Shadow Government

Iran's double-edged sword

In a four-day journey at the beginning of November that took him through Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki asserted that the United States was "displeased with the expansion of relations between Iran and African countries," and opined that while the U.S. had a "thirst for power," Iran practiced the subtler "power of logic."  He described his top priority in Africa as "the exportation of technical and engineering services."

Less than two weeks later, Mottaki had to hastily return to West Africa to deal with the exposure by Nigerian authorities of another, more nefarious export: rocket launchers, grenades, and other illicit arms disguised as building materials and accompanied, apparently, by two members of the elite "Quds Force" unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

The contrast between Iran's public campaign to drum up diplomatic support and build economic ties to stave off increasing isolation and its shadowy network of arms smuggling, support for terrorism, and subversive activities serve as a stark reminder of the nature of the Iranian regime and the dangers it poses well beyond its own borders, and well beyond the nuclear issue. 

This latest revelation of Iranian malfeasance is hardly without precedent. Whether using the Quds Force -- described by the U.S. Department of State as "the regime's primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad" -- or proxies such as Hezbollah, the regime since its founding in 1979 has sought to project its power and influence far afield, often with lethal results.

The examples are manifold.  In January 2009, Israeli forces bombed a convoy in Sudan allegedly containing Iranian arms bound for Hamas fighters in Gaza.  That same year, at least three cargo vessels were found to be carrying weapons from Iran, likely bound for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, in violation of UN sanctions prohibiting Tehran from exporting arms. In 2007, a derailed train in southern Turkey was found to be carrying Iranian arms, also likely destined for Hezbollah arms caches.  And for several years, the Quds Force has been supplying militants in Iraq and Afghanistan with weapons, training, and funding.

Iran's activities are not limited to arms smuggling.  Earlier this year, Kuwaiti authorities uncovered an alleged Iranian "sleeper cell," souring what had been one of Iran's calmer regional relationships.  Morocco in 2009 severed its diplomatic ties with Iran amid accusations that Iran was engaged in subversive activities there.  The same year, Egyptian authorities broke up a Hezbollah cell reportedly planning attacks against tourism and infrastructure targets. 

The list goes on, geographically and chronologically.  U.S. authorities have targeted Hezbollah networks in West Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. INTERPOL has issued warrants for high-ranking Iranian officials -- one of whom ran for Iran's presidency in 2009 -- in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina.  And Iran's complicity in assassinations in Europe and the 1996 terrorist attack on U.S. servicemen in Riyadh stymied EU and U.S. initiatives to repair relations with Tehran in the 1990s. 

These activities, taken together with Tehran's refusal to cooperate with the IAEA on its nuclear activities and callous violations of its own people's human rights, paint a picture of a regime which pursues its own security by flouting international rules and norms of acceptable behavior.  The recent revelations of Iranian arms smuggling are not an isolated incident, as the list above makes clear, but part of a consistent strategy utilizing terrorism, intimidation, and destabilization to enhance the regime's own power and influence.

As the United States and its allies try to restart negotiations with Iran, the regime's support for terrorism and other troubling activities counsel vigilance and realism.  It calls for vigilance, because even as Western officials seek new points of pressure and avenues for outreach to bring Iran to the negotiating table, existing sanctions designed to constrain Iran's ability to sow violence and instability beyond its borders must be vigorously enforced. And it calls for realism, because it demonstrates that even a resolution of the nuclear issue would only begin to address the far broader concerns about the regime and its activities, making a true U.S.-Iran reconciliation far away indeed.

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Shadow Government

NATO's missing agenda item in Lisbon

As NATO leaders prepare for their summit in Lisbon this week, attention has focused on the war in Afghanistan, approval of a new Strategic Concept (NATO's roadmap for the future), and the challenge of sustaining the alliance's military capabilities in an era of fiscal crisis. Missing from the agenda is the future of the U.S. military presence in Europe, the cornerstone of the transatlantic security relationship.

On Feb. 1, the Obama administration rolled out its Quadrennial Defense Review, a planning document that articulated the principles that would guide the administration's decision-making regarding the stationing of U.S. forces beyond its borders. It stated that "pending the review of NATO's Strategic Concept and an accompanying U.S. assessment of our European defense posture network," new plans regarding Europe would be approved. For an administration that prides itself on consultation, it has been surprising how little discussion there has been of this strategically important issue of growing concern among NATO Allies.

These pending decisions follow the Bush administration's 2004 Global Defense Posture Review. The latter initiated a reduction of U.S. forces stationed in Europe from about 100,000 personnel down to approximately 60,000. The decision was interpreted by many in Europe as a disturbing sign of declining U.S. commitment to Europe.

Moreover, the Commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Joint Staff later concluded that the plan would leave EUCOM unable to fully execute its missions, including those supporting NATO's crucial Article 5 security commitment. On November 21, 2007, in response to these concerns Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suspended implementation of the posture review decisions regarding Europe pending the 2010 QDR. This decision essentially froze U.S. forces dedicated to the continent at some 80,000 personnel.

In March of this year, Admiral James Stavridis, the current EUCOM Commander, testified in Congress that should the United States withdraw additional brigade combat teams, his command would have to "[assume] risk in its capability to conduct steady-state security cooperation, shaping, and contingency missions. Deterrence and reassurance are at increased risk."

With the summit now imminent, a number of allies are expressing unease, even though some are unwilling to press Obama as they cut their own defense budgets and lest their concerns undercut the meeting's precooked message of alliance unity and revitalization. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, naturally concerned about the viability of NATO's security guarantee, stated that it is important for U.S. forces stationed in Europe to remain at their current levels. German delegations from the communities that host U.S. bases have travelled to Washington urging that they not be subject to further reductions or, even worse, closure.

Obama's impending decisions on this matter come in an increasingly challenging domestic fiscal context, one that has led many in his party to press aggressively for significant defense cuts. On October 13th, 57 members of the House of Representatives wrote the President urging a hard look at the basing of U.S. forces overseas. The 2010 Congressional election yielded a Congress whose clear focus on job creation and deficit elimination could well reinforce skepticism on both sides of the aisle toward permanent deployments in Europe. The roll out of the deficit commission report and its recommendations, including reduced spending, will surely further catalyze calls for cut backs in forward presence.

Heeding those calls would be a mistake. Moving military forces based overseas to facilities at home involves high near term costs, including building of new infrastructure. The long term savings are marginal at best. Second, once basing privileges in another country have been terminated, it is never easy to regain them.

Most importantly, the United States would deny itself a critical force multiplier. U.S. troops based in Europe provide the most effective way to develop and sustain allied forces that are truly interoperable and ready to fight side by side with us. This is a critical and challenging necessity. U.S. military units that visit Europe once or twice year can in no way match the levels of joint training and exercises currently available to those stationed in Europe.

Accordingly, at Lisbon, Obama should announce a decision to keep U.S. forces stationed in Europe at their current levels. That would be a strategically serious and politically needed demonstration of U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance.

Evasion regarding this matter, so vital to the future of the NATO alliance would contradict both Obama's repeated rejection of unilateralism and his commitment to genuine consultations. Europeans, too, would be remiss if they fail to speak up. Collective silence at Lisbon regarding a matter so central to American-European security interdependence will only give further validation to those who assert that US military presence in Europe is an anachronism.

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