July 5, 2007

Two decades later – it’s still about Iran

This article appeared on MSNBC.com

Two decades later – it’s still about Iran
Francona: The winner will be the power broker in the Persian Gulf

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

It comes as no surprise that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, the elite special operations unit, was involved in the January attack in Karbala that killed five American soldiers. The newer and somewhat surprising detail in the recent revelation by the American command in Baghdad is the direct participation of Lebanese Hezbollah operatives in Iraq. One of these fighters, Ali Musa Daqduq, was captured by American forces in March near Basrah.

According to Daqduq, he was sent to Iran in 2005 by the Qods Force to train Iraqis. This makes good sense. Daqduq, being Lebanese, speaks Arabic. Qods Force officers, being Iranian, speak Persian. Although many IRGC officers, especially those who have worked with Hezbollah members in Lebanon or trained them in Iran, speak Arabic, having a native speaker with on-the-ground experience fighting the Israelis in Lebanon is a hard set of credentials to top.

This recent revelation comes on the heels of Iran’s continuing provision of lethal weaponry to Shia militias, particularly the “explosively formed penetrator” that has killed over 100 American troops. This willingness to support terrorist operations in Iraq fits with Tehran’s longstanding support of the Syrian regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Chechen rebels and Bosnian Muslims – and underscores the importance of Iran for future American policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

We are fighting a proxy war in Iraq, a war between the United States and Iran. The winner will be the power broker in the Persian Gulf, source of much of the world’s oil. The success or failure of American policy in Iraq will determine how much influence we have with the Arab oil producers, especially Saudi Arabia with the world’s largest proved oil reserves, as well as traditional allies Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain (homeport of the U.S. Fifth Fleet) and the United Arab Emirates.

This showdown between the United States and Iran will reach an important crossroads in September, when our self-imposed review of the current “surge” operation takes place. It is important that we not lose sight of the consequences of declaring defeat and limiting American forces to fighting al-Qaida in Iraq.

Yes, destroying al-Qaida is an important goal, but not the only goal. We are beginning to see some success in that arena, thanks to changes in our tactics and new alliances with some of the Sunni tribal shaykhs in al-Anbar province. While the tribes at first either supported or turned a blind eye to al-Qaida out of a sense of fear of the new-found power of the majority Shia population – they dominate the military and security forces – the shaykhs have realized that al-Qaida’s plans and dreams for the future of Iraq are not compatible with their own. Al-Qaida wants to establish an Islamic state; the shaykhs prefer their traditional form of tribal rule. Once al-Qaida showed its true colors by establishing Islamic courts and meting out Sharia justice, the shaykhs turned on them. American and Iraqi forces are cooperating with the tribes in this effort, arming them when necessary. Between the tribal militias, the Iraqi military and police and American combat forces, the eradication of al-Qaida in Iraq just might be accomplished.

That said, we cannot take our eyes off the ball. There are other key objectives in Iraq, the most important of which is to ensure that Iran does not emerge as the principle power broker in the region. Not only have the neighboring Arab countries been concerned about Iranian power and aggressiveness – not to mention its arsenal of ballistic missile and potential nuclear weapons capability – the United States has long been concerned about Iran as well.

Much of American policy in the region since we were thrust into superpower status following World War II has been about Iran, either seeking influence or containing it, or both. A new book (in which I am castigated) details our relationship with Saddam Hussein in the late 1980’s. The United States provided intelligence information to the Iraqi armed forces at the same time the Iraqis were using “special ammunition” - chemical weapons – on Iranian troops and their own Kurdish population. However, the relationship was not about supporting the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was about containing the Islamic revolution of the ayatollahs in Iran.

We contained Iran then - let’s hope we can do it now.

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