On July 18, hours following the assassination of three of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s top security grandees during a national-security headquarters meeting in Damascus, a suicide bomber in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort city of Burgas set himself off near an Israeli tourist bus, killing five Israelis and wounding scores of others.
The Damascus attack occurred on the fourth straight day of fighting in the capital, and responsibility has been claimed by both an increasingly plucky armed opposition and an obscure Islamist group calling itself the Islam Brigade (Liwa al-Islam).
The Israeli government has accused usual suspects Hezbollah and Iran for the Burgas bombing, all the more since it coincided with both the eighteenth anniversary of the AMIA Jewish center bombing in Buenos Aires and the sixth anniversary of the second Lebanon war.
As far as Damascus and Burgas were concerned, the timing was sheer coincidence.
The Syrian crisis is the most gripping of the wave of popular revolutions that have swept through the region since December 2010. Although Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime has lost control over significant territory, its co-optation strategy so far has headed off the rapid internal atrophy that brought Qaddafi to his knees last October (although it has not stopped recent high-level defections). However, the Damascus blast that killed Assad’s defense minister, an ex-defense minister as well as his own brother-in-law and former intelligence chief (a fourth, the incumbent head of national security, also died from his wounds later) may have marked a tipping point—regardless of who carried it out.
These events present complications for Iran, which is already facing harsh sanctions owing to its alleged nuclear ambitions. Syria under both Assads, father and son, has been Tehran’s firmest state ally in the region and the logistical keystone in the edifice of resistance, which brings together the Lebanese Hezbollah and a clutch of rejectionist Palestinian factions. If Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon is Iran’s most successful revolutionary export, Syria could yet turn out to be its biggest fiasco.
With the prospects of Israeli or U.S.-led strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities increasing, Assad’s gradual descent to perdition risks impelling Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei to up the ante rather than stand down. And when this happens, the targeting of soft targets as happened in Burgas—such as the spate of brazen but bungled attempts attributed to Iran that spilled out onto the streets of several foreign capitals earlier this year—is likely to multiply with greater assiduity and singularity of purpose.
Persian shadow theater
Given its relatively limited conventional armed forces, the Iranian regime has invested heavily in niche, asymmetric capabilities far beyond its shores, thanks to concerted action by a nexus assumed to include the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and, to a lesser extent, the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic missions abroad: all are thought to be coordinated via two organs, the Supreme Council for National Security and the Special Operations Council.
Yet it has become a “known unknown” that the prime mover behind Iran’s extraterritorial special operations is a secretive unit embedded within the powerful IRGC, if not necessarily answerable to it. The Qods (or “Jerusalem”) Force appears to focus on exporting the Islamic revolution by, among other things, fostering militant movements, creating deterrence and retaliatory networks, and destabilizing unfriendly regimes. Officially, it stands among the IRGC’s five known branches alongside the ground forces, the navy, the air force (in parallel with the regular tri-services) and the brutish Basij street paramilitia.
According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Defense report, the Qods Force “clandestinely [exerts] military, political, and economic power to advance Iranian national interests abroad,” making it the forward or outermost complement to Iran’s mosaic homefront-defense doctrine. The Qods Force has been accused of masterminding or supporting some of the most prominent attacks against Western and Israeli targets over the past three decades, and it was instrumental in midwifing Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that attained notoriety for standing up to Israel for thirty-three sultry days in the summer of 2006.
Little wonder, then, that international attention has in recent years focused on Major General Qassem Soleimani, the enigmatic persona who runs the “handpicked elite of an already elite ideological army,” as Stanford University’s Abbas Milani described the Qods force. Ali Alfoneh, an Iran scholar specializing in the IRGC at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that although lacking formal qualifications, Soleimani rose through the ranks on account of his reputation for gutsiness during tough times: the traumatic eight-year war with Iraq, campaigns in Iran’s restive Kurdish heartland and the persistently wayward drug country around Sistan va Baluchistan, and the 1990s’ civil war in Afghanistan. In his current role, Soleimani replaced Ahmad Vahidi in the late 1990s, who went on to become Iran’s current defense minister. Moreover, Alfoneh pointed out that Soleimani’s relationship with a mid-level cleric and student of Khamenei’s in the late 1970s may have been the catalyst for his own proximity to the current supreme leader and his subsequent rise.
But Soleimani’s already extraordinary personal influence reportedly has taken on mythical proportions, especially in Iraq, where he has been regarded as the man who calls the shots since 2003. The then U.S. commanding officer in the country needed little convincing when he received this famous message in 2008: “General [David] Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.”
Iraq’s centrality in the Iranian revolutionary narrative was, as Muhammad Sahimi wrote inTehran Bureau, the reason that the Qods Force was established in the 1980s: to train Iraq’s Kurds (and Shia) against Saddam. Interestingly, noted the same author, Soleimani and his generation of fellow IRGC commanders never got over the fact that the West (and indeed the world) supported Saddam during the war. This is highly significant because it colors the regimes national-security and foreign-policy thinking.
But Iraq is one piece of the puzzle, albeit a crucial one. As the Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps, responsible for Iraq, fills in the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal last December, it continues to expand its theater of operations beyond the familiar near-abroad stretching from Lebanon and Syria to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
The long arm of the Islamic revolution
Nearly two dozen incidents within the past eighteen months (including recent attempts in Azerbaijan, India, Georgia, Thailand, Kenya and Cyprus) have fueled suspicions that Tehran and Hezbollah are trawling farther afield for soft targets. This appears to involve countries with noticeable Israeli civilian or commercial traffic, relatively relaxed security protocols and Iranian diplomatic presence.
Azerbaijan is a compelling case in point. Israel’s relationship with the Shiite Muslim-majority country of almost ten million is sand in the eyes for Iran given what it sees as its own “deeply rooted and brotherly” ties with Baku based on history, geography, culture, religion and, to an extent, ethnicity. Then, as now, Iran’s leaders reason, independent Azerbaijan should intuitively belong within the orbit of Persian exceptionalism. For the Qods Force, this is even greater cause for involvement.
According to media reports, Iranian spooks have been operating on Azeri soil as far back as the mid-1990s. In 1997, members of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan were tried for spying on behalf of Iran. In 2007, Said Dadasbeyli, an Azeri cleric and alleged leader of a group known as the “Northern Mahdi Army” was accused of receiving assistance from the Qods Force and plotting to overthrow the secular government. In exchange, the authorities believed he had provided Iran with sensitive intelligence on the American and Israeli embassies in Baku.
In October 2009, two Lebanese and four Azerbaijani citizens were charged with plotting to attack the same embassies. In January 2012, three men were accused of planning to assassinate a Chabad rabbi and a teacher working at a Baku Jewish school. In the following two months, just as the heat was being turned up on Iran’s nuclear activities, the number of suspects detained and allegedly linked with Iran and Hezbollah increased exponentially.
While it is unclear to what extent these charges were politically motivated, the statistics alone, in addition to Baku’s clear interest in maintaining cordial relations with its powerful southern neighbor, belie Iranian skulduggery. Iran has reciprocated by accusing Azerbaijan of harboring individuals spying on behalf of Israel’s Mossad and heckling its neighbor for depravity and ways discordant with “the interests of the Islamic countries and the Muslim world,” as an Iranian committee spokesman put it. By most accounts, this has had the effect of further galvanizing the Azeris’ resolve to chart their own course—away from Iran.
No silver lining
A late-year Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains a matter of heated speculation, although the truth is known only to the Jewish state’s poker-faced premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak. Either way, Israel is unlikely to cease targeting human assets linked to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile-development programs, while Iran and its affiliates are equally unlikely to desist from hurting Jewish interests and Israeli citizens worldwide, whom it regards as extensions of Israel’s universally militarized society.
If the current pressures persist, and so long as stalwart resistance to and the ultimate “removal” of the “cancerous Zionist regime” continue to underlie Iran’s strategic calculus, this promises to be one long, hard war ahead for both governments and, unfortunately, for both peoples as well.
This article by Open Briefing contributing analyst Kevjn Lim was originally published by National Interest on 9 August 2012.