As the U.S. prepares to sit down with Iran in a conference Tuesday on Afghanistan, U.S. military, intelligence and financial specialists are continuing to target the finances and operatives of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in part to gain leverage for diplomacy, U.S. officials and analysts say.
The campaign against Iran’s paramilitary networks in Iraq and Afghanistan has received less attention than the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran, but the two are closely entwined.
“Perhaps if there is enough economic pressure placed on Iran, diplomacy can provide them an open door through which they can walk if they choose to change their policies,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And so I think the two go hand in hand, but I think what gets them to the table is economic sanctions.”
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The main target of U.S. efforts is the Revolutionary Guards, which may control as much as 40 percent of the country’s economy as well as its nuclear program.
“I have not seen any indication that the Obama administration is backing away from continuing the strategy of acting to disrupt Iranian covert networks,” said Kenneth Katzman, a senior Iran analyst at the Congressional Research Service.
Mr. Katzman said U.S.-led forces have detained more than 20 members of the Quds [Jerusalem] Force - an elite unit within the Revolutionary Guards - in Iraq alone since 2007. He added that members of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Guards also have been captured.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that although Iran has been helpful at times in Iraq and Afghanistan, “we still see Iranian meddling in both theaters of operation and particularly in Iraq where Iranian-supplied weapons continue to be used to attack our troops. We have had over the past couple of years a great deal of success targeting and disrupting these Iranian-supported networks. But they remain a problem and so we remain on the offensive against them.”
Capturing and killing
President Obama‘s decision amounts to retaining a Bush administration finding in late 2006, which preceded the surge of U.S. troops to Iraq. In a Jan. 10, 2007, speech, President Bush promised to “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” He specifically mentioned Iranian- and Syrian-backed supply lines.
The next day, U.S. forces detained five members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the Kurdish city of Irbil. The group, which became known as the “Irbil 5,” remains in American and Iraqi custody. Iran says the Revolutionary Guards were in Irbil for diplomatic, not intelligence or military, reasons.
The Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force, which function like U.S. special operations forces and intelligence officers abroad but are also thought to be involved in criminal activities, remain designated by the U.S. government as terrorist entities under Executive Order 13224.
The Sept. 23, 2001, order authorizes efforts to seize financial assets of organizations and people the U.S. regards as terrorist and also has become an important tool for U.S. military and special operations forces.
One former and one current U.S. intelligence officer told The Washington Times that “threat finance cells” of 20 to 30 intelligence analysts culled from various government agencies and the military have been established in Iraq and Afghanistan to uncover terrorist financing. Information is shared with military units, which then apprehend and at times kill Iranian operatives, the officers said.
“First they would try to identify how the insurgency was funded, looking through raw intel and they would give interrogators questions to ask,” the former intelligence officer said. He asked not to be named because the program is still classified.
“The designations were one tool we would use.” he said. “Some of the operations would be kinetic,” a military term referring to the application of lethal force. He gave no figures for the number of Iranians killed by U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Starving the banks
Meanwhile, a Bush administration holdover - Stuart Levey, undersecretary of Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence - continues efforts to starve Iranian banks and companies of Western capital.
“I think keeping Stuart Levey is pretty big sign, and I think the key is going to be how do you ratchet up the financial pressure while you do these negotiations,” Michael Jacobson, a former senior adviser to Mr. Levey, told The Times.
Suzanne Maloney, a former Iran State Department senior analyst, said she did not expect the Obama administration to let up for now on either sanctions or the military campaign.
“I don’t see how the new administration walks away from these,” she said. “Levey is full steam ahead looking for new banking sanctions.”
She noted, though, that most of the economic sanctions were imposed by executive order, which “gives Obama some flexibility” on lifting them. Still, “anything happening in Iraq and in Afghanistan - indirect engagement between our forces in both theaters - that’s not going to stop.”
Ms. Maloney, however, made clear that Mr. Obama is serious about trying to end the conflict with Iran.
“This is a serious effort under way, not a feint or a ploy,” she said. Unlike in the Bush administration, “there was no battle royale in the Obama administration” over policy, she said. “Everyone is putting their eggs in the basket of diplomacy.”
Mr. Obama underscored this in his news conference last week when he raised the Iran issue after no reporter asked a question about it.
Despite the lack of an enthusiastic Iranian response to the president’s message to Iran’s people and government on the Persian New Year, he said, “We expect that we´re going to make steady progress on this front.”
Mr. Obama’s director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, told reporters last week that the administration hopes to convince Iran “that it can have its security without nuclear weapons. And that it can advance both its economic prospects and its own view of where it is in the region, and in the world, without the use of the backing of extremist groups and possessing nuclear weapons.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will get her first chance to interact with Iranian officials Tuesday at a multilateral conference on Afghanistan in The Hague.
U.S. officials have spoken of direct outreach, perhaps through letters to Iran’s supreme religious leader and other top figures after a U.S. policy review concludes in mid-April.
To entice the Iranians to the table, the Obama administration also has used the same executive order that labeled Iranian entities as terrorist. On Feb. 4, the Treasury Department put the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, an Iranian Kurdish separatist group based in the border area between Iran and Iraq, on the terrorist list. The action was reminiscent of the Clinton administration’s designation of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group, after the 1997 election of a reformist president in Iran.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said there is no contradiction between maintaining pressure on Iran and laying the groundwork for negotiations.
“This administration is interested in showing Iran that it will pay it respect and take confidence-building measures,” he said. But “the Obama team continues to pursue the objective of having more leverage over Iran. They are suggesting Iran better negotiate.”
The president already faces domestic pressure for diplomacy to work. Senior House Democrats sent a letter to Mr. Obama on Friday noting the urgency of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and requesting more sanctions if negotiations stall.
“Engagement must be serious and credible, but it cannot be open-ended,” the letter said.