This was co-authored with Mathew Markman, intelligence analyst specializing in Lebanese and Syrian affairs at Max Security Solutions.
They say old habits die hard. For Iran’s elite Quds Force, the secretive external branch of the Revolutionary Guard, the habits of subversion and mafia-style revenge against the Islamic Republic’s adversaries may never die at all. The actions of these self-described promoters of the Islamic Revolution may just determine whether the smiles, handshakes, and twitter posts of President Rouhani signal an end to Iran’s destabilizing meddling in the Middle East – or are a mere diversion from the unrelenting sectarian aims of the regime’s true power brokers.
With the eyes of the world still sharply focused on Iran’s behavior following the clinching of an interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1, the restraint of the Quds Force is already being tested.
On November 19, just as Tehran’s negotiating team arrived in Geneva to hammer out the last details of that agreement, the Iranian embassy in southern Beirut was hit by a devastating double suicide bombing attack. Twenty-three people were killed, including Iran’s cultural attaché and several other nationals whose identities and affiliations have not been disclosed.
On the surface, the attack could be construed as part of an ongoing campaign by Syrian rebel sympathizers to target pro-Assad regime elements in Lebanon, preceded by two other indiscriminate bombings in Hezbollah-dominated suburbs of the city in recent months.
But both Hezbollah and Iranian officials red-flagged this attack for its notable sophistication, indicating the hand of a far more capable foreign power. According to their claims, the attackers knew the location of the ambassador’s office and his itinerary that day, with the second bomber using sophisticated explosives meant to detonate upwards rather than horizontally in order to collapse the building.
Since then, Hezbollah and Iran have spared no effort in implicating their arch-sectarian nemesis in the region – Saudi Arabia. Officially, no concrete link has been proven between the attackers, a Palestinian and Lebanese each tied to anti-Assad jihadists, to the Saudi government. But if anyone were to have a motive to provoke the Iranians as they negotiate the end to their long-standing isolation, it would be Saudi Arabia’s powerful intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. Prince Bandar has been at the center of a deepening row in Saudi-U.S. relations, enraged over the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene in Syria and more so at the thought of Western rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. Bandar is also known for his intimate and hands-on relationship with an array of Syrian rebel groups.
For Bandar or anyone else seeking to punish Iran, its Beirut embassy was the perfect target. It doubles as a nerve center for Revolutionary Guard operations in the eastern Mediterranean, tasked with funneling arms to Hezbollah and is also a key command-and-control hub for Iranian support for Syria’s Assad regime.
Before Rouhani’s foreign policy overhaul, the Quds Force would have had free reign in seeking eye-for-an-eye punishment for the embassy attack, similar to those often handed down to common criminals at home. In recent years, the Quds Force has been blamed for plots targeting Israeli diplomats in India, Thailand, Georgia, and Armenia in response to sabotage attempts against its nuclear program, allegedly orchestrated by the Mossad. The Saudis as well have also been targeted for opposing Iran. In December 2012, the state-owned Aramco oil firm was hit with an unprecedented cyber attack, while a particularly reckless plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC was thwarted in October 2011.
The Quds Force and their deceivingly humble leader Qassim Solemani don’t answer to Rouhani, but they are fiercely loyal to the Supreme Leader – who knows full well that any overt response against Saudi Arabia or any other adversary would risk reversing Iran’s now rapidly unraveling isolation.
While the Quds Force may have their hands tied for now, their influence has become so entrenched in Shiite communities throughout the region that they may not need to strike back personally. In their stead are dozens of devoted proxies based in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and anywhere else in the region where neglected Shiite communities or anti-Western extremists can be found. Chief among them are the religiously devout and increasingly aggressive Shiite militias in Iraq and Lebanon, who have now become the most crucial cog in the Assad regime’s killing machine under Iranian direction, with little objection from the international community.
It is thus no surprise that Saudi Arabia has warned its nationals to leave Lebanon amidst a flurry of threats against its Beirut embassy. It is also no coincidence that an Iranian-loyal, Iraqi-based Shiite militia took responsibility for a rare rocket attack on a Saudi border post on November 22, just three days after the Beirut attack. There is no telling what else these groups may do to attack Saudi Arabia or its allies under the banner of defending their financial, ideological, and military patrons in Tehran.
One thing, however, is certain. The Quds Force is not one to forgive or forget – and their worldwide, state-funded network of operatives can be counted on to return the favor for the Beirut bombings, even if it requires patiently waiting for the world to turn its eyes away from the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Amidst the flurry of debate over Iran’s trustworthiness and willingness to transform itself into a responsible regional power, the destabilizing presence of the Quds Force cannot be ignored. Rapprochement with Iran cannot go hand-in-hand with ignoring the promotion of violent Shiite Islamic extremism. Anyone who allows Iran to enrich uranium without demanding that Tehran reign in the Quds Force will be complicit in placing the tentacles of terrorism within arm’s reach of the world’s most dangerous weapons.