GIS Special Topical Studies
Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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June 1, 2004

Between Tehran, Baghdad and the Heart of the United States

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky,1 Senior Editor, GIS. On the eve of the much heralded transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi Government, the US Government has already lost control over the future of Iraq. The outcome of the fighting against, as well as the hudna (ceasefire) negotiations with, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the Shi’ite heartland, or Abu-al-Mutasim’s Islamist-jihadist forces in the predominantly Sunni Fallujah area, now have marginal impact on the US’ ultimate triumph or defeat in Iraq.

It is in Tehran — in the ranks of the conservative mullahs — that the key to the future of Iraq lies. And, being intelligence-blind and thus largely oblivious to, and ignorant of the intricacies of, these regional dynamics and mega-trends, the United States is not faring well in this struggle. 

Ultimately, Tehran’s comprehension of the situation in and around Iran will determine Iraq’s fate.

Indeed, the mullahs are convinced, and not without good reason, that the key to the future of Iraq and the region as a whole lies in Tehran. As Iran’s ruling mullahs see the world, they are at a fateful “T” junction in the road, and the future of Iraq is the signal which will determine whether Iran turns in the direction of historic victory or the total demise of the clerically-controlled state.

Specifically, if the US was to succeed and establish a pro-Western Iraq, the Administration in Tehran would be stifled and soon collapse. If the US failed in Iraq and was forced to withdraw ignominiously, those Iraqi Shi’ites who are pro-Iranian would take over Baghdad and, for the first time since the days of Emperor Cyrus the Great (6th Century BC), the Persians would control coastline on the Mediterranean (by building a Shi’ite corridor through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) and the bulk of the Persian Gulf (relying on the Shi’ite-populated areas in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States). In modern terms, Iran would also be dominating virtually all the oil and gas resources of the Middle East. And there is an even more important aspect to this “T” junction for the mullahs of Tehran: namely, the fate and future of  Shi’ite Islam. Historically, the center of religious-political Shi’ite Islam was in Najaf, Iraq. In the late 20th Century, as a result of the aggregate impact of the Khomeini Revolution in Iran and Saddam Hussein’s anti- Shi’ite rule in Iraq, the center of  Shi’ite Islam shifted to Qom, Iran.

There began a reawakening of Najaf after the fall of Saddam’s Administration in Iraq. The mullahs of Tehran became justifiably concerned that the center of Shi’ite Islam would soon move away from Qom and from their control. However, the emergence of a Tehran-dominated Shi’ite empire in the Middle East in the aftermath of a US defeat in Iraq would consolidate the regional preeminence of the mullahs’ rule, as well as restoring Iran-dominated Shi’ite Islam. In a nutshell, the mullahs in Tehran are convinced that if the US was to succeed in Iraq then their rule would be destroyed, and if the US was to fail in Iraq then their Administration would attain an historic victory for Iran and the entire Shi’ite Islam.  

Iran's ruling mullahs are adamant on making the correct turn at the “T” junction and attaining the historic triumph for the Tehran-dominated Shi’ite Islam. All means — Beirut-style terrorism and fratricidal violence being the least of them — are legitimate under such fateful circumstances. The escalation of anti- Shi’ite terrorism in Iraq is an integral part of this drive because Ayatollah Sistani leads the pro-Najaf — that is, anti-Qom — branch of Shi’ite Islam, and is thus a threat to Tehran’s vital interests. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden and the Sunni jihadist camp are adamant on destroying the House of al-Saud and its rule in Saudi Arabia, and the key Sunni traditional institutions which challenge the legitimacy of  Shi’ite Islam. Therefore their success would also further Tehran’s interests. These steps are aimed at, and are already successful in pushing the  Shi’ites of Iraq into joining the Islamist jihad against the US-led occupation forces and the US-installed Administration in Baghdad.

Furthermore, ever since the Autumn of 1980, when the fledgling Khomeini Administration in Iran manipulated the hostage crisis into toppling the US Carter Administration, Tehran has been obsessed with exploiting the US elections year’s “inaction” and “inward-preoccupation” in order to dramatically further Iran’s anti-US strategies. Indeed, Tehran is convinced it can exploit the 2004 election year in order to ensure that its correct turn at the “T” is irreversible.  

Hence, the potential for a marked escalation of the current conflict, particularly of Iran-sponsored violence, lies still ahead. Given Iran’s track record, there should be no doubt about Tehran’s next moves. A senior Iranian intelligence official, using the name Hajj Saidi, who was in charge of operations in Iraq, recently elucidated the perception in Tehran: “In the 1980s, and on the orders of Imam Khomeini, we [Iranian intelligence] took our battle with the United States to Lebanon where we hit the US Marines base and the US Embassy in Beirut and kidnapped William Buckley, head of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East, and several American citizens. The United States was forced to recognize our [dominant] rôle in Lebanon. We are today moving our battle with the United States to Iraq on the orders of the Revolution Guide [Khamene’i] so that it will recognize our [dominant] rôle there too.”

Thus, it is the mullahs’ urgent quest to attain an historic triumph and, at the same time, to avoid their own demise — all of which hinges on the US success or failure in Iraq — which will ultimately determine the forthcoming escalation of terrorism, guerilla and fratricidal warfare in Iraq. 

The Iranian commitment to the substantial escalation of anti-US insurgency and terrorism is the result of a lengthy and pragmatic policy formulation process which has been unfolding now for nearly two years. However, only in early May 2004, following the initial success of the Iraqi intifadah, to which Tehran has contributed significantly, have the prudent leading mullahs signaled a profound change in Tehran’s policy. In a May 5, 2004, lecture, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani — who remains the highest authority in formulating Iranian strategic policies — elucidated Tehran’s policy vis-à-vis the US presence in Iraq. The Iranian policy is based on the premise that “the Americans’ fall into the Iraq quagmire” is irreversible “for the US forces cannot withdraw and, at the same time, cannot continue to occupy Iraq”.

The vital interest of Iran, then, was to see the Shi’ites coming to power in the wake of a speedy US withdrawal. Tehran was ready to expedite the US safe withdrawal, Hashemi-Rafsanjani stated, by capitalizing on Iran’s “capabilities, friendships, and good relations with the Iraqi people”. At the same time, Tehran would not tolerate the establishment of a non-Shi’ite Administration in Iraq and would undertake the necessary steps to ensure this outcome. Iran did not consider a US suppression by force of the Iraqi intifadah, particularly in the Shi’ite heartland, as a viable option. Addressing the possibility of US attacks on Najaf and Qarbalah [Karbala], Hashemi-Rafsanjani asserted that “the Americans will not have the courage to carry out such an act, because they would face a big catastrophe. If they do that, they will pay a heavy price”. 

These were not empty words or threats. The mounting military preparations in Iran to expand the support for the Iraqi Shi’ite forces testify to Tehran’s determination to inflict heavy pain on the US lest a speedy unconditional withdrawal from Iraq is undertaken. Indeed, during May 2004, Tehran made major strides toward defeating the US, ranging from escalation in Iraq to sponsoring spectacular terrorist strikes at the heart of the United States. 

In the second half of May 2004, while Washington was focusing on the “arrangements” with Sadr’s Army for mutual withdrawal from the centers of Qarbalah and Najaf, there were strong indications that Tehran — Sadr’s patron — was already actively preparing for a new cycle of fighting, most likely to erupt toward the end of June 2004. This time, the Iranian direct involvement will be most pronounced. Around May 20, 2004, Hashemi-Rafsanjani formally proposed to the higher Iranian leadership that Iran send “volunteers” to Iraq in order to carry out “qualitative operations” — a euphemism for spectacular terrorism — against the US forces at the Shi’ite heartland. He argued that it was imperative “to fight the Americans in Iraq to foil the US plan for the region” which he believes would be detrimental to the fate of the mullahs’ rule.

Concurrently, there has been a noticeable intensification in the activities in the Iranian system of bases in the Ahwaz area near the Iran-Iraq border, particularly the arrival of elite forces organized by Iran’s Al-Quds Forces. Most of these are volunteers from Khuzestan — Iran’s Arab-populated province near the border with Iraq — who are indistinguishable from Iraq’s Shi’ite population. This Ahwaz forward HQ is under the command of Gen. Ahmad Foruzandeh, a highly-experienced veteran who has for some time been involved in intelligence and subversion activities in Iraq. 

Most significant was the establishment in mid-May 2004 of the “World Islamic Martyrs and Fighters Staff Headquarters” under Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC: Pasdaran] in the greater Tehran area. This is a major center for the training of suicide attackers for operations throughout the world. According to the center’s commander, Firuz Rajaifar, Tehran ordered the establishment of the center having concluded that “the eviction of the occupation forces from Iraq is possible only through [the use of] martyrdom-strikes”. He noted that among the trainees were hundreds of Iraqi and Iranian volunteers as well as members of such organizations as the HAMAS, HizbAllah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The trainees were not only psychologically tempered and prepared for their martyrdom, but had also studied the construction of sophisticated bombs, including the use of WMD. The first martyrdom-seeking unit — the Qarbalah Force — comprised of Iraqi Shi’ites and Iranian Baseeji volunteers, left the center on May 27, 2004, on their way to the Iraqi front.

Tehran expects to dispatch in the near future highly-trained martyrdom-seeking teams to Israel and the United States. 

The overall goals of the World Islamic Martyrs and Fighters Staff Headquarters in the context of Iran’s global strategic objectives were articulated in a May 26, 2004, paper by  Dr Hassan Abbassi, the highly influential chief of the Center for Doctrinal Security Without Borders, which is Iran’s main doctrine formulating center, operating under the IRGC’s High Command.

Official Tehran was definitely anticipating spectacular terrorist strikes at the heart of both the United States and the United Kingdom, Abbassi asserted. His analysis paper emphasized the vulnerability of both countries to spectacular terrorism. “Some 29 weak points of America and the West that can be subjected to an attack have been identified … [ellipsis as in the original] Any action that takes place with the aim of creating a sense of fear and terror in the front of blasphemy is a sacred act and a source of pride.”

Abbassi suggested that Tehran had specific contingency plans for nuclear terrorism, most likely by Iran-sponsored Islamist-jihadist terrorists. “In our planning, we are targeting some 6,000 of America’s nuclear warheads, and we aim to blow these up inside the American territory. At the same time, we have identified a number of weak points and have informed the guerilla organizations about these, and we intend to act through this channel.”

Abbassi stressed that in order to overcome the US counter-intelligence and anti-terrorism authorities, Iran was willing to cooperate with non-Muslim terrorists. “We are even prepared to work with the Mexicans and the Argentineans and basically any country that has a problem with America.” And since Hassan Abbassi is very close to the uppermost decisionmakers in Tehran, particularly Hashemi-Rafsanjani, his analysis paper should be taken very seriously.


Yossef Bodansky’s new book, The Secret History of the Iraq War, is due to be published in the US on June 15, 2004. It is published by Regan Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-073679-8. Mr Bodansky has published numerous books on terrorism, including, for example, Osama bin Laden: the Man Who Declared War on America (1999); The High Cost of Peace: How Washington's Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism (Forum/Prima 2002); and Terror! The Inside Story of the Terrorist Conspiracy in America (SPi Books, 1994).