As the P5+1 talks resume in Switzerland towards the June 30 deadline for a final nuclear agreement, the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade has launched a new probe into Iran’s global terrorist operations. Congress was warned that Iran spends about $100 million a year on asymmetric warfare capabilities in foreign countries, but intelligence estimates show that figure to be much higher in hot zones such as Yemen and with increased aid to the Qassem brigades of Hamas. One expert stressed that even the partial lifting of sanctions against Iran has already moved the country’s economy from negative growth to positive growth, and that fact has increased Tehran’s terrorist reach.
With Congressional action continuing on passing legislation (such as the successful Senate Resolution 615 that MEB reported this month) that blocks Obama’s ability to lift the sanctions against Tehran, even if a P5+1 nuclear deal is reached, some members insist that they will pursue measures that prevent sanctions against Tehran from being lifted because of the terrorist ties.
In recent hearings, a bipartisan group of members of Congress grilled expert witnesses on Iran’s continuing role as a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and not just in the greater Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, but more broadly into Asia and Latin America as well. According to intelligence reports provided to the subcommittee, Iranian agents have been active in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Bahrain and Thailand in recent years, attempting to carry out covert terrorist operations. In Yemen, a delegation of Yemeni Shia clerics recently visited Tehran and was urged to establish a Hezbollah equivalent in their country, with pledges of Iranian financing as the project built up.
One of the experts, Daniel Byman, professor of national security studies at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, a former RAND Corporation analyst and professional staffer on the 9/11 Commission, testified to the subcommittee that Iran spends an estimated $100 million a year on asymmetric warfare assets, including Hezbollah, and that Iran has moved from ideological to strategic operations, all aimed at promoting Iran’s role as a strong regional power. In its drive for extending its regional reach, on occasions, Iran has temporarily provided a safe haven to Al Qaeda and Hamas, when it suited Iran’s regional objectives.
Under questioning from subcommittee chairman Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, Byman cautioned that Iran has often resorted to asymmetric warfare operations out of weakness, not strength. Hezbollah has served for years as a deterrent against Israeli attacks on Iran, even as sanctions and the low oil prices have reduced Iran’s budget.
Frederick Kagan, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), told Congressmen that he had been in Baghdad in January 2015, at the invitation of Prime Minister al-Abadi, and had confirmed that Shia militias, controlled by the Al Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), were in control of most of Diyala Province, including the Fifth Iraq Army Division, headquartered there. The security of Baghdad was nominally improved when Shia militias, backed by Al Quds forces, recently cleaned out one southwest suburb that had been an Islamic State (ISIL) stronghold, Kagan said, but, in reality, the Shia militias were engaging in ethnic cleansing of Sunni populations.
Ilan Berman, Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, told the subcommittee that Iran’s reach is global, and that wherever there is a Lebanese Shia diaspora, Hezbollah and Iran have an active operational presence. Berman cited the US Treasury Department’s designation of the Lebanese Shia Tajideen brothers, all residents of Angola and successful businessmen, as key Hezbollah operatives, as but one example.
In the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, a Hezbollah stronghold in South America, the group has engaged in smuggling operations and has established a logistical support hub for Hezbollah and Iranian penetration of South America. Those connections date back to the late 1980s, when Hezbollah was first being established. Since the Hugo Chavez revolution in Venezuela, that country has become a vital entry point into the Western Hemisphere for Iran and Hezbollah. In 2011, US intelligence thwarted a planned joint Iranian-Venezuelan cyber attack on key US government computers. Private reports in 2014 detailed Iranian cyber operations targeting Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey.
Byman, who also serves as a research director at the Saban Center at Brookings Institution, urged the members of Congress to abandon any hopes that a nuclear deal with Iran will diminish the Islamic Republic’s use of asymmetric terrorist assets. If anything, as the Iranian GDP jumped from negative, to 1.5-3 percent growth, since the partial lifting of sanctions in late 2013, Iran’s ability to wage irregular warfare to enhance its strategic position in the region, has increased, and not diminished.
Byman made two strong recommendations: Wage war against ISIL in Iraq without any engagement with Iran or the Shia militias; and redouble efforts to remove Bashar Assad from power in Syria. In both cases, Byman warned that any tendency to align with Iran, in the war against the Islamic State, will play into the Iranian’s hand, and ultimately, Iran’s objective is to weaken American influence in the region. He emphasized that, only by removing Assad from power—without any collaboration with Iran and Hezbollah in the war on ISIL—can Syria be ultimately brought back from perpetual sectarian war and ungovernability.
While none of the witnesses opposed the idea of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, all of the witnesses—and most of the subcommittee members themselves—insisted that Iran’s role as a leading state sponsor of terrorism had to be kept in the spotlight, and that none of the sanctions imposed on Iran over ties to terrorism should be lifted as part of a P5+1 deal.