Questions about Iranian Weapons in Iraq

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.

Further Reading:

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.

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No Responses to “Questions about Iranian Weapons in Iraq”

  1. peter July 9, 2007 at 2:07 pm #

    smacks of the African centrifuges fraud.

  2. Joe Katzman August 3, 2007 at 4:00 pm #

    One wonders precisely what sanctions would have any effect, given those Iran is already under.

    Your conclusion is basically correct: Iran is waging a proxy war that includes direct Quds Force attacks on American soldiers in Iraq as well as weapons supply, and believes it can do so openly.

    Peter is part of the reason why.

    This matches experience in Lebanon… somehow, I don’t think Hezbollah manufactures C-802 anti-shipping missiles.

    Iran will continue to do these things, and more (note: they license-manfacture SA-7 MANPADS), until actions are taken that deter them from doing so. The only question is what it will take to do that.

  3. Mike T April 25, 2008 at 12:15 pm #

    i disagree with ur assumptions, citing some examples
    1.- U.S says it has video of iran boats saying there were going to attack a U.S boat. This was later proven to be a edited video.

    2. If one would think or do as iran is assumed to be doing, having all this information on weapons caches and even id’s seem alittle too conveint, esp since U.S. politicains and toe majority of the U.S. population are trying to reduce U.S. pressences in the U.S.

    3. just as iraq can have weapons from iran, africa/farc/timal/ insurgents can have weapons from western powers, remember that what the U.S. does oversea’s is not as good or even right/moral to others over there including iraqi’s

  4. Dave May 1, 2008 at 3:23 pm #

    Great post. It does seem unlikely Iran would stamp these weapons from Iran then let them show up in Iraq, even if they thought the US wouldn’t strike back at them. Seems foolish. Another possibility is that a rogue element in Iran(or the US) wants it tracked back to Iran for some political end.

    On another point, we shouldn’t rely on the UN for anything. In fact, I believe the US shouldn’t even belong to the UN. With that in mind, I obviously oppose UN sanctions on another nation as well. It is this type of globalist thinking that has us in trouble on many fronts. I find it interesting that Hezbollah is always referenced as terrorists but Israel isn’t. I’m not saying either one is, but if one of them is, so is the other. But in each country they(at least to some) are seen as patriots. Much like most of the US thinks our government foreign policy is ok. Which it isn’t, we engage in terrorism around the world as well. Ontop of which, we don’t do anything when genocides around the world start happening. Our foreign policy is horrid. We don’t do anything about the issues we must act on, then we sit back and police the rest of the world, who should be left alone.

  5. Armando January 30, 2009 at 1:21 am #

    The US forces should be thanking that the weapons only have Iranian marking and not US markings themselves. You cant escape the fact that US has been a major weapon supplier under its official/non-official programs.
    Most countries believes that US has been a Invader in those parts. How do fight a Invader?

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