How Britain Botched the Iran Standoff
How Britain Botched the Iran Standoff
As anticipated, the British government officially accused Iran of complicity in the targeting and killing of its troops in southern Iraq. However, the accusations are weak and clumsily constructed, to the point of being silly. The bomb technology that the British refer to is more than 50 years old, has been used in a variety of conflicts around the world, and is also known to have been in the possession of the former Iraqi military intelligence service.
The real concern is that the Blair government is using Iran as a smokescreen for its increasingly desperate plight in Iraq. The British dilemma in Iraq is simple but also intractable: they have devoted significant resources to the conflict, but have only marginal influence on the real decision-making (which is done by the Americans).
Moreover, there is every reason to believe that the United Kingdom is using the excuse of Iranian meddling in Iraq as a subterfuge for its own plans for a long-term intelligence presence in Iraq and as a device for applying further pressure on the Islamic Republic over the nuclear stand-off.
The accusations of the British government are odd for principally four reasons. Firstly, the manner in which the accusations were
"The secret intelligence war between the two sides [Britain and Iran] in Iraq is currently manageable. Whether it remains that way depends, to a large extent, on how Britain manages its relations with Iran over a number of issues ..."
Britain, Iran playing with Iraqi Shi'ite fire, ATol, Oct 1, 2005
announced to the world was unusual. They were first disclosed by an "anonymous" senior official to a group of correspondents in London on October 5.
The "anonymous" official claimed, in no uncertain terms, that Iran was helping to kill British troops by providing bomb technology to Shi'ite insurgents, possibly through the Lebanese Hezbollah. But the very next day, Prime Minister Tony Blair was more diplomatic about Iranian complicity, claiming that the evidence led either to Iran or its Lebanese militant allies Hezbollah, but adding, "We can't be sure of this."
There was also disquiet in the British military establishment, with the Guardian reporting on October 6, "Defense sources suggested that blaming the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for supplying the explosives technology was going too far."
Secondly, bringing the Lebanese Hezbollah into the equation simply makes no sense. Iran has direct access to southern Iraq and, moreover, has many official representatives (not to mention hundreds of covert operatives) in the Basra area alone. Given this impressive presence, it is difficult to see why the Iranians would want to involve a Lebanese political party/militia in their dealings with Shi'ite forces in the south of Iraq. The British, it seems, have unwisely copied Israeli disinformation methodology. Indeed, whenever Israel levels an extraordinary allegation against Iran, it almost invariably involves the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Thirdly, the accusation that "rogue" elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are behind the transfer of technology seriously undermines the British government's position. Either the British know very little about Iranian security policy or they are deliberately employing a deceptive argument.
The fact is that there are no "rogue" elements in the IRGC. The IRGC is, first and foremost, an ideological military organization with its own independent command, comprised of ground, naval and air forces. This makes Iran the only country in the world to operate two completely independent military structures (ie, the regular military and the IRGC).
Moreover, aside from being a military organization, the IRGC has security/intelligence capabilities and other civilian infrastructure. For instance, the best specialized medical clinics in Iran (particularly those pertaining to dentistry and laser eye surgery) are owned and operated by the IRGC.
Overall, the IRGC directly employs up to 350,000 personnel, 120,000 of whom serve in its ground, naval and air forces. The IRGC is a vast organization, and as such it is subject to intense discipline.
The idea that "rogue" elements within this organization are actively engaged in undermining Iranian foreign policy is simply a non-starter. These deceptive arguments are usually deployed to buttress unsubstantiated accusations against the Islamic republic.
Last, but not least, the transfer of bomb technology (which is at the heart of the British government's accusations) simply makes no sense from a technical perspective. The technology in question (which involves specially shaped charges capable of penetrating armor) is up to 50 years old and there is nothing particularly "Iranian" about it.
It has been used in a variety of conflicts, notably in Sri Lanka, where it has been deployed by the Tamil Tigers. While it is true that the Lebanese Hezbollah deployed these types of devices against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon in the 1990s, it is equally true that the technology was widely known to the Istikhbarat, the former Iraqi military intelligence service.
In fact, the Istikhbarat closely tracked Iran's military relationship with Hezbollah, and had even sent a specialized team to Lebanon in 1995 to study Hezbollah tactics against the IDF. This expertise is being widely used by Iraqi Arab Sunni insurgents (who are mostly led by former Istikhbarat and Mukhabarat officers) against US forces in the western, central, north-central and northern regions of Iraq.
Given that this technology is widely available to and exploited by the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement, there is no reason why it should not travel further south to benefit the emerging Shi'ite insurgency against the British presence.
In any case, the circuitous route through which this old and well-known technology is supposed to have been transferred (ie from Iran to Hezbollah and then to the Iraqi Shi'ites) is implausible, if not downright spurious.
Iran strikes back
Taken aback by the British accusations, the Iranian government has hit back by implicating Britain in the twin bombings that occurred in Ahwaz (the capital of Iran's Khuzestan province) on October 15, killing four people. Although the Iranian government has provided no solid evidence to implicate the British, these accusations are not altogether extraordinary.
The consensus in Iran (both in the security/intelligence community and the media establishment) is that the bombings in Ahwaz, as well as six bombings in June, are the work of very small Arab separatist groups that are ultimately controlled by elements in the (former) Iraqi military intelligence service.
Privately, Iranian officials are worried that the events in Khuzestan signal the export of the Iraqi insurgency to Iran. But there is a British connection, albeit one which is not necessarily decisive. The Khuzestani Arab separatists (who call this southeastern Iranian province "Arabistan") were closely nurtured by the former Ba'athist government in Iraq and were an integral part of (former) Iraqi intelligence operations in Khuzestan. But they have also had a presence in Britain since the late 1970s.
Indeed, they seized the Iranian Embassy in 1980, prompting the British authorities to deploy the Special Air Services against them. But throughout much of the 1980s, Iranian Arab separatists were able to operate freely in the UK, even though the British authorities were well aware of their Iraqi intelligence connections. The atmosphere changed in 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the end of the prolonged honeymoon between the West and Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, during a number of occasions in the 1990s, Iranian Arab separatists based in the UK were intercepted at Heathrow airport by UK security service (MI5) officers as they were about to board flights to locations such as Larnaka, Athens and Istanbul, where they would meet Iraqi intelligence officers.
The message from the British was clear: Iraqi intelligence activity on UK soil would not be tolerated (as it had been in the 1980s). But since the downfall of Saddam, Iranian Arab separatists are back in favor in London. They have met Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, on at least one occasion and the Iranian government alleges that many more secret meetings have taken place. Interestingly, Iranian Arab separatists have also been openly courted by the Canadian government.
None of this implicates the British government in the bombings in Ahwaz, but the very fact that UK officials are showing greater hospitality to elements which, at the very least, applaud these bombings, makes the Iranian government understandably nervous. Seen from this perspective, Iranian accusations pointing to British complicity in the bombings in Ahwaz have more merit than British accusations implicating Iran in the emerging Shi'ite insurgency.
Moreover, the Iranians are increasingly concerned over British intelligence activity in Khuzestan, despite the fact that the pattern of British military intelligence activity in the province since the summer of 2003 points to irregular, amateurish and in some cases completely pointless operations.
For all the legend erected around British intelligence over the past 100 years, on the ground in today's Iraq and Iran their methodology and operations are amateurish and least suited to generating quality long-term intelligence. While the British military in Iraq has been able to access useful short-term intelligence and has exploited it to quell any serious resistance to their increasingly unpopular presence, the wider UK intelligence community has failed to lay the foundations for a long-term intelligence presence in Iraq. However, the Iranians fear that as they stay longer in the region, the British will correct their mistakes and be able to operate more successfully.
In order to deter British penetration, the Iranians initially resorted to heavy-handed tactics. This was best exemplified by the seizure of three Royal Navy vessels and eight marines and sailors by IRGC naval units in the Arvand River (Shatt al-Arab) in June 2004. Although it is not clear if the marines had strayed into Iranian waters, the IRGC claimed that they had and subjected them to public humiliation.
The message to the British was clear: keep well away from Iran. According to journalistic sources in Tehran, over the past 16 months several British military intelligence operations have been thwarted by the IRGC, either right on the border with Iraq or inside the extreme eastern regions of Khuzestan.
In one case, it is claimed, the IRGC even detained two British soldiers (of Gujarati origin) who were presumed to be involved in a Force Research Unit (FRU) operation in Khuzestan. The IRGC wanted to publicly humiliate them, but was overruled by senior officials, who delivered the captured soldiers to the British Embassy in Tehran.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, referring to Tehran's complaint that the UK had not provided evidence to support its accusations against Iran, recently stated: "We don't talk without proof and documentation."
This is probably a message to the UK government that any further accusations against Iran might be met by Iranian revelations on thwarted FRU operations in Khuzestan. In any case, accusations and counter-accusations (even if backed up with solid evidence) will have a significantly negative impact on already tense Anglo-Iranian relations.
British end game in Iraq?
Attacks against British soldiers in southern Iraq are likely to increase in the coming months. These attacks are primarily motivated by one factor alone: the British are no longer needed in southern Iraq. The south is largely peaceful and the security structures created by Shi'ite militias have proved highly effective.
Much of the tension between the UK military and the militias is rooted in the almost universal wish in the Shi'ite south that the British begin withdrawing immediately. While the British government has hinted that it might start withdrawing substantially from May 2006 onwards, no firm guarantees to this effect have been given to Iraqi authorities in the south.
But there is a deeper reason why Iraq is now such a dilemma for UK foreign policy. From a British perspective, the country has invested significant resources in the Iraq conflict, but has reaped very few benefits apart from consolidating the "special relationship" with the US.
Indeed, British prestige in the region and the wider world has declined since the war and the Iraq conflict may have even been the decisive factor that propelled four young British Muslim suicide bombers to attack their own country in July.
Instinctively, the Blair government wants to stay in Iraq as long as the Americans, if only to reap the final rewards of a "democratic" and "stable" Iraq. But evidence on the ground suggests that while a stable Iraq is, at best, 10 years away, a democratic Iraq may forever remain a neo-conservative fantasy.
From a wider geostrategic perspective, if the British government is hoping to apply pressure on Iran in the nuclear stand-off, then it has completely misread events in Tehran over the past few months. While this kind of pressure might have had an impact on the previous Mohammed Khatami government, the new government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is stridently nationalist and has made it clear that Iran will not make any concessions over its right to master the nuclear fuel cycle.
The message from the Ahmadinejad administration, and the Iranian nationalists who stand behind him, is clear: even if the British believe in their own propaganda there is not much that they can do about it.
Given this state of affairs, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the British government has badly miscalculated. Indeed, if the British government wanted to portray itself as a key player in the nuclear stand-off, the uncompromising message from Tehran leaves little doubt that the UK is merely a pawn in an escalating geostrategic conflict between the Islamic Republic and the United States.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own.