The United States is engaged in a deadly but seldom mentioned proxy war with Iran. In a rare act of candor, two senior Obama administration defense officials have addressed the open secret of Iran’s active support for insurgent groups fighting U.S. troops overseas.
Earlier this week, during a visit to Iraq, newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta strongly denounced Iranian support for increasingly violent Shiite militia groups in that country. “We are very concerned about Iran and the weapons they are providing to extremists here in Iraq,” he said. “We’re seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they’ve really hurt us.” Mr. Panetta pledged that America would take action against Iran’s provocations. “We cannot sit back and simply allow this to continue to happen,” he said. “This is not something we’re going to walk away from. It’s something we’re going to take on head-on.”
Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised the alarm against Iran’s support for insurgents. He told the Pentagon Press Association, “Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shiite groups, which are killing our troops. There is no question they are shipping high-tech weapons in there … that are killing our people. And the forensics prove that.”
Iranian support for insurgencies is rarely raised so publicly at such high levels. Iran has been directly or indirectly responsible for more U.S. combat deaths than any other country since the end of the Vietnam War. For years, Iran has supplied arms and other support to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that threaten coalition troops in overseas war zones, there is nothing improvised about the explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that Iran has been supplying to militant groups. These sophisticated weapons are powerful enough to defeat the heaviest U.S. armored vehicles, and a 2006 classified intelligence report leaked in the New York Times asserted, “All source reporting since 2004 indicates that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Corps-Quds Force is providing professionally-built EFPs and components to Iraqi Shia militants.”
The latest State Department report on Iranian support for international terrorism states, “Iran’s Quds Force provided training to the Taliban in Afghanistan on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives and indirect fire weapons. Since at least 2006, Iran has arranged arms shipments to select Taliban members, including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107 mm rockets and plastic explosives.” A 2010 story in the London Sunday Times reported that Iranian front companies in Afghanistan funnel salaries of $233 a month to Taliban fighters with bonuses of $1,000 for killing American troops and $6,000 for knocking out American military vehicles.
The Obama administration has been reticent to draw attention to Iran’s support for insurgents. Early in 2009, the White House initiated a high-profile outreach effort to Tehran, which was rebuffed quickly and foundered after the brutal crackdown on Iranian pro-reform demonstrators that same summer. Since then, relations have grown steadily worse because of Iran’s nuclear program and dismal human rights record. With U.S. forces exiting the region, it would be strategically sound to signal the Islamic republic that America won’t tolerate continued support for insurgent groups that threaten our allies and interests. As Mr. Panetta said, it’s about time the United States takes this issue head-on.