This column was written by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.
On the same day that Tony Blair debuted in Portugal as Middle East envoy for the Quartet, a group attempting to advance peace efforts in the Middle East, another kind of meeting convened in Syria. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met in Damascus on July 19 with leaders from Syria, Hizballah and Hamas to chart a different course for the Middle East. Asked in a joint press conference with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad if he expected another "hot summer," Ahmadinejad said, "We hope that the hot weather of this summer would coincide with similar victories for the region's peoples and with consequent defeat for the region's enemies."
Indeed, although a number of conflicts could erupt in a variety of Middle Eastern countries this summer, Iran is the common denominator among them. Iran's leaders understand that they have a real chance to drive the United States out of Iraq and substantially weaken the U.S.'s position in the region.
Iran's most obvious maneuverings have been in Iraq, where it has long aided insurgent factions. During a recent trip to Baghdad, where I was embedded as a reporter, I found that virtually every American soldier feared the explosively formed projectile (EFP). This kind of bomb has been described as uniquely dangerous because "when it detonates, the concave end blows outward and melts into a bullet-shaped fragment that slices through armor and flesh." Captain Greg Hirschey of the Army's 717th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company told Wired of an incident where an EFP went through a Humvee, taking off both of the driver's legs and also an arm. Lieutenant Patrick Henson of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery told me that he saw video in which an EFP went straight through a heavily armored Humvee and left an impact on the curb on the other side of the road. (Several Army sources corroborated his account.) Iran has been providing Shia insurgents with these deadly weapons. In 2005, Time reported that Iranian operative Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, who headed an insurgent network created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, introduced EFPs to Iraq. In February of this year, the American military stated that EFPs had killed "170 American and coalition troops in Iraq," and the numbers have continued to rise since then.
Iran has also trained Shia insurgent factions. Recently, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner said that Shia insurgents have been "taken to Iran in groups of 20 to 60 for training in three camps 'not too far from Tehran.'" According to Brig. Gen. Bergner, when they returned to Iraq, the trainees "formed units called 'special groups' to carry out attacks, bombings and kidnappings."
It seems that Iran has even provided active direction to Shia militias. Brig. Gen. Bergner stated in a press conference that U.S. forces recovered a 22-page planning and lessons learned document relating to the January 20 attack in Karbala, in which 12 men disguised as U.S. soldiers mounted an attack that killed five. He noted that the document shows that Iran's elite Qods force "had developed detailed information regarding our soldiers' activities, shift changes and fences, and this information was shared with the attackers." Iran also likely provided the attackers with "American-looking uniforms, vehicles and identification cards" that helped them penetrate their target and "achieve surprise."
Although it is a Shia theocracy, Iran has not limited itself to support of Shia insurgents. In January, the New York Sun reported that Iranian documents captured by American forces showed that Iran also supported Sunni insurgents. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the military's chief spokesman in Iraq, has also stated this publicly in press conferences. In addition to trying to drive the U.S. out of Iraq, Iran's support for Sunni insurgents seems to be a form of hedging its bets by providing something of value to all insurgent factions.
Analysts believe that the fact that the administration has staked so much politically on how much progress is made by September provides Iran with an incentive to ramp up violence in Iraq during August.
Nor is the chaos in which Iran has involved itself limited to Iraq. The country that was central to the long, hot summer of 2006 — Lebanon — sits directly to the west of Iran's strategic partner Syria. With elections just around the corner, chaos could again break out in Lebanon this summer.
The political situation in Lebanon has been precarious since Syrian withdrawal in 2005. One of the most destabilizing forces has been Hezbollah, which is strongly aligned with Iran: the first generation of Hezbollah's leadership pledged their loyalty to Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in 1982, and since then Iran has been a primary source of financial support and training for Hizballah's fighters.
Hezbollah's war against Israel last summer was dramatically destabilizing. There has also been a rash of political assassinations inside Lebanon. While suspicion for these incidents focuses on Syrian intelligence, high-ranking sources in American intelligence believe that Hezbollah facilitated the assassinations by aiding the assassins' entry into Lebanon, helping to put them in a position where they could carry out the attacks, and facilitating their exit. (Hezbollah, it should be noted, receives sponsorship from Syria as well as Iran.)
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