A shadowy Iranian paramilitary unit smaller than some U.S. Army battalions is at the center of a standoff between Washington and Tehran over the war in Iraq.
President Bush voiced growing concern about the secretive Quds Force at a press conference Wednesday. The capture of a senior Quds operative during a raid last month in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil underscores the U.S. charge that Iranian leaders are funding and arming Iraqi Shi’ite militias that kill American troops.
“Let me put it this way: There’s not a whole lot of freelancing in the Iranian government, especially when it comes to something like that,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said last week.
But Iranian scholars and military specialists say the case in not so clear-cut. The Islamic Republic of Iran, they say, was designed to create multiple, often competing power centers, with blurry, shifting lines of authority reaching eventually to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“In one sense, there is a huge amount of freelancing going on all the time in the Iranian system,” said Alex Vatanka, an Iran specialist and U.S. security editor for the British-based Jane’s Information Group. “It’s not one big, homogeneous system.”
But, he added, if U.S. charges about Iranian arms and financial support to militant Shi’ite militias are true, “It’s very doubtful that the Quds Force or any other group would be freelancing without very senior approval on an issue of such obvious security impact for the state.”
The origins of the Quds Force — the name means “Jerusalem” in both Persian and Arabic — are not clear. A leading Iranian dissident group says the group was set up in the early 1980s as a foreign-intelligence arm for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and some think the unit that became the Quds Force helped carry out the suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983.
The Revolutionary Guard was established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, as an ideological counterweight to the regular Iranian armed forces, whose loyalty was considered suspect. While the army guarded the nation, the Revolutionary Guard’s mission was to protect the revolution.
Hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad served in the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and is considered close to key Revolutionary Guard commanders.
But Mr. Vatanka notes that the revolutionary force is as faction-ridden as other parts of the Iranian state, with some members favoring rivals to the president, such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Tehran Mayor Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf.
According to Mahan Abedin, research director at the London-based Center for the Study of Terrorism, the Quds Force operates as an elite special-operations unit for the Revolutionary Guard. Its core group of operatives numbers about 800, with a slightly larger support group.
Quds operatives have carried out intelligence and military missions in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bosnia and Sudan.
Iran has extensive political, cultural and religious links to major Iraqi Shi’ite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and top figures in virtually every major Shi’ite political party.
Quds operatives are widely thought to have provided training and other support to militias tied to the Shi’ite factions in Iraq that have clashed with U.S. and allied forces.