At an unusual press briefing on Monday, U.S. military officials provided the first physical evidence of Iranian arms shipments to Iraqi extremist groups. The display, which the New York Times called “extraordinary,” consisted of explosively formed penetrators, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile reportedly found in Iraq and bearing Iranian markings. Notably, the officials also claimed to have proof that the operation was being directed by “the highest levels of the Iranian government,” a claim that was rigorously denied by Tehran.
The briefing raised more questions than it answered. Topping the list are questions about the extent of the Iranian government’s involvement in the arms shipments. Defense Department officials reportedly provided little proof for their claims of high-level involvement by the Iranian government, and the next day General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chief of staff, appeared to contradict them. Commenting on the captured weaponry, Pace conceded that the weapons “[do] not translate to that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this.” Yesterday President Bush sided with General Pace, confirming that “we don’t…know whether the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did.”
The captured weapons themselves are also puzzling. Not only were they reportedly manufactured in Iran, they are also emblazoned with manufacture dates and lot numbers – hardly indicative of a government that wants to maintain “plausible deniability.” Architects of covert aid programs usually go to great lengths to conceal their government’s involvement by purchasing weapons from foreign suppliers and clandestinely shipping them through third countries. The Iranians apparently did neither. Why?
One possible explanation is simple sloppiness, although this seems unlikely given Iran’s extensive experience in arming non-state groups. According to Georgetown professor Daniel Byman, Iran has “armed, trained, inspired, and otherwise supported dozens of violent groups” since the Shah was deposed in 1979. It is therefore hard to believe that Iranian operatives would inadvertently supply weapons with an obvious return address, particularly to insurgents targeting the world’s only superpower.
Another possibility is that the arms shipments are the handy work of rogue elements within the Iranian government or well-connected private arms traffickers. Little is known about the rigor of Iran’s stockpile security practices, and it is possible that the weapons were stolen or diverted from government depots and smuggled into Iraq without approval from Tehran.
But recent reports of large-scale Iranian arms transfers to other non-state groups suggest that such shipments are part of a coordinated government effort to advance key foreign policy goals, not low-level pilfering. In November 2006, UN investigators accused the government of Iran of providing three large shipments of arms and ammunition to the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. According to the investigators, the shipments contained, inter alia, 1000 PKM machine guns and grenade launchers, 200 boxes of machine gun ammunition, dozens of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and rocket launchers, mines, and military uniforms, all of which was transferred in violation of a UN arms embargo.
Israeli and western government officials have made similar claims about Iranian support for Hezbollah. During Israel’s incursion into Lebanon last summer, many of the deadliest weapons wielded by Hezbollah came from Iran, including surface-to-surface rockets and guided anti-tank missiles. Since then, Iran has reportedly started replacing weapons and ammunition used during the war and, according to Jane’s Information Group, has agreed to supply more advanced weapons “as part of its strategy to transform Hezbollah “into a coherent fighting force and regional strategic arm.”
While these examples do not necessarily link Iran’s leaders to the weapons found in Iraq per se, they do reveal a willingness on the part of Iran to supply terrorists and insurgents with large quantities of sophisticated weaponry, quantities that could not possibly escape the attention of the country’s leaders. This leads us to a third possible explanation: Tehran is aware of the arms shipments and the likelihood that they’d be traced back to Iran, and has concluded that either the US is too bogged down in Iraq to respond effectively, that no one will believe US claims about Iranian shipments due to the faulty allegations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, or that the benefits from supporting the armed groups outweigh the cost of possible punitive measures.
Regardless of who authorized the arms shipments and why, Iran has an obligation to maintain control of its arsenals, respect UN arms embargoes, and keep its weapons out of the hands of terrorists. By all accounts, it is failing miserably. Iran’s weapons suppliers and trading partners need to remind Tehran of these obligations, and sanction the regime if its weapons continue to show up in war zones and terrorists’ arsenals.
Bush blames Iraq Weapons on ‘part of’ Iranian government,” CNN, 14 February 2007.
“U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to Iraqi Shiites,” New York Times, 12 February 2007
“U.S. Evidence,” Los Angeles Times, 12 February 2007
“Iran’s Influence in Iraq,” Congressional Research Service, 2 February 2007.
“Somalia: Dont Forget about the Missiles…,” Strategic Security Blog, 9 January 2007.