As the West anxiously scrutinizes every development in Iran's nuclear program, it seems the land of the ayatollahs has another frightening weapon in its arsenal that some experts believe may be equally dangerous - the Al-Quds Force (QF).
Operating out of the Iranian parliament's - and even the president's - reach, the clandestine QF answers directly only to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah 'Ali Khamanai.
Very few people know how much is spent on the QF's annual budget, which is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Iranian legislators are not allowed to examine the QF's expenses, nor are they expected to vote on its appropriations.
While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing his best to gain the support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to which the QF is subordinate, the president has no formal control over QF activities abroad.
What is the Al-Quds Force?
The QF is one of IRGC's five arms, alongside IRGC's Navy, Ground Force, Air Force and the Basij (a 12-million volunteer force), which are all operating separately from the Iranian Army.
It is the external operations force of the IRGC, operating most extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, but also - it is reported - in other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Qatar and more. It is also said to have been operating outside the Middle East, in Argentina and Austria, for example.
The QF was not established immediately after the revolution that brought the Islamists to power in 1979. The duties of the IRGC during the first few years included mainly the pursuit of counterrevolutionary movements inside Iran and the preservation of public order.
But already in those early stages, the Islamist leadership was not hiding its aspiration to spread the Islamic revolution to other countries.
"In the first days of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, we thought of the IRGC as a force whose aim was to defend the country inside Iran. We did not think then about [activities] outside Iran," Dr. Muhsin Sazegara, one of the founders of the IRGC, told The Media Line.
"Later, unfortunately, it went in other directions, to become something completely different," he said.
The exact time the QF was established is known to very few people and even Sazegara himself cannot provide a definite date. According to him, it was formed sometime in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, as a small unit. Gradually it developed into a division within the IRGC, until it finally became one of the IRGC's five arms.
After co-founding the IRGC, Sazegara served for 10 years in several top positions within the new Islamist regime, including political deputy in the prime minister's office and vice minister of planning and budget.
In 1989 Sazegara became disillusioned with the Islamist revolutionary government and since then has advocated for reform. Today he resides in Washington DC.
"The Quds Force had the lead for its [Iran's] transnational terrorist activities, in conjunction with Lebanese Hizbullah and Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS)," Lt.-Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the US Army's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), told a Senate committee on January last year.
The QF conducts its activities primarily within the territories of Iran's close neighbors - Iraq and Afghanistan - where the United States Army is currently operating. Its activities predominantly focus on training and supplying weapons to local groups, which are fighting the US Army and the local US-backed regimes.
"The training includes reconnaissance to pinpoint targets, small arms training, small unit tactics, terrorist cell operations and communications skills," a US military spokesman told The Media Line.
Additionally, QF operatives inside Iraq teach local terror movements assassination techniques, as well as the usage of improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades.
The US Treasury Department has long been focusing its attention on the QF, which according to its analysts has also provided a wide variety of weapons and financial support to the Taliban to further the group's anti-coalition activity in Afghanistan.
On October 25, 2007, the Treasury Department named the QF a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
According to Sazegara, despite the fact that the Iranian regime officially denied any involvement in Afghanistan, "commanders of NATO and some top Afghani officials have complained several times about Iranian equipment, which was distributed or transferred into Afghanistan for the insurgents."
Hizbullah - Party of God
In 1982, the IRGC established Lebanon's Hizbullah (Arabic for the Party of God). At that time, it is estimated, the QF was not established yet, but soon after its creation it became the official body responsible for Hizbullah activities in Lebanon and abroad.
According to the US government and various Middle Eastern intelligence agencies, the QF has long been providing Lebanon's Hizbullah with all types of support, including training, guidance and arms.
In addition to running training facilities in Lebanon, the QF has trained more than 3,000 Hizbullah operatives at its own facilities in Iran, wrote Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in an article last February.
One of these operatives was Hussein 'Ali Suleiman, who was recruited to Hizbullah when he was 15 years old.
In 2006, during the war between Israel and Hizbullah, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) captured Suleiman.
During his interrogation Suleiman stated that after his recruitment he underwent a 45-day military course at a Hizbullah base located in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. There he learnt how to use weapons, explosives and communication devices. Four months after Suleiman graduated the course he took another course, where he learnt how to fire anti-tank missiles, a skill much needed during the 2006 war.
After proving himself in various combat assignments along the border with Israel, Suleiman was chosen along with 40 to 50 other operatives to head to Iran, where he conducted two exercises in 2003.
On their way to Iran, Suleiman's group was taken by bus to Damascus Airport, from where it continued by plane to Iran. Needless to say that, unlike regular tourists, Suleiman's colleagues did not have to use passports or go through customs.
Like Hizbullah the Palestinian terror movement Hamas is also a major beneficiary of Iran's generosity. Iran is not only sending money (a few million dollars each year), it also trains Hamas in its facilities in Tehran and elsewhere in the country.
Last September, a Hamas commander in Gaza gave a unique interview to the Sunday Times, where he confirmed that since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, his organization had sent 150 operatives to Iran for training in IRGC's camps, while 150 more were currently undergoing courses.
The courses run for between 45 days to six months, at the end of which the brightest "students" undergo a trainers' course.
An unconfirmed report in Kuwait's daily A-Siyasa last September illustrated the control Iran has over Hamas. The paper reported a meeting that took place among Hamas' Political Bureau chief Khalid Mash'al, Iran's ambassador in Damascus and the head of the QF force in Lebanon.
Mash'al, the paper's sources claimed, agreed to Iran's demand that Hamas would no longer consider Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud 'Abbas' position legitimate after January 2009.
Sleeper Cells in the Gulf
In the past few months, an increasing flow of reports has pointed to the alleged existence of a network of Iranian spies spread across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, waiting for a signal from the Iranian leadership to destabilize local regimes.
Earlier this year, the Emirati-based daily Gulf News interviewed an exiled Iranian diplomat, who had served as Iran's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. In his interview, 'Adil Al-Asadi claimed that Iranian "sleeper cells were in place, ready to become operational."
Concerns in Kuwait regarding the possibility that a large espionage network has been deploying in the country have recently peaked.
One Kuwaiti member of parliament even stated in September that 25,000 QF members were living in Kuwait, disguised as workers.
"They are ready to follow any instructions they receive [from Iran]," MP Nasir A-Duweila warned.
A few months ago, Bahrain - another GCC member - convicted a five-member cell for terrorist activities. The defendants were charged with a variety of offenses, including receiving explosives and weapons training, engaging in terrorism overseas, and terrorism financing.
The Bahraini investigators revealed that several of the cell members traveled from Bahrain to Afghanistan via Iran.
"Bahraini authorities did not know whether the Iranian government actively facilitated the cell members' travel to Afghanistan, but given the regime's track record, Iran's possible involvement with the cell is worth exploring further," wrote Levitt and Jacobson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"I remember that once I had a debate with one of the members of IRGC's Strategic Studies Office," Sazegara said. "He emphasized that we planned to have Hizbullah cells in every Islamic country, to mobilize radical Muslims for improving and enhancing the Islamic revolution," added Sazegara.
Sazegara further explained that as the QF was being used to promote Iranian-style Islamic revolutions abroad, it was destined to become involved in terror activities.
Terror Activities Around the Globe
Though less extensive, QF's activities around the world have made considerable waves. In 1996, a truck bomb attack on the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia claimed the lives of 19 American service members. A federal judge ruled that the government of Iran bore responsibility for the attack.
The QF was also blamed for supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serbian forces in former Yugoslavia.
But perhaps the most well-known act the QF was directly involved in outside the Middle East was the attack on the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires in July 1994, when a Hizbullah operative drove a car bomb into the building, killing 85 people.
In 2006, Argentina's General Prosecutor Alberto Nisman concluded in a report that the decision to attack the building was taken by the Iranian administration. Nisman also revealed that Ahmad Vahidi, the former head of the QF, was involved in the attack.
The Nuclear Threat and the QF
The nightmare of all intelligence agencies around the world is a terror group in possession of a nuclear bomb. The rising power of the Taliban in Pakistan, a country that has nuclear bombs in its possession, is causing much tension in neighboring India, as well as in the US and other countries.
The increasing political influence and economic strength the IRGC holds inside Iran, is causing similar stress.
The QF's strategy of forming Hizbullah cells across the Middle East, combined with Iran's progressing nuclear program, is alarming.
"I think the nuclear issue and the external activities of the QF can be considered to be in the same shop, because if Iran goes for nuclear weapons then they can be used also in terrorist activities. In some sense, one can consider these two threats as posing equally strong danger to the whole region," Sazegara concluded.
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