If Censured, Can Iran Hit Back at the U.S.?

It wasn’t the first time Coalition troops in Iraq spotted what they thought were Iranian Revolutionary Guards trying to cross the border to the Iraqi side. But in one period this month, incursions into Iraq’s southern area swelled to the point where British and Iraqi border patrolmen worried that an unknown number of the commandos were getting through, a U.S. official in Baghdad told NEWSWEEK. That surge, which the official said caused “a lot of alarm” in coalition headquarters, might have been what prompted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week to complain publicly about Iran, describing its meddling as “an error in judgment.” And it was followed by an unusually harsh round of rhetoric.

U.S. officials accuse Iran of helping Iraqi militants build a more lethal brand of roadside bombs that are killing and maiming coalition soldiers. “They have interfered in Iraq’s internal affairs…by supplying weapons, training and explosives,” to Shiite militias, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns told a Congressional committee. Iran, fending off international pressure in Vienna over its nuclear program, promised to inflict “harm and pain” on the United States if Washington succeeds in persuading the U.N. Security Council to take action against the Islamic republic. "The United States may have the power to cause harm and pain, but it is also susceptible to harm and pain," Javad Vaeidi, head of the Iranian delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the agency's board at its meeting in Austria last week. "So if the United States wishes to choose that path, let the ball roll."

How painful can it get? Analysts believe Iran’s ability to use oil as a club against the United States is limited. And Tehran’s influence over proxies like Hizbullah in Lebanon, once a spearhead of Iranian militancy abroad, is probably waning. In Iraq, it’s a different story. The long and leaky border between the two countries gives Iran easy access to receptive Shiite militias—chiefly Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi— and a way to bleed the United States if pressure is ratcheted up over Tehran’s nukes. So far, Iranian influence has been felt mainly in the heavily Shia south of Iraq, where Britain maintains its troops. But a State Department official said the more lethal roadside weapons known as IEDs, (improvised explosive devices) were believed traceable to Iran, and were creeping north, towards American forces. “Iran has lots of influence in southern Iraq,” says Paul Pillar, who served until last year as the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. “And they have not used it nearly as much as they can.”

The problem with playing the oil card is it would hurt Iran more than the United States. Iran is the world’s fourth largest producer of crude. Vaeidi, the deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Tehran might “review” its oil policy if Washington turned up the heat. However, the United States gets virtually no oil from Iran and while the Islamic republic could restrict supplies to Europe—which relies heavily on Iranian oil—such an action would put the country at risk of losing badly-needed income. Indeed, analysts say there’s enough surplus oil in the market to take up the slack.   “As a weapon, oil is a very blunt instrument,” says Jim Burkhard, senior director of oil market analysis at Cambridge Energy Associates in Boston. “It would be very difficult to target just one country and…Iran would lose out on revenues.” Closing the tap would also end up hurting one of Tehran’s important allies: China gets more of its oil from Iran than any other country.

In a more troubling scenario, Iran could unleash Hizbullah on U.S. targets or on American allies, chiefly Israel. Israeli officials say the Lebanese group has hundreds of missiles from Iran that could reach major Israeli towns. But like Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hizbullah has been reshaping itself as a political power in Lebanon and is less dependent on the patronage of Syria and Iran. “It depends on the client relationship with Hizbullah and if the group would be willing to do that,” says Michael Vickers, a former CIA operative who is director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. Several Hizbullah officials told a NEWSWEEK correspondent in Lebanon recently they’d worked too hard at achieving political status to now squander it for the interests of the radical camp in Iran. Khaled Mashal, the hardline Hamas leader, struck a similar note during a recent address at Tehran University. When student radicals stood up and promised to destroy Israel, he said: “But please, don’t destroy it on our heads.”

Iraq’s major Shia parties are also likely to frown on meddling from Iran. While relations between the Iraqi groups and Iran’s Shia leaders are warm, most of the Iraqi parties support the U.S. role in their country. One exception is al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, which, like Iran, favors an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. However, the Mahdi army is now in a coalition with the larger Shia parties, and stirring up trouble with the United States—at least at this time—is not in the group’s own political interest.

Pillar, whose recent article in Foreign Affairs accuses the Bush administration of “cherry-picking” intelligence on Iraq to justify going to war, says some American grumbling about Iranian interference might be exaggerated. “Not that they [Iran’s leaders] haven’t been playing a role. But I suspect [blaming] outside actors is a way of coming to terms with our troubles in Iraq without overtly acknowledging some of the inherent problems in our mission from the outset.” Pillar also warns against drawing hasty conclusions from the fact that some bomb parts used in Iraq have been traced to Iran. “It does not necessarily tell you who bears organizational responsibility,” for the attacks.

However, a coalition source in Iraq told NEWSWEEK last fall that the more deadly bombs, which made their first appearance about 10 months ago, were similar in design to those supplied by Iran to Hizbullah in the 1980s. Known as Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs), the bombs are detonated by infra-red signals and can pierce thick coalition armor. In southern Lebanon, they helped Hizbullah make Israel’s 18-year occupation a searing experience—a fact Tehran would not have forgotten.

With Maziar Bahari and Owen Matthews