Security & Defense: Iran’s long arm

The Quds Force, set up during the Iran-Iraq war, has been linked to attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets.

Iran revolutionary guards_390 (photo credit: Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
Iran revolutionary guards_390
(photo credit: Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
Earlier this month, a group of 48 men from Iran entered Syria, ostensibly to visit a Shi’ite shrine.
The group’s alleged purpose was to pay tribute to the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab, granddaughter of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, who is buried south of Damascus.
As they were making their way to Damascus airport, gunmen from the Free Syrian Army kidnapped the men and have held them ever since. The FSA dismissed the men’s claim that they were innocent pilgrims, saying they were in fact active members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its elite covert unit, the Quds Force.
FSA gunmen released a video showing the group of captives presenting photo IDs that a spokesman said proved the men were Iranian special forces members.
At first, Iran flatly denied the rebels’ accusations, but later, when confronted with the video and the IDs, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said some of the kidnapped men are “retired” IRGC members. Salehi went on to demand their immediate release.
If the men really are IRGC members, chances are good that they belong to the Quds Force, a powerful, shadowy unit tasked with managing Iran’s overseas operations.
When it was established in 1984 to operate in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, the Quds Force adopted the logo: “On our way to Jerusalem, via Baghdad.” Its flag consists of a clenched fist around a rifle, below a citation from the Koran which reads, “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power.”
Set apart from the rest of the Iranian armed forces, the Quds force has been headed by General Qassemm Suleimani since 1998. Suleimani commands, according to estimates, some 15,000 operatives, and answers directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Following the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Quds Force returned to Iraq, where it is training and arming radical Shi’ite militias with armor-piercing weapons and advanced explosives. But Iraq is just one of many arenas where the unit is active.
Enjoying staff branches, regional headquarters and generous resources, the Quds Force maintains operations in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip as well.
In 2008, its commander, General Suleimani, felt so confident that, according to The Guardian, he sent a text message to then-commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, saying, “you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.
And indeed, the [Iranian] ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.”
The Quds Force is behind much of the bad news facing Israeli national security today. It assists, trains and arms Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, supplying it with tens of thousands of rockets. It has offered assistance to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. And it has been spearheading terror attacks around the world against Israeli targets for more than two decades.
The Quds Force has been linked to the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina, in which 85 people were murdered. More recently, it has been linked to a series of botched terror attacks on Israeli targets in February of this year, in India, Thailand and Georgia – attacks launched to avenge the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Tehran blames on Israel.
“Activating its Special Operations Unit 400, it carries out a variety of clandestine activities beyond Iran’s borders. Those activities include terrorist attacks as well as organizing, training, equipping, financing and directing Shi’ite, and sometimes Sunni, Islamist networks,” a recent report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said.
And now, the Quds Force is trying to help Bashar Assad, Iran’s sole regional ally, survive.
“It’s become much more active in Syria,” Ephraim Kam, deputy head of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post this week.
“Iran has apparently sent hundreds of personnel from the Quds Force to Syria, including officers and soldiers,” added Kam, a former colonel in the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence. “It’s not clear what they’re doing there. They could be training Syrian forces to fight the rebels. I assume that the Syrian soldiers are doing the shooting themselves.”
Kam said the Quds Force “always maintains dozens of members in Lebanon,” where they provide Hezbollah with training, tactical advice and logistics, such as aid in tunnel and underground bunker construction.
Ely Karmon, of the Interdisciplinary Center’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said the Quds Force was part of a recent, enormous Hezbollah military exercise in southern Lebanon involving 10,000 fighters. “The Quds Force members are experienced officers and professionals,” he said.
“They are considered a very loyal force to the Iranian supreme leader,” Karmon added.
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, he did so as a representative of the IRGC, Karmon said. “But when he began his second term, Ahmadinejad started falling out with religious and conservative elements and had a serious run-in with Khamenei, too.
“Hence, we’ve been hearing through reports over the past two years that Ahmadinejad has lost control of the IRGC [and its Quds Force] to Khamenei,” the analyst said.
Despite its fierce reputation, the Quds Force appears to be experiencing somewhat of a drop in its abilities.
In addition to its high-profile failures in Thailand, Georgia and Azerbaijan, its brazen plot to use Mexican drug cartels to bomb a Washington restaurant in order to kill the Saudi ambassador was exposed by the US, to Iran’s embarrassment.
Nevertheless, the unit remains a major threat to Israel’s national security, and Iran’s chief instrument for wielding regional influence and organizing terror attacks.
“Israel has a big account to settle with this unit,” Kam said. “But Israel hasn’t struck it directly. That would spark a terror war. From what I can see, this cautious approach won’t change significantly soon,” he added.