

It isn't unwarranted to long for a reasonable Iranian actor in the region. What is unreasonable is to believe that moderated tone, on and off revelations on a nuclear development program or back-door deals to support terrorist organizations are the actions of a reasonable Iranian actor.

To be sure, Ahmadinejad has moderated his public tone while he continues to encounter internal criticism from the Khomeinist corners of the Iranian power structure. But this should not be mistaken for a moderation of Ahmadinejad’s views, nor should his powerful Iranian rival critics be seen as a moderate alternative.

Ahmadinejad’s Khomeinist detractors, such as former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, are the same Iranian core that has been at the helm of the Iranian terror machine for the past 28 years. The difference between them and Ahmadinejad is not a difference in the level of anti-American hatred or desire for Iranian nuclear weapons or other hostile views and aims.

The difference between them is more often than not simply the degree to which each competing side is willing to speak openly and candidly about them. Indeed, the Iranian nuclear program existed long before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. It was also known to the West fully two years before he became president.

Yet, it can be plausibly argued that the debate and international condemnation of the Iranian nuclear program reached its current fevered pitch not because of its knowledge of the program, but rather because of the gasoline poured on the fire by Ahmadinejad’s reckless rhetoric. His repeated public calls that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” that this “is attainable, and soon” and myriad other assorted un-masked threatening statements caught the attention of the Western public, driving their respective policy makers to react accordingly.

The rebuking leveled at Ahmadinejad by those he is in a power struggle with is decidedly not for supporting Iran’s nuclear program when it should not be supported. Nor is it because he armed Hizballah with rockets fired on Israeli civilians when he should not have.

No, the criticism leveled at Ahmadinejad from rival Iranian mullahs is because of his language, his rhetoric and for the ire his words have drawn. Precisely because Ahmadinejad’s words speak louder than action, Iran no longer passes beneath the radar. Many now see the blips on the radar screen that once were rarely presented to them. Yet, even now, America seems intent on tracking the wrong blip.

Iran garners much media and public attention for their nuclear weapons program, netting the seemingly endless talks on sanctions and other forms of ‘diplomatic solutions’ to the Iranian nuclear crisis. The nuclear blip consumes a great deal of the time and resources of the United Nations and the governments of the members of the Security Council.

Yet, the more pressing nuclear threat does not emanate from Tehran and the Iranian regime, which has yet to produce either weapons grade fissile material or a viable nuclear weapon. Pakistan is an established nuclear power, with estimates of up to 55 nuclear warheads in their arsenal. And Pervez Musharraf, the embattled Pakistani president who faces persistent opposition and has survived numerous assassination attempts, remains the sole buffer between those nuclear weapons and al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamists who seek an Islamist-run state and the demise of the largely secular Musharraf.

Further, some of the Islamists opposed to Musharraf, including Aslam Beg, seek a military alliance with the Iranian terror masters. These Islamists and their supported terrorist groups are but a single bullet or bomb away from removing Musharraf and gaining control of an existing nuclear arsenal. This is far more pressing than the Iranian nuclear crisis, yet garners scant attention.

Meanwhile, the blips of Iranian and Iranian-sponsored terrorism – Iran’s true clear and present danger - are disregarded in important quarters. As frightening a prospect as they would present, undeveloped Iranian nuclear weapons have yet to claim a civilian life. Yet, terror attacks bearing Iranian fingerprints continue to tally.

The terrorist group Hizballah was founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the early 1980’s in Lebanon, the site of Iranian-sponsored bombings of the US embassy and the Marine barracks, killing hundreds. In similar fashion, Iran sponsored and directed the truck bombing attack on the Khobar Towers housing US military personnel in Saudi Arabia. This new utilization of suicide bombers and large vehicle-based bombs was taught to al-Qaeda, who maintained a relationship with Iran – predominantly through Hizballah - while ‘cohabitating’ in the Sudanese “terrorist incubator” under Hassan al-Turabi in the 1990’s. (For more on al-Turabi and the Sudan terror gathering, see Thomas Joscelyn’s The Pope of Terrorism, Part I and Part II.) The 1998 simultaneous al-Qaeda bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are widely believed a direct product of that cooperation, with indications of direct Iranian assistance to the al-Qaeda attackers.

Within Iraq, Iran has continued to supply and support both violent Sunni and Shi’a groups alike, ensuring their attacks on Iraqi civilians and Coalition and Iraqi troops are increasingly deadly and effective. But not only is Iran operating though the Badr Corps, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army or through material support for the Sunni terrorists of Ansar al-Sunnah (formerly known as Ansar al-Islam and part of AQAM), its own top Quds Force commanders have been captured in US raids in Iraq.

The apprehension of Iranian Quds Force commanders and operators boldly in Iraq notwithstanding, the Iranian penchant for terrorism through proxies is precisely why a nuclear-armed Iran is so feared. The West should be thanking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for getting the attention of the American and Western public, even if the topic that dominates news cycles has to date been the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Now, let’s be sure to direct that attention to the existing threat and true root of the Iranian problem: State-sponsored international terrorism.


" the criticism leveled at Ahmadinejad from rival Iranian mullahs is because of his language, his rhetoric and for the ire his words have drawn."

Exactly right. I'm now starting to think that in an odd sort of way Ahmadinejad is the best thing that has happened to us. Without him no one outside of a few folks would be paying attention to Iran.

However, if he is forced out we may be back to square one, with the naysayers claiming that it's all over and there's nothing to worry about anymore.

Iran's current importance on the world stage stems from the geographic and the geologic: geologic because of its own hydrocarbon resources, geographic because its coastline abuts the Gulf along which much of the world's petroleum traffic passes. [a few UK sailors are kidnapped and the oil markets shudder]. Schippert correctly notes that Pakistan is more of a nuclear power than Iran but no one cares much. In fact, while domestic politicians still obsess about Iraq, that so-called country is becoming of secondary significance: The Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean maritime routes will become the principal focus as the looming U.S. energy crisis will come to dominate our strategy and politics.