October 14, 2011

The Vast Iranian Network

Iran experts continue to express surprise and confusion that Iran’s Quds Force could be a part of such an amateurish and bungled operation.

“It was very extreme and very odd, but it was also very sloppy,” observed Juan Zarate, deputy national security adviser for terrorism in the Bush administration. “If you look at what they have done historically, they can put operatives on their targets and execute. They usually don’t outsource, but keep things inside a trusted network.” Volker Perthes of the German Institute for International and Security affairs said: “I don’t regard it as impossible but rather improbable.” Such an act would signal “a major escalation against the United States, of the kind that hasn’t happened since the Iranian Revolution.” It would be “almost an act of war.” Indeed.

Wars waged in coalition often violate the principle of unity of command, a fact Americans shouldn’t need to be reminded about. Coalition partners get a vote, and get to do things in their own way and for their own reasons.  Sometimes they do things that the leader of the coalition doesn’t know about and doesn’t like, but can’t control.

Iran is hardly immune from the mistakes of its allies and proxies.  In Iraq, Moqtada al Sadr and Iranian-backed militias have misplayed their hand repeatedly.  Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah summed the 2006 war with Israel thus: “We did not think, even one percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11...that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”  The Assad regime in Syria is going through a rough patch, too.  The Quds Force may be evil and in the shadows, but that doesn’t also make them geniuses.

Iran’s new Bolivarian buddies – Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa – are not the most cautious cats in the Western Hemisphere.  But they look like Bismarkian “satisfied powers” by comparison to the drug cartels that are an increasing part of Iran’s anti-American network.  The so-called Zetas linked to the plot to kill the Suadi ambassador are, in fact, a highly professional organization in their own way. As Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal wrote in a study recently published by the Center for a New American Security:

Mexico’s deadly Zetas are a good example of a networked, hybrid organization – not based on a family group – in constant flux. The original Zetas were members of the government’s Special Operations-like elite force Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFES), tasked with dismantling criminal networks in the northern border region. They left or deserted the GAFES to work for the Gulf Cartel’s enforcement arm, where their specialized military training and technological sophistication allowed them to repeatedly outgun local and federal law enforcement officials. For a time, the Zetas focused solely on hired- gun violence, since they lacked experience in the organizational and business aspects of running a trafficking cartel.

Now, however, the Zetas have completed the conversion from hired muscle to a fully operating cartel organization. While the Zetas used to be a specialized force, they now have specialized units of their own. There are now multiple generations of Zetas, many of whom are specifically recruited and trained in certain areas of expertise.

Perhaps the larger problem is that Iran is making common cause with what is now a global, if informal, alliance of rogues and rogue states. Los Zetas aren’t that different from what Hezbollah used to be, and Hugo Chavez is a kind Venezuelan Assad.  We have invested a lot in intelligence to discover who has tea with whom in Qom, but we’re in danger of missing the forest for the trees.

For more information, download the full CNAS report by Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal, Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security.