Book Review: Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014)

Robert Ames did not join the Central Intelligence Agency in 1960 with a plan to go to the Middle East, a region that had already stirred his interest. Yet, it was the best place for him. Ames’ own positive approach toward individuals and his training and mentoring coalesced magnificently. He wanted to help the people of the region while promoting US interests.

In The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014), Kai Bird tells the story of the immense life of Robert Ames of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As a “good spy,” Bird makes it clear that Ames is not a cliché of romantic US spy lore. He was indeed a unique individual. Bird deftly sheds light on his character and his brand of tradecraft in the clandestine profession. Regarding his “life and death,” Bird brilliantly details Ames life from birth on March 6, 1934 into humble beginnings of a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia to the moment he was killed at 49, in the April 18, 1983 truck bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. He left behind a wife and six children. Looking back at Ames life, it is hard to imagine how Ames could have been happier, or could have been better suited for any job, anywhere other than with CIA in the Middle East. Ames accomplished much. Bird proffers a view held by Ames former colleagues that he ignited the Oslo Peace Process due to his close relationship with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat’s intelligence and security chief. Bird believes, if Ames had lived, he might have “helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.”

Bird was never an US intelligence officer. He is a renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. Yet, Bird writes The Good Spy with incredible insight into the life of a case officer living in the Middle East. Perhaps his perspectives may have been enhanced by recall of his own experiences as the son of a US Foreign Service officer who was posted primarily in the region. Bird grew up in some impressive spots in the region to include: Jerusalem, Israel, Beirut, Lebanon; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and Cairo, Egypt. Moreover, as an adolescent, Bird actually met Ames while his father was posted in Dhahran. Ames was using the official cover of a Foreign Service officer at the US consulate and for three years his family lived across the street from Bird’s home. In his research, Bird was able to interview more than forty officers, both clandestine officers and analysts from CIA’s operations and intelligence directorates were willing to share their memories of Ames. Interview of others were also conducted with relevant sources in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Ames` wife spoke with Bird and shared her small collection of photographs, correspondences, and a family scrapbook. Bird skillfully used those unique resources, making his biography a profound, edifying discussion of Ames and his career.

Ames loved God, his country, his family, and the Middle East. While some colleagues and managers were perhaps indifferent or often confused about the region, Ames spoke with vividness and a certain whimsy about it. He steeped himself in Arab culture and language and Islam enough to be called an Arabist and become a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East at the time of his death. Ames discovered in the field how to navigate through a myriad of situations and manage complex intertwinings in the region. Those skills were refined by experiences and by people willing to serve as his mentors and advisors. Bird provides readers with enough information to realize that long before he came to CIA, Ames was implanted with an ability to engage people in a natural way and establish genuine friendships. What was worthy about people he met, he tended to appreciate and embrace. He would shuck off what was not. He did not suffer fools lightly or conceit to evil. He could discern the wicked from the righteous. Unlike many he dealt with in the field and CIA, Ames, himself, engaged in what would be viewed as “moral behavior’; some might say he was boring. He rarely drank and avoided the distractions of the most intriguing and lively locales. This contrast with colleagues and foreign contacts is made apparent in The Good Spy, but its discussion does not come off as an exercise in moralism.

The Good Spy can be read at many levels. For example, it is a history of CIA activities in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. It can be viewed as an enhanced history of US diplomacy and the often mangled process of communication during that tempestuous period in the Middle East. It also can identified as a history that sheds clear and revealing light on the nature of US relations with Arab States. Indeed, The Good Spy contributes to the record of the US experience in the Middle East, but dozens of books have already been written on that topic. What makes The Good Spy most exciting is the story of the man, Robert Ames.

Bird shows that there were indications of Ames’ potential as an intelligence officer even from his earliest years. However, Bird also deftly shows how his interactions with certain individuals were significant enough to help Ames hone his capabilities and allow him to become something that he might not have been without them. Often those having such an influence on him were extremely impressive individuals in their own right. They availed Ames with treasure troves of knowledge and experience from which to learn. In addition to mentioning Ames was raised in the working-class Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, Ames and his two sisters, spent summer months on the New Jersey shore with their maternal grandparents, who made certain they knew their family history and that the children, themselves, were a part of that history. The children knew who they were and had a strong self-image. Their grandparents were Catholic just as their mother. Although their father was Methodist, they likely provided some spiritual grounding through Catholicism, too. There was a challenge to that self-image for Ames came after he joined the varsity basketball team at La Salle College along with his friend, Tommy Gola. In high school, Ames was a great player, and a tremendous athlete. He worked hard at perfecting his skills, and became his high school team’s leading scorer, but at La Salle, Ames never made the starting line-up. Meanwhile his friend Gola became the team’s star. The young Ames never reacted negatively. He took the situation with good humor, putting a good face on it. Nonetheless, skilled, ambitious, and competitive, the situation was very difficult. Playing basketball was important to Ames. He was proud to be on the 1954 NCAA Basketball Champion varsity team. The coach at La Salle could see that Ames deep down was disappointed, but he would not change the situation. For Ames, showing humility in such an unfavorable situation, made him more mature, stronger. Ames learned first-hand what it was like to be blocked from making full use of one’s capabilities. He knew what it was like to be the underdog. Ames also knew what it was like to not have the ear of anyone who could change his situation for the better. From this experience, Ames was able to be authentically sympathetic to others in the world who felt they were in a similar position.

Through his studies at La Salle, Ames sought to answer questions he had about the world. The school was run by the Christian Brothers. Ames was always open to new things, making him child-like to some degree, but not childish. He majored in sociology, and enhanced his course of study with classes in psychology, philosophy, as well as prelaw. Ames believed studying prelaw would help him secure a position as a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent. That was all put on hold when Ames was inducted into the military after college. He was assigned to the US Army Middle East Signals Communications Agency’s base at Kagnew Station in Ethiopia in 1956. From the base, the US intercepted the military and diplomatic communications of Egypt and other Arab states. Ames worked in a supply company that kept track of spare parts for transmitters and receivers. It was an introduction to the world of Intelligence for Ames. Moreover, it was an introduction to Catholicism and the Middle East. On the way to Kagnew, on stopovers in Tripoli, Libya and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, he heard Arabic for the first time. Ames was struck by what he saw. As would be the norm, Ames did not frolic with his comrades in arms in the nearby town of Asmara. He exercised with weights, studied about the Middle East, religion, and learned Arabic. He spent enough time with the Catholic chaplain on base to choose to convert to Catholicism. He went on trips to the Holy Land, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock and walking through the Old City. He also visited Cairo, Egypt, and toured the Great Pyramids at Giza. Ames experiences compelled him to learn more about the Middle East and to study Arabic. After serving over two years in the Army, Ames let his parent know that as a career goal, he wanted to see the world and tried to enter the US Foreign Service but he failed to pass the examination. In the end, he settled on a career at CIA which hired him in 1960.

During the same year, Ames married Yvonne Blakely, the beautiful daughter of a Lutheran pastor and former career naval officer. That led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church. His love for her was that strong. However, the Catholic Church was truly an important part of who Ames’ identity, and he arranged for his return to it. After completing his training in 1962, Ames was selected for service in the Near East Division of the Directorate of Plans—known today as the National Clandestine Service. Ames did not join CIA just to return to the Middle East. Ames also did not join CIA to engage in development work. Indeed, CIA was not then, and is not now, a humanitarian aid or charitable organization. Yet, when given the chance to work for the Agency, Ames apparently made the calculation that he could go to the Middle East, and make life better for the people in the region while ultimately serving US interests.

Ames first posting was to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where he received encouragement from his boss, James Critchfield. Critchfield was a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA in World War II, and was known as an Agency “Baron” from the action oriented era of the 1950s. Yet, despite having that reputation, Critchfield wanted to end the cowboy culture and bring a greater degree of knowledge and sophistication to the Agency’s activities in the region. That included going back to basics of recruiting spies.

During his training Ames was taught how to recruit by the manual. Bird describes it as a subtle exercise in peeling away an individual’s loyalties and transferring them from one cause to another. Bird notes that recruitment happens rarely. It usually occurs when the recruiters can make it seem only natural and fitting that the target should be talking to the case officer. Invariably, according to Bird, the recruited spies want to be recruited. Most spies are walk-ins, meaning they volunteer to serve in some fashion. Otherwise a genuine recruitment happens through a long intellectual seduction. The case officer shows empathy and shares his heartfelt views of his target.   He invites him or her to dinner and eventually offers something, even innocuous material rewards. When the opportunity presents itself, the case officer asked the target to sign on as a knowing agent with a written agreement. While the recruitment of sources would place a feather in the war bonnets of case officers, Ames would rather establish a relationship that could result in reliable source of accurate information that might be actionable.

Bird mentions that early on Ames caught the attention of Richard Helms, an OSS operations veteran. Helms was promoted to deputy director of Plans as a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Helms believed the clandestine collection of secret intelligence by case officers was an important task and risky covert operations interfered with that work around the world. New means such as U-2 spy planes and the electronic surveillance of communications were being touted by some the wave of the future and replacements for the spy. When in contact with Ames, Helms impressed the need for human intelligence upon him. Helms, who would eventually become CIA director, thought very highly of Ames and supported his progress at CIA.

While Ames preferred to avoid the US corporate employees working in Dhahran, he managed to befriend Richard Metz, a veteran of both the OSS and the CIA. Metz and Ames would talk at length. Metz tutored Ames on the intricacies of tribal politics and helped Ames navigate in the region. He made Ames better able to work with the members of the royal family. Ames discovered that his efforts to learn about the region would pay off, together with being 6’3” handsome, being personable, and speaking fluent Arabic, Ames quickly gained a reputation wherever he went as being an American with whom one could talk. Metz showed Ames the invaluable skill of having fruitful conversations to strengthen connections with the Arabs in particular. Metz’s advice, along with his own experiences in Saudi Arabia, reinforced Ames view that good friendships with key players, and well as merchants in the suq and maintaining a positive reputation would be key to development of potential sources and contacts and the development and performance of his tradecraft in the region. Ames was always learning, and never became a victim of pride. He never indicated any sense of knowing it all.

An intriguing consideration about Ames’ approach to the people of the Middle East was the fact that at the same time when he was creating deep meaningful connections with Arabs he met in the 1960s, within his own country, there was significant racial discord. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a Civil Rights Movement, supported by Freedom Riders, and thousands of volunteers for marches and sit-ins, who struggled for an end the racial segregation and equal rights for all US citizens. There were no efforts made toward multiculturalism and diversity within CIA at that time. In CIA, Ames was one of the few special individuals who were not simply tolerant of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups. He truly respected the people he encountered in the Middle East. It was very apparent. Ames often heard colleagues overseas use derogatory terms while discussing the Arabs. Bird writes that Ames was disappointed. even discouraged when he heard some of his managers express very intolerant, and indeed, racist views of the same people whose friendship he valued and the company in which he truly appreciated being.

There were two contacts that Ames developed which received considerable attention from Bird. Through the story of those contacts, Bird shed valuable light on the nature of Ames’ utilization of friends to collect vital information. One was Mustafa Zein, a young Shi’a Muslim, and successful business consultant to US and local firms, well-connected through the region, residing in Beirut. Zein was born in to some means and was educated not only in US schools in Beirut, but lived as an exchange student in Naperville, Illinois and graduated from the town’s North Central College run by the United Methodist Church. He had also been involved with the Organization of Arab Students. After Zein’s organization came in contact with the National Student Association, a organization funded by the CIA to help spot individuals for potential recruitment, Ames was eventually instructed to meet him. Ames scoured Zein’s file but knew understanding him in the abstract would not be as valuable actually interacting with him. Another CIA case officer in Dhahran set the meeting in motion by telling Zein to look up Ames the next time he was in Beirut. When they met in late 1969, Ames complimented Zein on being able to work with powerful figures. Zein expressed concerns about the US policy, the resulting Soviet progress in the region, and the plight of the Palestinians, and Ames listened closely. Ames thought Zein was ideal for recruitment, but Zein wanted no part of that. He did want to help, but, informally, in his own way. When he next saw Ames, Zein agreed to do things to advance relations between the US and the Arab people, but not for money. Zein also asked Ames that they pledge to be truthful to each other. For Ames, working with Zein professionally meant having an access agent, who could help spot and recruit other spies. However, Zein was much more than that for Ames. In addition to meeting intelligence requirements from headquarters, Zein’s knowledge of people and events, helping Ames keep a finger on the region’s pulse and support his continued learning process. Zein would introduce Ames to his second most important contact, Ali Hassan Salameh.

Salameh, a friend of Zein, was a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, allowing him the ear of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and leader in Fatah’s Revolutionary Security Apparatus which he was nurturing into a rudimentary intelligence bureau for the PLO, later called Force 17. Salameh was quite cosmopolitan and living the lifestyle of a playboy, breaking many mores of the Arab World. Ames claimed that he was given instructions from US President Richard Nixon to create a line of communication to the PLO. He had Zein introduce him to Salameh. Ames believed the PLO should be encouraged to transform into a real political party, and wanted to support that effort. Salameh saw some benefit having an important channel to the US. Ames and Salameh, complete opposites, became friends. Professionally, each would be the most significant person in the others life. Salameh was an incredible source of information and insight for Ames. However, soon enough, Ames managers wanted to recruit Salameh, not to collect information, but to use him as a means to gain control of the PLO’s activities. Ames wanted no part of it. CIA sent another field agent to meet Salameh in Rome, using Zein’s help. The agent’s recruitment pitch made to Salameh was for him “to coordinate activities with your organization with our organization,” for $300,000 a month. In a meeting with the agent the next day, Zein, rejected the offer on behalf of Salameh who was present, in a unique way. He stated Salameh would accept his terms “to finance the PLO to the tune of $35 million a year—and recognize the PLO.” Zein also explained to the field agent that “He’s [Salameh] already sent a coded message to Arafat. The Chairman is very pleased.” The field agent hastily left the meeting place, and blamed Salameh for the failed recruitment pitch. The effort evoked negative responses from Zein and Salameh. They were insulted by it. Ames eventually managed to patch things up with both. A line of communication between CIA and the PLO was created through Salameh. It survived the years of chaos and conflict in the 1970s Middle East. Salameh would die violently in the region in 1979.

Before hearing of this book, many may have been completely unaware of Ames. Reading it, they will learn of his amazing life and his considerable achievements. They will also discover how much Ames valued others and his value to humanity. He lost his life in the Middle East, a land which to him was a great treasure. A man of integrity, Ames had a strong moral center, an abundance of goodwill, and always the best intentions. He made the best impression possible of himself and his country with everyone he met.

There is much, much more about Ames in this exciting book. Readers of greatcharlie.com are likely working through their summer reading lists. Hopefully, they will be able work The Good Spy in among their selections. Without using distortion or exaggeration, it is a book that will take the reader on a journey through the Middle East and halls of power in Washington, DC. It is a story of intrigue and excitement as much as humility and honor. It discusses people and ideas that have moved events forward which is an emphasis of greatcharlie.com’s commentaries. Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends The Good Spy to all.

By Mark Edmond Clark

Putin Vows to Annihilate Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi will provide an excellent opportunity to showcase his resurgent Russia in the best light possible.  However, much has happened to prevent that goal from being achieved. Within Russia, concerns have mounted over the cost for hosting the Olympic Games, with some estimates stating it has surpassed $50 billion.  Outside of Russia, there has been a significant, negative reaction to Putin signing a law in June 2013, banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposing fines on those holding gay pride rallies.   Several world leaders have responded by declining to attend the Games, including US President Barack Obama, whose relationship with Putin remains less than congenial.  However, both in Russia and worldwide, all with interest in the Games, are concerned with security at the event given the most recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd, some 690 km northeast of the Sochi Olympic Park.  Of all of the issues that have arose, Putin has been most responsive to the attacks.  In his televised New Year address, Putin stated, “We will confidently, fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation.”  For the Russian people, any statement less forceful than that from Putin would have been unexpected and unacceptable.  There is an issue, however, over the degree to which Putin will actually retaliate for the attacks.  Moreover, it is uncertain that any action against the terrorist group allegedly responsible will prevent new attacks before or during the Games.  Perhaps a key factor in the organization of a significant response by the Russian government is timing.

There were two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013.  On December 29th, a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a crowded railway station, killing at least 17 and wounding many others.  On December 30th, another bomber detonated explosives on an electric trolleybus, killing 14 and critically wounding several more.  An Investigative Committee spokesperson stated identical explosives were used in both bombings, establishing a link between them.  The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District.  Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus.  While nobody claimed responsibility for the December attacks either through a message or manifesto to authorities, the violence underscored Russia’s vulnerability to insurgents more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term.  The insurgents suspected, from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi.  In a video posted online in July, the group’s Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Games.

While the Games will go on as planned and nations will send their teams to compete, the Volgograd attacks have still had a strong effect on the psyche of the Russian people and on Putin himself.  Given the increased sense of patriotism and nationalism found among the Russian people, most are proud of the fact the Games are being held in Russia and are hoping for a successful event.  However, those hopes have been moderated by fears that more attacks will occur before the Games start.  They are relying on Putin’s reputation for being a strong leader and very capable of responding firmly on security issues.  They are relying upon him to guarantee the Games will be a glorious occasion for them.  Putin, himself, is certainly unintimidated by terrorists from Russia or anywhere else.  However, having dedicated a great amount of government resources, especially from the security services, to the Games, and being fully aware of his reputation as a strong leader, for Putin, the attacks were a personal affront.  The attacks appear to discredit his effort to prove Russia is on the rise again and suffering the fate of lesser states.  For that, he will be unforgiving.  With the leaders of other world powers absent, at Sochi, Putin would have the spotlight to himself on the world stage.   What a tragic figure Putin would be, if he had to stand alone at the Olympic Park, explaining a devastating terrorist attack.

Under the circumstances, Putin must thoroughly respond to the attacks.  To some degree, the security services have acted.  When cars, stores, homes, and marketplaces are bombed, Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) and Federal Security Service (FSB) troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest.  It has been said that those troops have bombed homes when relatives have refused to turn suspects over.  After the Volgograd attacks, 4000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind.”  Over 1,500 buildings were searched and more than 1,000 people were searched.  Several dozen have been detained for resisting arrests for not having documents allowing them to carry weapons.  The internal troops (VV) of the Ministry of Interior have already been heavily engaged in operations in North Caucasus.  Those VV units that genuinely conduct operations are from the ten Independent Special Designation Brigades (OBrON).  These specialized forces fight local rebels and control protests.  The short-term, specific operations OBrON carry out differentiate the VV forces from the regular army, which is trained and equipped to fight long-term conflicts.  Such services provided by the VV are not without cost.  Whenever people have been arrested and interrogated, policemen are often killed in retaliation.

Putin is dedicated to preventing any further terrorist attacks.  It is uncertain that any response against the group allegedly responsible will prevent future attacks before or during the Games.  The raids undertaken, although significant, were not as robust as might have been expected given the likely desperation and paranoia felt among security service officials over a possible Sochi attack.  However, federal district wide, large scale operations weeks before the Games will mar them, and erase any impression that Sochi is safe to visit.  Putin’s entire investment of Russia’s resources would be wasted.  Moreover, a full-scale attack upon terrorist groups now may lead to a full-scale nihilistic response from them.  That type of conflict, regardless of whether Russian authorities might destroy the terrorist groups in the process, could lead to a drastic decision by the International Olympic Committee to cancel, postpone, or relocate the Games.

It is very likely sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going.  Hitting those groups may disrupt those monitoring efforts, by destroying leads before they yield their potential. That would be counter-intuitive.  Losing lines into to those groups now would create major security problems.  (If the attackers in Volgograd were completely off the radar, that likely created a conundrum for Russian security officials.  The attackers operations would have been pre-planned.  They would have been set up to move independently on specific dates, times, and locations without the communication of orders.  To defeat such attacks, anti-terrorism efforts must peak just before the Games begin and remain heightened until they end to defeat lone operatives.)

A better time for the security services to strike against suspected terrorist groups would be just days before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi.  Communications must be destroyed or disrupted.  There must be confusion and chaos within the leadership.  The groups must stand rudderless.  The strikes must be of sufficent strength to prevent the groups from resurrecting themselves enough to conduct any operations during the Games.  Strikes of this nature would likely be executed swiftly and covertly against terrorist elements being monitored.  Very capable special service troops would most likely be called upon to carry out such a task.  Of the many special service groups established in Russia, the most well-known and respected are Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel).  Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB.  It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings.  Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad.  The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations.  During the Soviet era, Alpha Group acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts.  In Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013),  Matthew Levitt recounts different versions of how Soviet authorities used Alpha Group in response to the 1985 kidnappings of four Soviet diplomats in Beirut, Lebanon.  After one of the Soviet hostages was shot and dumped near a stadium in West Beirut, Alpha Group sought the help of Druze informants to identify the kidnappers, their clans, and their families. One account has Alpha Group kidnapping a relative of the hostage taking organization, cutting off his ear, and sending it to his family.  In another account, Alpha Group abducted one of the kidnapper’s brothers and sent two of his fingers home to his family in separate envelopes.  A third version has Alpha Group kidnapping a dozen individuals tied to the kidnapping group, one of them being a relative of its leader. The relative was castrated, shot in head, had his testicles stuffed in his mouth, and shipped to the group with a letter promising a similar fate for the eleven other captives if the Soviet hostages were not released.  That same evening, the three diplomats, in bad condition, appeared at the gates of the Soviet embassy.

There is also the possibility that Russian authorities may utilize their most capable assets in response to the terrorist attacks.  In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs discusses Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group not officially recognized by the Russian government.  Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow.  Galeotti explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell.  In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and would likely be ordered to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.  As part of Putin’s full court press on security for Sochi, Zaslon has likely already been included among those special services units called in to provide both anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism capabilities.  An outstanding scholar at the University of Utrecht, Ralph Ladestein, shared a picture with greatcharlie.com in November 2013 that, as he explained, showed Russian special service troops in Syria.  The picture is below.

Are these Zaslon troops operating in Syria? The message written on the wall of the structure in the background (translated by Ladestein) reads, “Syria for Assad!”

By the end of the Games, it is possible that so much information will have been gathered as a result of the concentration of security resources to the anti-terrorism effort that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could simply be conducted by MVD and FSB.  Necessity could lead to the consideration of innovative approaches toward blunting the capabilities of the terrorists perhaps by using precision strikes with military firepower and directed attacks by special service troops.  Some new ideas may come as a result of Russian security officials working closely with foreign security officials from participating states.  After examining the situation in the North Caucasus, those foreign security officials may likely offer suggestions on how lessons from their own experiences in counter-terrorism to could be applied to reduce or defeat any security threats.  Additionally, with the Games over, Putin will have the flexibility to respond to the terrorists on a far larger scale if he chooses

If after the closing ceremonies, Sochi is known for being the Black Sea resort on the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games were superbly organized, the Russian people will be very satisfied.  If after the Games, an impressed world audience has a sense that Russia is a world power on the rise again, with great capabilities and possibilities, Putin would be elated.  However, if a terrorist attack is attempted or successfully carried out in Sochi, for Russia, it will be a disaster.  Russia will be viewed as a questionable choice by the International Olympic Committee for the Games and the country’s reputation for being stifled by authoritarianism, insecurity and uncertainty will endure.

Despite personal or political views of Putin and his decisions regarding the Winter Olympic Games, no one should have any interest in seeing Sochi struck by a terrorist attack.  Anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism by the Russian security services should be supported by all states, including the US.  While security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may liaise and provide some assistance, everything possible should be done to prevent an attack, including the supply of personnel and technical resources.  A secure and successful event would not only be in Russia’s interest, but also the transnational interest.

Book Review: Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013)

Pictured above is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.  Levitt explains that Nasrallah functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei

When foreign policy books cover topics such as terrorism or an on-going conflict provide information and insight on people and events that arise in the news and useful to refer long past its publication date, it becomes a must have for one’s library.  Matthew Levitt’s latest work, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God  (Georgetown University Press, 2013) is one of those books.  Although published in September 2013, it has been a terrific resource for background on recent events in the news such as the death the death of Hussane Laqees of the Hezbollah’s military wing in Syria, the identity of David Salahuddin, who lured missing former FBI agent and errant CIA operative, Robert Levinson to Iran, and new revelations about Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s role in the Iraq War.  

In Hezbollah, Levitt sets out to provide a strong background on Hezbollah’s effort to create a global network for terrorist activity.  Given his credentials, he was highly qualified to undertake that task.  Levitt currently serves as a fellow and director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence.  Formerly, Levitt served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the US Department of Treasury; as an FBI counter-terrorism analyst, and an adviser on counter-terrorism to the US Department of State.  He previously authored, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorrism in the Service of Jihad (Yale University Press, 2006). 

Through his initial government service at the FBI, Levitt cut his teeth in the intelligence field, working through mounds of data on terrorist groups to uncover family ties, financial networks, media sources, disgruntled employees, imminent threats, homeland plots, foreign sales, health status, financial resources, tradecraft, and recruiting tactics.  Levitt uses those same skills to breakdown Hezbollah in the same manner that served to help US law enforcement and intelligence community develop profiles on the organization.  Thus, in reading Hezbollah, one gets to look at the organization through the prism of a US intelligence analyst.   Overlaying each chapter, is a presentation of Hezbollah’s tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods.  While Levitt does not always point directly to Hezbollah’s strengths that need to be overcome such as Iran’s training and support, and weaknesses that need to be exploited such as its inability to establish stable and sustainable funding sources outside of Iran, much can be extrapolated from the text.  US officials have long-acknowledged, respected, and feared Hezbollah’s terrorist networks, not only due to its attacks on US interests abroad (such as the early 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut or the attack on US military personnel at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia), but also because of Hezbollah’s active presence in the US.  The organization was placed on the US terror blacklist in 1997 and its military-wing was placed on the EU’s terror blacklist in 2013.

Since Levitt was an intelligence analyst, he does not offer any personal stories of contacts or tangling with Hezbollah.  However, viewing Hezbollah from the perspective of an analyst that does not mean the book is not filled with excitement and intrigue.  There is enough in the true stories of Hezbollah’s terrorist activities including money laundering, bribery, kidnappings, airline hijackings, torture, car, hotel, barracks, and embassy bombings, and assassinations to satiate the wettest of appetites for action.  Levitt manages to give one a sense of what it would mean to engage the grim faced fighters who exude religious fervor and revolutionary zeal, and hold in contempt anything representative of what members call “the Western oppressor.”  Hezbollah’s lethal capacities in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East have been well-discussed.  Levitt also covers the activities that helped to establish that reputation.  Indeed, as the book is outlined Levitt begins his discussion with Hezbollah’s genesis.  He then looks at the organization’s expansion throughout the Middle East to Western Europe, from Latin America to North America, and from Southeast Asia to Africa.  He presents Hezbollah’s activities with detailing both successful and unsuccessful plots.  What might have seemed unbelievable becomes believable as Levitt reveals the lengths Hezbollah would go to strike at Western interests.  While  doing so, Levitt also highlights the success US and other Western intelligence agencies have had tracking Hezbollah anywhere it goes worldwide. 

In discussing Hezbollah’s beginnings, Levitt explains how the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the impetus for, the organization’s emergence.  Many of its initial leaders first were members of Amal, the military arm of the political party founded by an influential Shi’a cleric named Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.  He urged the Lebanese Shi’a community to improve itself socially, economically, and politically.  He also intended for the Shi’a militia he established to fight against Israel as part of the Lebanese Army.  After al-Sadr’s death, many Shi’a were disappointed by Amal’s moderate policies and the willingness of al-Sadr’s successor, Nabih Berri, to accommodate Israel politically rather than confront it militarily. 

Those disgruntled Amal members joined with other Shi’a militia groups including the Muslim Students’ Union, the Dawa Party of Lebanon, and others.  They formed their own umbrella group, Hezbollah.  Hezbollah declared its main objectives in 1985 in an open letter “to all the Oppressed in Lebanon and the World.”  Boiled down by Levitt, those objectives were: to expel all colonialist entities—the US, France, and their allies from Lebanon; to bring the Phalangists to justice for the crimes they had committed against Lebanese Muslims and Christians; to permit “all of the sons of our people to determine their future and to choose in all the liberty the form of government they desire.”; to encourage Lebanon to install an Islamic regime which Hezbollah saw as the only type of government that could “stop further tentative attempts of imperialistic infiltration into our country.”; and, to ensure “Our military apparatus is not separate from its overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier.”  As Levitt notes, at the center of the group’s insignia is not a map of Lebanon but a globe alongside a fist holding an AK-47 rifle.

Levitt makes crystal clear the connection between Hezbollah and Iran from the organization’s very beginning.  He discusses Iran’s deployment of 1500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) advisers to Lebanon to set up a base in the Bekaa Valley.  It was part of Iran’s effort to export the Islamic Revolution to the Arab World.  All of Hezbollah’s members were required to attend the IRGC training camps in the valley.  In 1985, Hezbollah proudly declared its linkage to Iran: “We view the Iranian regime as the vanguard and new nucleus of the leading Islamic State in the world.  We abide by the orders of one single wise and just leadership, represented by the ‘Waliyat el-Faqih’ and personified by Khomeini.  Levitt states that over the past three decades, Hezbollah has remained Iran’s proxy.  The US Department of Defense estimates that Iran has provided Hezbollah with weapons, and spends up to $200 million a year funding the group’s activities, including its media channel, al-Manar, and operations abroad.  He mentions others claim Iran provides Hezbollah as much as $350 million a year.  Levitt also discusses how Iran’s Quds Force fostered the emergence of Hezbollah’s branches in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait from 1994 to 1996. 

When discussing Hezbollah’s military-wing, Levitt quotes a Western government report that stated: “Little is known about [the Hezbollah military wing’s] internal command hierarchy due to its highly secretive nature and the use of sophisticated protective measures.”  Levitt notes that Hezbollah’s formal militia activity is known as the Islamic Resistance.  Its external operations wing, known as the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), is responsible for its financial, logistical and terrorist operations abroad.  While IJO activities are well-concealed, Levitt provides as much information as possible, making it the real focus of his examination of Hezbollah’s overseas activities.  Levitt explains how IJO was formed by a Hezbollah commander Imad Fayez Mughniyeh after he fled into Iran following his operation that resulted in the bombing of US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Lebanon.  Mughniyeh, who was described by the CIA as “cunning, resourceful, coldly calculating adversary for whom virtually any act of violence or revenge performed in the name of Shiism is permissible, ” would direct IJO until he was killed in February 2008. 

Regarding Hezbollah’s overall leadership, Levitt gives attention to Hezbollah’s first leader, Iraqi born Ayatollah Mohammad Husayn Fadlallah, for whom Mughniyeh was initially a body guard.  Fadlallah sought to establish the power, prestige, and authority of Hezbollah.  In following, Hezbollah developed its reputation for ruthlessness under him.  Levitt cites CIA report on Fadlallah that explained: “Fadlallah aims to bring forth defenders of the faith who are indifferent to intimidation, contemptuous of foreign influence, devoted to Shi’a Islam, and whose self-control borders on fanaticism.”  Mere contact with Hezbollah was considered a risky undertaking.  In an early chapter, Levitt points to reputation, by providing American kidnap victim’s account of being driven by his Hezbollah captors through a checkpoint held by the Amal militia group.  When the rebels asked the driver why there was a Westerner in the backseat, he simply replied “We are Hezbollah!”  The Amal militia men waved the car through.  The kidnapped American recalled how that merely claiming to be Hezbollah sounded like a threat.  

In his discussion of Hezbollah’s current secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, Levitt asserts that he maintains overall control of the political and military wings of the organization.  Nasrallah heads the Shura Council which develops the overall vision and policies, oversees the general strategies for the Party’s function, and takes political decisions. It wields all decision making powers and direct several subordinate functional councils.  However, Nasrallah presides over the Shura Council and functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei.  Much as his predecessor Fadlallah, Levitt proffers that Nasrallah enhanced Hezbollah’s military-wing at the request of Iran to train and advise groups overseas, including Iraqi militant groups. 

Certainly, Levitt set firm parameters for his book.  Given the degree of information he possesses, it seems he could have written much more on Hezbollah’s organization and activities.  However, what might have been useful in the text would have been a discussion of Hezbollah’s operations in the Bosnia War (1992-1995) and the Lebanon War (2006).  That might have provided a sense for the development of its tactics, how Hezbollah performed, who were the leaders in the field, and what the nature of their contacts with the Quds Force were.  Reference is made to the creation of Unit 3800, which were Hezbollah Brigades that Nasrallah formed at Iran’s request.  Unit 3800 was given to mission of targeting multinational forces in Iraq for terrorist action.  The only reference to the mustering of a similar force was Unit 1800, which was dedicated to supporting Palestinian terrorist groups targeting Israel.  It would have been interesting to know if a similar Hezbollah Brigades were ever established in Bosnia. 

Additionally, as Hezbollah is an ethno-religious, nationalist organization, a more in-depth look into the impact of the devotion to Shiism, their revolutionary zeal, and the culture of its fighters on the planning of conventional military and clandestine operations seemed required. Great risk and sacrifice are regular features of Hezbollah actions.  Some have reviewed Hezbollah and have gleaned from it that the thrust behind the organization’s moves are destroying Israel, driving the US out of the Middle East, and avenging the killing of Imad Mughniyeh.  However, through Levitt’s book, itself, it is very clear that Hezbollah thinking is far more complex.  Understanding Hezbollah means acquiring the rhythm in its actions.  That may allow for better predictions and perhaps even intimations as to its future plans. 

Further, one current event which Levitt does not give much attention is Syria.  It would have been interesting to see the extent to which the experience and lessons learned by Hezbollah over the past thirty years coalesced in its activities in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  It would be interesting to know what types of connections were made between Hezbollah and the Quds Force, the interaction between Hezbollah and Syrian militias, which Iran has organized into the National Defense Forces, and whether Hezbollah Brigades have been organized in to units such as Unit 1800 or 3800 to engage in terrorist attacks against the Syrian opposition’s Supreme Military Council and Free Syria Army, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and Jabhat Al-Nusra.  Levitt could have explained what accounts for the significant number casualties Hezbollah has suffered in Syria despite its many years in various war zones.  Surely, that would have been invaluable in understanding the continued evolution of the organization’s military-wing.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah, overall, is an outstanding appraisal of the organization’s worldwide operations and a significant contribution to the policy debate and public understanding of state-sponsored terrorism.  Hezbollah’s capacity for global terrorism, as explained by Levitt, makes the book one to think about when one cannot continue to read it.  Indeed, it will be hard to put down after reading the first page.   It is greatcharlie’s mission to provide commentary and advice for foreign and defense policy makers, political and business leaders, and policy aficionados worldwide.  Regardless in which category one might consider oneself, greatcharlie highly recommends Hezbollah to you.  It is a must read.  Make certain that this book is on your reading list for 2014.

Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts

According to a September 23, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Netanyahu Is Said to View Iran Deal as a Possible Trap,” Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu intended to step up his effort to blunt a diplomatic offensive by Iran, and planned to warn the UN that a nuclear deal with Iran could be a trap similar to the one set by North Korea eight years ago.  The White House reportedly sought to allay the fears of Israeli officials, assuring them that US President Barack Obama will judge Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by his actions, not his words, and that the US is not planning to prematurely ease the economic sanctions against Iran that have hurt Iran’s economy.  However, Rouhani’s words and actions may not be the key ones for the Obama administration to watch in Iran.  Attention certainly must be given to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the source of Rouhani’s authority to act.  Khamenei’s decisions, often presented in public statements, determine the course of Iran’s foreign and defense policy.  Yet, the official, whose position and history of engaging in security activities of great consequence to Iran makes him certainly worthy of attention from the US and its Western partners, is Iran’s new Minister of Defense, Hossein Dehghan.

Although Rouhani served as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Dehghan, until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as Secretary of the Political, Defense, and Security Committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  The  Expediency Council is an advisory body that is appointed by, and serves, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The prominent religious, social, and political figures on that council have supervisory powers over all branches of government.  The Expediency Council is often called the “voice” of the Iranian Revolution.  Given the power and prominence the Council’s members have in Iran’s government, it seemed a rather peculiar for an official to leave such a venerable post to accept a cabinet position.

Rouhani has expressed the desire to engage in a dialogue with the US and its Western partners, hoping to tackle issues that have led to Iran’s international isolation and economic pressure, and especially reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. To some degree, it has already been initiated with US through an exchange of messages between Obama and Rouhani.  Washington and Western capitals have been eager to accept the opportunity to revolve the nuclear issue might be at hand and an acceptable entreaty could be drawn.  Yet, Rouhani’s role may only be one part of larger plan being implemented by Iran.  Much as US and other Western analysts have suspected, Iran’s leaders may very likely have decided that while Rouhani is heroically negotiating with the US and its Western partners or even after he might reach an understanding with them on the nuclear issue, under the auspices of Dehghan and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), away from Rouhani’s purview, they would secretly continue efforts on Iran’s nuclear energy program, until all goals of the nuclear program are reached.  It has been assessed by the same analysts that Iran is already close to breakout capacity when it will be able to finish a device in a matter of weeks, without technically testing or possessing a bomb. Turning back now, after getting so close may very likely be viewed by Iran’s leaders as counterproductive and counterintuitive.   If this is truly the case, rather than focus on Rouhani’s words and deeds, Dehghan, now in full control of the daily activities of Iran’s military forces, would be the one to watch as a better way to discern how Iran is actually proceeding on the nuclear issue.

Dehghan’s Reputation For Handling Iran’s Most Difficult Tasks

Dehghan was first discussed by greatcharlie.com in the August 23, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles.”  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran and former acting IRGC commander of Isfahan.  He was sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to help establish a military-wing for Hezbollah.  By 1983, Dehghan was appointed commander of IRGC forces in Lebanon.  Allegedly, while in that command, Dehghan received instructions from Tehran to attack peacekeepers of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.  It is further alleged that Dehghan, after providing them with IRGC funding and operational training, directed Hezbollah operatives, along with their leader, Imad Mughniyah, the commander of Hezbollah’s military-wing, to engage in martyrdom operations against the US Marine Corps barracks and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut.  The operative detonated a truck bomb at the Marine barracks, destroying the building that housed them and tragically killing 341 and wounding several others, most of whom were asleep at the time.  In coordination with that attack, a truck bomb was used by another Hezbollah operative against the French paratroopers barracks, killing 58 soldiers.  Later Dehghan would become commander of District 1 of Sarallah and Sarallah Operations Headquarters, commander of the IRGC Air Force, commander of the IRGC Air Force, acting chairman of the joint headquarters of the IRGC, and general manager of the Cooperatives Foundation of the IRGC.  As an IRGC commander, Dehghan was a fearless, devout and dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and sworn to defend the Islamic Republic.  What he undoubtedly did best on the Expediency Council was to advise Khamenei on conventional and unconventional ways Iran could use its military as a means to accomplish its political goals in the face of US and Western opposition.  Dehghan’s descent to Rouhani’s cabinet, after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, did not occur because his skills as an administrator were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was most likely selected in order to take command of the day to day activities of Iran’s fighting forces and to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone with his experience, capabilities, and reliability could be counted upon to direct.

“Heroic Flexibility” and Dehghan’s Likely Marching Orders on the Nuclear Issue

Dehghan, who spent his career in the IRGC,  is inextricably tied to that organization.  In one of the earliest photos of Dehghan while Defense Minister, he is appears in his IRGC uniform, sitting with other cabinet members in a meeting with Khamenei.  Dehghan has been a conspicuously quiet member of Rouhani’s cabinet, virtually absent in the media and rarely providing public statements or holding press conferences.  This is rather unusual particularly since he is responsible for Iran’s military forces.  In Iran, top commanders typically are highly visible, very often making very passionate declarations of their determination to defend Iran’s interests.  Such avowals by military officials are an accepted way to assure the Iranian people that the country can promote and protect its interests, and deter opponents from attacks against it.  During his confirmation process for defense minister, Dehghan explained to the Parliament that he wanted to engage in soft power enhancement, by means of increased visibility and promote the image of the armed forces.  Dehghan apparently did not mean to include himself in that effort.  The reticent Dehghan even has a lower profile than Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s secretive, elite IRGC unit, the Quds Force.

Given his decades of devotion to the IRGC, there can be no doubt that precious little difference between Dehghan’s views and those espoused by the organization.  To that extent, Dehghan would most likely agree with an IRGC statement (translated into English in a September 22, 2013 article in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News), which explained the IRGC “would support initiatives that were in line with national interests and strategies set forth by the theocratic leader and highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”  According to this, Dehghan and the commanders of the 125,000 IRGC force who are hand-picked by Khamenei, will act only under the concept and intent proffered by Supreme Leader.

A key concept recently proclaimed by Khamenei on the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy is “heroic flexibility.”  The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan.  As is characteristic of Dehghan, but perhaps unusual for a Defense Minister, he has not offered his own interpretation of heroic flexibility and how it would guide his ministry’s activities.  Yet, as understood by his close compatriots in the IRGC, heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western partners, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, translated into English and published by Arash Karami on the blog, Iran Pulse, “heroic inflexibility is an exalted and invaluable concept fully within the goals of the Islamic Republic.”  He further explained the concept meant “in no way would Iran retreat from fundamental lines and national and vital interests and this right is something that without [sic] concessions can be exchanged.”  That essentially means that only on issues in which Iran had an interest but no rights, could Iranian concessions be negotiated.  He went on to state: “Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced.”  Specifically on the nuclear issue, Salami explained: “For instance, the right to have peaceful nuclear energy according to the criteria that has been secured for us, and this right cannot be modified and there is no flexibility on it, however, within this framework a political flexibility as a tactic is acceptable because we do not want to create a dead end in solving the political issue.”  Therefore, for the IRGC on the nuclear issue, there is no possibility of Iranian concessions, however, given the possibility that the US and its Western partners, themselves, might be willing make concessions to reach a compromise, talks must take place to give them a chance to do so.

An appraisal to this using the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility may be that Iran needs to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners. Under that approach, Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take the path of diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Dehghan and elements of the IRGC would take a path to accomplish the goals set for Iran’s nuclear energy program.  Placing the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program in Dehghan’s purview is reasonable given the credible military threat posed to it by the US and Israel.  Moreover, as Defense Minister, his responsibilities include promoting Iran’s defense industry capabilities in meeting strategic requirements, placing an emphasis on passive defense in compliance with the requirements of development projects and land use planning, and linking knowledge, power, and strategy in industry and Defense Ministry missions.  Assuredly, Dehghan and his IRGC compatriots are currently guided by Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility, under the IRGC’s interpretation of it.  That being the case, it is very likely they are presently engaged in a dual-track approach.  A statement provided by the IRGC appears to provide a rationale for the dual-track approach.  It declares: “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and skeptically monitor the behavior of WH officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favor interaction.”  This quote would indicate that IRGC thinking is influenced by what its commanders view were past negative interactions with the West, and a dual-track approach will assure the protection of Iran’s rights.

What Would Convince the IRGC That a Dual-Track Approach Would Work?

When Dehghan was a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, he was already part of the process by which Iran developed a way to quietly take steps in opposition to the US in order to reach its goals.  Long before Khamenei’s declaration of his heroic flexibility concept, approaches and methods, derived from ideas very similar to his idea, were already being on Syria and on the nuclear issue.  As discussed in the August 3, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled “President-Elect Stirs Optimism in the West, But Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” initially, the Iranians consider in advance how its opponents might attempt to defeat or disrupt US efforts.  Plans are rapidly implemented to avoid detection and a possible response.  Every moment of time is viewed in itself as an opportunity to shape a situation.  This is how the initial Quds Force commander in Syria, IRGC Brigadier General Hassan Shateri, operated with all Iranian forces from 2011 until his death there in 2013.  He managed the rapid deployment of Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and Iraqi shi’a militiamen into Syria, and shaped-up Syrian Armed Forces as needed, quickly trained, and armed the Syrian shabiha or paramilitaries and organized them into a fighting force, the National Defense Front.  IRGC Major General Qassem Suleimani, who took over for Shateri as Iran’s commander in Syria, has taken the same tact.  Political leaders and policymakers in the US are perceived in Tehran as willing to make the assumption that every situation in foreign policy can be favorably altered with money or the application of military force later.  Delays in proposed and threatened military action would usually be due to some domestic political consideration such as presidential elections and mid-term Congressional elections  Concerning the nuclear issue, the same success using this approach can be observed.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, progress continued to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iran is aware that once a sufficient level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle, and a new situation immediately exists.  At that point, Iran may calculate that further sanctions or threats of action against Iran, except among some of its neighbors, would unlikely be viewed as constructive or acceptable internationally.  Further, Iran, again, would know that it would be less likely to face any consequences if that type of achievement occurs when for example, mid-term elections next year, have greater meaning to US political leaders.

Events surrounding the US response to the Assad regime’s August 21, 2013, use of chemical weapons provide the latest yardstick by which Iran can measure the prospect for attaining its goals under Khamenei’s heroic flexibility concept.  US delays left the door open for Assad to secure his interests.  Obama appeared to agonize over the decision to take military action and delayed doing so.  The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, indicated he was reluctant to take action, uncertain as to its possible impact upon the Syrian civil war’s outcome.  The majority of the US Congress prepared to withhold their support for military action, concerned mostly by the possibility that as a consequence, rogue Islamic militants would be in a better position on the ground.  While that transpired, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad managed, through a Russian proposal, to avoid military action for the time being, by declaring its chemical stockpiles, surrendering them for destruction to the UN, and becoming a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Assad even managed to acquire the spotlight on the world stage.  He even received praise from some states for coming clean about chemical stockpile, while never confessing to carrying out the gas attacks.

Assessment

Iran is still a long way from getting the US and its Western partners to compromise.  For Iran, such demands would mean more than just modifying its program, but keeping it intact.  For Iran, compromise may actually equate to an act of surrender.  Iran would most likely be required to: cease all enrichment of uranium and agree to the removal of all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak.  The request itself would come to Khamenei and other with seniority in the Iranian government as an effort to humiliate the Islamic Republic.

The US and its Western partners have been impressed and inspired by Rouhani’s words and his deeds so far.  Small steps have been taken by the US and Iran to build confidence and trust.  However, the relationship between the two sides has been less than congenial for some time.  The ease at which Rouhani has approached the entire matter perhaps should have been cause for immediate pause. Focusing on his efforts avoids the need for officials in Washington and other Western capitals to look more in-depth at what the Iranians are doing despite claims of being vigilant.  Yet, as discussed here, whether Rouhani very efficiently and effectively pursues a peaceful solution, or falters, may not be relevant in the long run.  Potentially, his efforts may be overcome by Dehghan’s effort to reach the goals of the nuclear energy program.  Iran is so close to breakout capacity at this point that it perhaps would make little sense to turn back.  If not careful, the US and its Western partners may find the next step will not require deciding whether Iran’s nuclear program can continue.  Instead, the next step might actually require deciding on whether a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran is something that they can accept.

The Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hossein Dehghan

Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles

An August 15, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, New President’s Cabinet,” reported that after four days of grilling by the conservative dominated Parliament, the proposed cabinet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani survived its confirmation hearings largely intact.  Rouhani’s nominees for the ministries of education, science, and sport were rejected based on accusations by some Members of Parliament that they had been close to the 2009 Green Movement that held protests against Iran’s leaders.  Fifteen other nominees were approved.  According to the New York Times, Rouhani’s appointment of Mohammed Javad Zarif as foreign minister suggested that Rouhani was moving forward with his campaign pledge to seek a more constructive dialogue with the US than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Zarif was Iran’s internationally popular, long-time permanent representative to the UN.  He engaged in postgraduate studies at the San Francisco State University and received his doctorate in international law and policy at the University of Denver and is an expert on the US. 

Yet, the New York Times, August 15th article did not mention that the constructive dialogue will include voices from other appointees such as Ali Akbar Salehi, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, and now the new head of Iran’s atomic energy agency.  An August 15, 2013, Washington Post article reported Salehi had been head of that agency for a year, prior to becoming foreign minister.  He was also Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to that.  An even stronger voice helping to formulate that dialogue will be Hossein Dehghan, Rouhani’s appointment as defense minister.  According to an August 13, 2013, Washington Times article, Dehghan spent his entire military career in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (“IRGC”).  Until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  That Council is an advisory body that is appointed by, and serves, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The prominent religious, social, and political figures on that council have supervisory powers over all branches of government.  Hardline, and part of the “voice of the Revolution,” Dehghan’s presence will not only impact Iran’s dialogue with the US but also Iran’s approaches to important foreign and defense policy issue such as Syria.  An examination of available options for Dehghan to take as that policy advances indicate President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime could be made even stronger and the Syrian opposition forces even less effective in the field, while at the same time countering Western efforts to counter any Iranian moves.

Dehghan: An IRGC “Icon”

Dehghan is no stranger to the type of operations required of Iranians military and security forces in Syria.  What might be telling of Dehghan’s approach may be his experience as an IRGC commander in Lebanon.  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran.  He was sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to help establish a military-wing for Hezbollah.  By 1983, Dehghan was appointed commander of IRGC forces in Lebanon.  Allegedly, while in that command, Dehghan received instructions from Tehran to attack peacekeepers of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.  It is further alleged that Dehghan, after providing them with IRGC funding and operational training, directed Hezbollah operatives to engage in martyrdom operations against the Marine barracks and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut.  The operative detonated a truck bomb at the Marine barracks, destroying the building that housed them and tragically killing 341 and wounding several others, most of whom were asleep at the time.  In coordination with that attack, a truck bomb was used by another Hezbollah operative against the French paratroopers barracks, killing 58 soldiers.  (Iranian diplomats and officials would explain that Iran does not engage in assassination or terrorism.  They would call allegations, such as these made of Dehghan and the IRGC, baseless and ridiculous, and part of an effort by detractors to demonize the Islamic republic.)  Experienced, action-oriented, and hardline, (ruthless at times), Dehghan is dedicated to ensuring a strong future for Iran’s military and security forces.  He very likely views Syria as a good opportunity to prepare and test a new generation for the responsibility of protecting Iran’s interests globally.

The Situation in Syria As Dehghan Inherits It

On June 22, 2013, in Doha, Qatar, the Friends of Syria group, (organized by former US Secretary of State  in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government), recognized the impact Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters were having on the ground in Syria.  The Friends of Syria vowed to increase the scope and scale of assistance to the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Council, and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  US Secretary of State John Kerry stated the Friends of Syria had also determined the Assad regime had crossed a red-line with its reported use of chemical weapons.  Further, the Assad regime had already internationalized the militarization of the conflict by allowing the involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.  This statement clearly indicates the Friends of Syria, which includes the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were willing to wage war with Iran by proxy in Syria.  Through leaks from the US officials, it was revealed that the plan was to ramp up Free Syrian Army combat capabilities to a level at which it could launch a concerted attack against Assad’s forces and allies by August!  Considerable activity has been witnessed on the Southern Front, around Damascus, attempting to make gains that should impact diplomatic efforts by the Friends of Syria with Russia, Iran, and Syria.  They have made good use of training in Jordan organized by the Central Intelligence Agency, and have received an intermittent flow of arms and supplies from Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Yet, bringing the fighting force of the Supreme Military Council, the Free Syrian Army, up to snuff to engage in major combat operations against the Syrian Armed Forces and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies has proved a far more difficult task than ever imagined by the Friends of Syria.  US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, fully acknowledged as recently as July 18th that “Currently the tide has shifted in his [Assad’s] favor.”  In a July assessment of the situation in Syria completed by NATO, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  It predicted that Assad’s forces, with Russian and Iranian support, would capture major Free Syrian Army strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO in consultation with US and EU intelligence services concluded that the military campaign had failed over the past three months.  Officials said that the Syrian component of the Free Syrian Army had deteriorated dramatically since April and the point had been reached where it was difficult to distinguish who was determined to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  Moreover, NATO assessed that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  Rather, the majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters, most of them affiliated with Al-Qaida.  It was NATO’s assessment that ostensibly resulted in a decision by several leading NATO countries to halt lethal weapons shipments to the Free Syrian Army.  In mid-July, Britain and France signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria.  Officials said that the two countries which until June were the most vocal supporters for arming the Free Syrian Army determined that any major weapons shipments would end up with Al-Qaida affiliated factions.

Approaches Available to Dehghan on Syria

Dehghan was chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council when the decision was made to intervene in Syria with Iranian military and security forces.  Dehghan will unlikely choose to freeze or withdraw in the face of any challenge by the Friends of Syria or as part of some comprehensive deal with the US along with other issues.  In taking steps to counter and defeat Western efforts against the Assad regime and Iranian military and security forces, themselves, Dehghan might choose between two options.

First Option

The first option, as Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University has predicted, would be for Iran to move up the” ladder of escalation.”  That would mean having IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel flood into Syria.  Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could initiate the increase as one of his final acts in office, creating a new era in power projection for Iran.  Elements of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country, along with Iran’s own air defense systems for force protection from any Friends of Syria intervention.  Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy Free Syrian Army units being organized and armed for an attack.  Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel from the US, EU, and Arab states for the Free Syrian Army could face artillery onslaughts.  Attacks in depth with these weapons could have a multiplier effect for the Syrian Army and its Iranian allies as they begin the reduction of Free Syrian Army territory.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide the Iranian and Syrian forces with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by the Free Syrian Army.

The Iranian Navy might move into the Mediterranean Sea using the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria as a port, and provide fire offshore in support of movement by Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah units.  The ships’ air defenses could be integrated with Syria’s air defense system.  (Beyond warfighting, it could engage in joint exercises with the Russian Mediterranean fleet.)  Iran might also deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to enhance military movements and Syrian government’s control of recaptured territory.  Within Iran itself, there may be a modest mobilization of Basij volunteers for service in Syria. 

However, attempting to protect large forces projected a long distance from Iranian territory and resources may prove difficult.  If Iranian forces massed in Syria ever reach the point where they could destroy the Free Syrian Army, Iranian forces would risk being attacked by US, EU, and Arab states, coming to opposition’s rescue.  Iranian forces would likely be cut-off and face the real possibility of defeat resulting from airstrikes and cruise missile strikes.  To cite a few examples of this, in Angola in 1987, South African Army forces projected to Angola, were cut-off and defeated by rebels heavily supported by Cuban, Soviet, East German, and Romanian forces.  In 1982, Argentine forces projected to the Falkland Islands were cut-off and defeated by a highly-capable, sea-based force from Britain, with some US non-combat military support.  In 1991, Iraqi forces sent into nearby Kuwait by Saddam Hussein were cut-off and defeated by a US-led multinational coalition of forces.  Of course, attacking Iranian troops in Syria would also mean the Friends of Syria would be at war with Iran.  Iran has made it clear that in a struggle against the US and EU states, it would not hesitate to attack the interests of those states globally.

Second Option

The second option would have Iran fold all of its forces in Syria into the Syrian Armed Forces.  This act would defeat the claim of an Iranian presence in Syria.  Elements of this approach would include leaving Iranian fighters from the IRGC, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to remain in Syria, calling them volunteers, and placing them outside of the control of the Iranian government.  This was what occurred during the Bosnia War.  A few thousand IRGC troops and Quds Force trainers folded into the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power.  Russia recently took a similar approach when it removed its military personnel from its Tartus naval base in Syria and replaced them with “civilian workers.”  Russia Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdonov, then made the claim that there was “no one in Syria from the Russian Defense Ministry” and the Tartus naval base had no “military or strategic significance.”  The Washington Post has reported Moscow has an unknown number of military advisers in Syria who help its military operate and maintain Soviet- and Russian- built weapons that make up the core of its arsenals.

To enhance the combat power of units holding volunteers from Iran, the Iranian military could leave dozens of tanks mechanized vehicles, helicopters, heavy artillery, rockets, logistical vehicles, and communications equipment in Syria.  The Quds Force might remain to train, equip, and fight alongside Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, as part of a covert operation.  Using capabilities provided by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran would also possess the capability to engage in targeted killings of senior and field grade commanders in the Free Syrian Army.  The goal would be to degrade the effectiveness of the force.

Syrian, Iranian and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate well and cooperate on the battlefield.  At Battle of Qusayr, 6000 Syrian Army infantry troops and supporting armor, initiated the assault by seizing ground, and pushing Free Syrian Army outposts into a killing zone.  Missiles and airstrikes attacked Free Syrian Army shelters at their rear, preventing reinforcements and critical supplies from getting through.  IRGC armored units and other regular units fought alongside the National defense Forces, which included “popular committees” of paramilitaries known as shabiha.  The shabiha were trained by the Iranian Quds Forces.  Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack and took on the mop-up operations in Qusayr while Syrian and Iranian troops move on to take other points in Homs province. 

An Overpowering Look Would Still Be Avoided

Beyond progressively regaining control of strategic towns, Syrian and Iranian forces may continue to avoid engaging in major offensives with attacks across a broad front against the Free Syrian Army held territory in order to present a visibly, “less-dominant” appearance in the conflict.  The full power and capabilities of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies have not been brought to bear on the Free Syrian Army.  This may give many in the international community the sense that there is no worry that the Free Syrian Army would be overwhelmed, and there really is no need for emergency action, particularly US and EU intervention.  Supporting this “gentler look” of the Syria and its allies, are arguments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, portraying Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war.”

Additional Iranian Support Possible Under Both Options

Make no mistake, the Russians and Iranians are well-positioned in Syria. Regarding Iran’s efforts, as Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune on June 6, 2013, “If there was once a realistic hope that Syria’s civil war would isolate Iran, the prospect has dimmed.”  At stake also for Iran in Syria is the image it seeks to project as a steadfast ally that will not bend to international pressure.  Early on, the Iranians recognized the opening to secure its interests in Syria while other states talked. They, along with the Russians, have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US to do anything too substantial with shipments of high-tech or heavy weapons, even MANPADS, shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets—a weapon system always on the Al-Qaida wish-list–to the Free Syrian Army at this point.  This is not Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi stood alone against the opposition and Western airpower. In Syria, Assad has very powerful allies ready to support him with money and weapons, and fight alongside his forces. 

Iran could also up the ante by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces with intelligence from espionage, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  It is very likely that at some scale this process is already underway.  According to Geneive Abdo in Foreign Affairs, in the summer of 2011, Iran provided the Assad regime with technology to monitor email, cell phones, and social media.  Iran developed this capability following the 2009 protests and “Green Revolution.”  It invested millions of dollars into creating a “cyber army” to track down dissidents online.  Iran’s monitoring technology is considered among the most sophisticated in the world, second perhaps only to China.  Shortly after Iran shared the surveillance technology with Syria, Assad lifted restrictions on all social networking, most likely to lure dissidents out into the open.

Recent bits of data released by allies of the Assad regime indicate a precise knowledge of most, if not all, aspects of the Free Syrian Army.  The Russian Federal Security Service made it apparent that it had the ability to monitor the activities of 200 Russian and European fighters within the Free Syrian Army in May.  In June, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly updated that figure from the Federal Security Services, stating 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks.  While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Free Syrian Army fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Free Syrian Army fighters.  With continued assistance from Iran, Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, could, themselves, penetrate the Free Syrian Army, having operatives pose as dissenters and deserters who want to join its ranks.  Since the Free Syrian Army has willingly taken on many defectors in company and battalion sized groups without any serious vetting, penetration by Syria’s Mukhabarat may have already occurred.

By moving throughout Syria, particularly Free Syrian Army held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Syrian peoples’ reaction to events.  Moving about in a foreign land, surrounded by the enemy, is dangerous work.  Any fears must be controlled.  Capture by Islamic militant factions could mean torture and summary execution.  Yet, collecting such granular information becomes useful in efforts to shape the battlefield for Syrian and Iranian forces.  Opportunities for doing new things can be discovered.  As discussed in the greatcharlie.com July 13, 2013 post, “President-elect Stirs Optimism in the West, but Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” reports exist alleging that with the assistance of Iranian intelligence and the Quds Force, the Assad’s regime has reached an agreement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).  A rift between that foreign fighter laden, Al-Qaida affiliated faction and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, was exploited.  The Syrians of Al-Nusra have grown angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  The Syrian opposition says evidence of the agreement is that Assad’s forces have concentrated their military operations against secular Free Syrian Army units, and more recently has avoided contact with units of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).

Dehghan’s Likely Impact on Rouhani’s Decision Making on Syria

Dehghan is well aware of the advantage Iran has created for Assad by supporting and fighting alongside his forces.  Under either option, Dehghan will continue to enhance the capabilities of Iran’s military and security forces in Syria.  He understands the potential danger that intervention by the Friends of Syria would present to those forces.  However, he has no intention of withdrawing, hesitating, or failing in Syria.  Dehghan likely doubts his potential adversaries would be as committed as Iran to the situation in Syria.

Dehghan, given his previous responsibilities within the Expediency Council, was involved when Iran’s military and security forces entered Syria.  Dehghan will not be willing to surrender the success that those forces have achieved to enable some compromise agreement with the US or anyone else.  He would unlikely advise, support or even entertain any proposal to put before Rouhani to place Iran’s Syria operation on the table for negotiation.  However, in spite of the successes of Assad’s forces with the help of Iran this year, Syria is not yet a complete success.  Assad and his regime’s control over the situation is not secure and sustainable.  The Free Syrian Army still holds territory.  The Friends of Syria, if not completely committed, are still pushing for their desired outcome, Iran’s withdrawal and Assad’s fall.  Dehghan may find that only further advances in Syria can keep his operation from becoming a bargaining chip.  Perhaps Dehghan’s first move, within budgetary constraint, will be to ramp up Iran’s efforts enough to better secure Assad’s position in Syria. That would be his first victory.