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 Hassan
Rohani 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
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. 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.
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
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.
Bandar has been at the center of a deepening row in Saudi-US 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.
also known for his intimate and hands-on relationship with an array of Syrian
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 President Hassan
Rouhani’s foreign policy overhaul, the Quds Force would have had free reign in
seeking eyefor- 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
The Quds Force and their deceivingly humble leader Qassim Solemani
don’t answer to Rouhani, but 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
While the Quds Force may have their hands tied for now, their
influence has become so entrenched in Shi’ite 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
Shi’ite communities or anti-Western extremists can be found.
them are the religiously devout and increasingly aggressive Shi’ite 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
It is thus no surprise that Saudi Arabia has
warned its nationals to leave Lebanon amid a flurry of threats against its
Beirut embassy. It is also no coincidence that an Iranian-loyal, Iraqi-based
Shi’ite 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
Amid 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 handin- hand with ignoring the promotion of violent Shi’ite
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 reach of the world’s most dangerous weapons.
author is the Middle East Intelligence Manager at Max Security Solutions, a
geopolitical risk consulting firm. Mathew Markman is an intelligence analyst
specializing in Lebanese and Syrian affairs.