Thursday, August 9, 2012

A History Of Iranian Weapons Shipments To Iraq, Interview With Arkenstone Blog's Galen Wright

Starting in 2005, the United States began accusing Iran of supplying weapons to Iraqi militants. This included assault rifles, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, explosives, mortars, and rockets. The deadliest device was the Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) that were capable of destroying Coalition armored vehicles. The Americans would routinely hold press conferences on the topic, and take journalists to see arms caches allegedly full of weapons from Iran. Some were skeptical of these accusations since Washington failed so badly on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and believed that the claims against Tehran were just an attempt to expand the conflict to another country. Below is an interview with Galen Wright who runs the blog The Arkenstone that specializes in Iranian military affairs, which goes through some of the major claims made about Tehran’s arms shipments to Iraq.

1. The U.S. began accusing Iran of supplying weapons to Iraqi militias like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army as early as 2005. What was Iran’s response to these charges?

The official line from Tehran was denial. President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad and other agencies like the Foreign Ministry rejected the accusation of support for violent, non-state actors, while reiterating their official support for the government of Iraq, and opposition to “any kind of conflict in Iraq.” Tehran's primary argument was that the arms could not be conclusively tied to Iran, and were most likely from other sources like the black-market, or other state suppliers.

Unlike in Palestine or Lebanon where Iran was able to exploit the popular appeal of resistance against Israel to bolster its legitimacy regionally, they couldn't do the same in Iraq. Openly backing anti-government forces would have alienated the government in Baghdad, which Iran had invested a great deal in establishing legitimate ties to. It was unlikely that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq would have gained as much political strength as they had if they were seen as proxies of a country, which was actively destabilizing Iraq. From Iran's perspective, this would have risked pushing Baghdad closer to Washington, creating the permanent security threat that Tehran had always feared in Iraq.

In a limited scope, Iran's denial has proved relatively effective. The lack of concrete evidence has allowed Iran to escape all but a few punitive measures, and Tehran continues to enjoy a warm relationship with Baghdad. Despite these successes though, the ultimate efficacy of Iran's broader objective of avoiding being perceived as a security threat is questionable. The collapse of the Baathist bulwark, and the consequent expansion of Iranian influence has legitimized the fear of a “Shiite Crescent,” and provoked a backlash among Sunni Arab states acting out of fear for their own security. The Syrian civil war is a key example of this blowback, Riyadh and others are moving swiftly to check Iranian power in the Levant in order to offset the “loss” of Iraq.

The important thing to note here is that the states in question are acting the way they are because of security concerns. Iran's trying to do its best to appear as a friendly, non-aggressive neighbor working to build relations with a stable, normalized Iraq, because they don't want their relationship with Arab states to devolve to a security competition as it did during the 1980s when Iran openly pursued a revolutionary/revisionist foreign policy.

2. One problem in determining whether Iran was sending weapons to Iraq was that the country was awash in arms. Could all the weapons and munitions the U.S. found that it claimed were from Tehran be directly tied back to Iran? For instance, some arms caches found contained material from the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. Could something like that prove an Iranian connection?

The challenge the U.S. government faced in 2005-2007 was contextualizing individual instances within a broader narrative. As the insurgency escalated in 2005 and 2006, the Bush administration began talking publicly about numerous incidents, which Iran was supposedly behind. At this time though, this was all there was: a series of disjointed arms caches, which appeared linked to Iran in one-way or another. This was why the evidence presented up through early-2007 was so underwhelming. Compounding this, there was no consensus in Washington with many high-level officials, like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates refusing to invest their political capital in backing allegations against Iran. I have no doubt that some of this initial wariness was due to the overall skepticism.

As you mention, there were so many plausible alternate explanations that, even if direct Iranian support was the most likely, no one could prove it. For instance, a February 2007 briefing by the U.S. showed numerous Iranian weapons date-stamped recently, but there was no accompanying evidence indicating the chain-of-possession that would have been required to implicate Tehran rather than just “Iran”. Likewise, when Coalition forces paraded out weapons that had been clearly lying in the ground since the 1980s, and this material certainly did exist, it hurt the credibility of other evidence, even if it was sound.

However, throughout the rest of 2007, the effort to document Iran's ties to the increasingly violent insurgency escalated, and importantly, became much more systemic in nature. For instance, gathering human intelligence (HUMINT) from interrogations proved, in my opinion at least, far more valuable in establishing the context of the full-spectrum of Iranian support for armed groups than arms caches could, enabling Coalition forces to map out Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force smuggling and training networks into Iraq. In other words, HUMINT provided the big picture that enabled proper analysis of the material evidence.
An arms caches discovered in Sep. 2009. By 2008, the U.S. had established a well organized system to document the types and frequency of weapons showing up in Iraq to link them to Iran. (AP)
By 2008, every arms cache that was being uncovered was being investigated by members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) task force assigned to investigate Iranian arms. Thanks to this effort we can actually look at open-source documents to see exactly what kind of weapons were found, where they were found, and in what frequency. It’s this kind of forensic evidence that went a long way in legitimizing Washington's accusations. I'll talk about some of the specific evidence in the later questions.

3. Why do you think there were so many skeptics when the U.S. began making these charges against Iran?

It was the collective equivalent of “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Following the intelligence debacle that led to the Iraq invasion in 2003, the U.S. audience was naturally going to be skeptical of the Bush administration constructing a security threat out of an oil-rich, Mideast nation in order to justify regime change. The administration had lost its credibility. This was also taking place at the same time, 2005-2006 that the insurgency was beginning to escalate, which meant that many believed the Bush administration was using Iran as a scapegoat for their mishandling of the war. Indeed, this was the tack Tehran took when rejecting the accusations. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman declared that, “The United States has a long history in fabricating evidence.” I'd also wager that this skepticism was why many in Washington were so hesitant to throw their political capital behind the case against Iran before sufficient evidence was accumulated.

4. The device the Americans most often accused Iran of supplying to Iraqi militants was the Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs). Can you explain what those are?

Broadly speaking, EFPs are a specific type of 'shaped charge' weapon that converts the chemical energy of an explosive filler into kinetic energy by propelling a metal liner at high-velocity. In this manner, shaped charges can span the entire spectrum of sophistication and lethality. You could hypothetically create one out of the concave bottom of a soda can, but, as you might guess, it would be  less effective than a purpose-made high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warhead like that found in a rocket propelled grenade (RPG).
The effects of EFPs against armored Humvees in Iraq 2007 (U.S. military)
What's important to keep in mind is that the defeat-mechanism used by shaped charges to penetrate armor is fundamentally the same as any other kinetic energy projectile. This means that the optimal design of a HEAT warhead is one where liner travels at the fastest possible speeds to create high kinetic energy. Without getting into a full technical description, this is accomplished by precisely angling the liner cone relative to the explosive propellant, which allows the tip of the projectile to travel upwards of 10 km/s. However, because solid objects at hypervelocity speeds behave as liquids, the slower rear is stretched out behind as the tip accelerates forward, causing the projectile to eventually break up and fall apart over a certain distance. This is why HEAT warheads only function at the correct stand-off range: it has to be far enough away from the armor in order to give the jet proper time to form, while close enough to prevent the jet from disintegrating. 
EFPs operate under the same principle, but at a different position along the shaped-charge-spectrum. If you look at any of copper EFP disks found in Iraq, you'll notice that they're much shallower and wider than the cone found in an RPG. This design produces a projectile that travels much slower, <3 km/s, closer to the speed of a gun-fired kinetic penetrator, and has poorer penetration, but which retains its lethality over a much greater distance because hypervelocity doesn't tear the projectile apart.

This means EFPs are preferred in applications where the shaped charge cannot be placed directly on the target such as with standoff mines in which the slug might have to travel tens of meters before hitting the target. Indeed, this is how they were deployed in Iraq, as off-route improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The advantage to this sort of system, in addition to simply being more lethal, is that they can be emplaced with little to no effort since they're above ground, and can be hidden many meters away from the target itself rather than having to excavate a pit directly on the road.

5. Thousands of copper tops were found for EFPs, but is there any way they could be linked back to Iran?

Yes, no, and probably. Some of those found were undoubtedly from Iran, some might have been, and some definitely weren't.

The primary argument that emerged in the public debate centered on whether the sophistication of the EFPs pointed towards Iran's guilt. While the exact nature of this sophistication was often glossed over, it undoubtedly concerned the fabrication of the liner. As described above, the formation of a shaped charge can cover a broad spectrum of quality and shape, which means that any metal shop with a lathe or press could turn out some sort of shaped charge. Even rudimentary theoretical knowledge would allow some degree of fine-tuning. For instance, they could consult that chart I included above. Indeed, there have been a handful of reports citing workshops inside Iraq that were turning out their own indigenous liners.

However, because there's a great deal of penetrating power that can be coaxed out of a shaped charge through careful manipulation of the liner during fabrication, the most likely source is a nation-state, ostensibly Iran. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to analyze open source imagery in isolation, though I have seen anecdotal evidence suggesting EFP-workshops in Sunni-dominant areas were turning out shoddier liners than those found in Shiite-dominant areas. Overall, I'm skeptical of this argument because even if true it would still only be circumstantial evidence against Iran since its still plausible the insurgents could produce or otherwise procure high-precision liners from other sources.

A refined version of the above argument, and perhaps it's original incarnation before it entered the popular discourse, posits that it's not necessarily the quality of the EFP components, but their forensic fingerprint which points to Iran. This is far more credible, in my opinion, than the simple “sophistication” argument detailed above. For instance, one FBI agent charged with determining the origin of arms caches found that the thousands of liners examined were being produced from a relatively small number of individual dies, making it unlikely that they were the result of grassroots fabrication. He also asserted that none of these dies had ever been located in Iraq, highlighting the need to distinguish between assembly and fabrication facilities found in Iraq.

The real evidence, in my opinion, comes from HUMINT and other contextualizing sources such as captured Iraqi insurgents who describe the flow of EFPs, and related expertise over the Iran-Iraq border. Insurgents consistently described the use of pre-existing overland and water-based smuggling networks, which was supported by a handful of examples of interdicted loads of liners coming across the border. In many cases, these were the same networks that Tehran had been using prior to 2003 to support their proxies. In fact, the first reported instance of Iranian EFPs in Iraq was in 2001, which was likely delivered via the Badr Brigade-linked Sheibani network, which itself was used by Iran throughout the 1990s and 2000s to undermine Saddam's Iraq.

Moreover, when linking EFPs found in arms caches to Iran, the context is often far more important than the weapons themselves. For instance, if EFP liners are found in a cache belonging to Shiite Special Groups along with Iranian-made rockets and mortars, and sophisticated IED-making and triggering devices, there would be a much higher likelihood of them being Iranian when compared to the few rusty steel liners turned up in the Sunni-Triangle.

Separately, interrogations have also revealed that Iran has done as much as possible to insulate themselves from blame including training Iraqi insurgents in the fabrication of EFPs, decreasing the need for incriminating logistical support. 

6. Another device linked back to Iran was infrared triggers used for setting off EFPs and IEDs. Were there any markings or signs that those came from Iran?

Long answer short, no. The infrared (IR) triggers used in EFP assemblies were off-the-shelf components that could be sourced almost anywhere. IR triggers, it was argued, bore the unique fingerprint of Iran-backed Hezbollah, which used them during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. While this was true, it was unconvincing on its own since they have appeared elsewhere as well.

The most convincing argument against implicating Iran directly with this line of reasoning is that tactics have a way of flowing from conflict-zone to conflict-zone on their own. The best example of this, in my opinion, is the car bomb. The Jewish terrorists in Palestine gave birth to the notion of the car bomb as a strategic weapon used to strike at the heart of an enemy. This knowledge then flowed through Vietnam, North Africa, and elsewhere during the 1950s and 1960s. In Ireland during the 1970s, and Lebanon during the 1980s, the global car-bomb zeitgeist picked up further unique features, which were then modeled in places like Columbia, Pakistan, and ultimately Ireland again. In post-2003 Iraq, we have seen the culmination of the gradual consensus that has been evolving over the past hundred years. For a detailed description of this process, I recommend Mike Davis's Buda's Wagon A Brief History of the Car Bomb

What I'm getting at with this brief segue is that there is a very plausible path for these devices arriving in Iraq that does not involve Tehran's direct involvement. Iraqi insurgents could have heard about them being used in Lebanon, or even knew someone who used them, and so borrowed the tactics for themselves in the same way the tactics of the car bomb flowed through the world.

That being said, it is still plausible that Tehran was involved in their emergence in Iraq. For instance, it is well documented via HUMINT sources that, in order to limit liability, Iran outsourced much of their support to Hezbollah trainers, who could have transferred this knowledge. As with EFPs themselves, the fact that these triggers have been found among Iran-linked caches gives powerful circumstantial proof that Iran was, at least in part, behind this evolution.

7. How about RPG-7s, 120mm and 81mm mortar rounds, and 107mm rockets found in Iraq? Could those be linked back to Iran?

Absolutely, this is where we can start actually doing image analysis. See attached imagery.

8. Based upon those markings and configurations is there any doubt that Iran was sending weapons to Iraq in the mid-2000s?

It's unquestionable, judging from available open-source imagery intelligence, that modern Iranian arms were present in Iraq during the specified time-period. Unfortunately, that's all I can say with certitude, because images alone tells us very little about how they got there. For instance, one of the more plausible explanations that would exonerate Tehran to some degree is the rogue-agent hypothesis, which postulates that Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers acted outside the chain of command, and sold off arms in order to pursue their own political goals or enrich themselves.

This is consistent with what we know about the endemic black/gray-market activities of the IRGC. They've been accused, by other members of government in Tehran no less, of using their border-security forces to bring goods into and out of the country. One could easily imagine how these same smugglers on the Iran-Iraq border could simply substitute rockets and rifles for the usual fare of alcohol and gasoline. Legal authority over law-enforcement could go a long way towards concealing otherwise covert activity, a position supported by the anecdotal reports of insurgents who described passing through Iranian military checkpoints on their way to training camps.

This possibility really begins to blur the question of responsibility, and raises several questions. If the IRGC is a rogue agent, can we hold Tehran responsible for actions outside their ability to control? What about Tehran's responsibility to rein in rogue actors? To what degree is Tehran itself monolithic? Could certain domestic factions be bypassing others? I apologize for this segue, but this dovetails with much of the research I've been doing since I originally wrote my blog post about Iranian weapons in Iraq. To me, these questions highlight the IRGC's role within the fractious, convoluted political system in Tehran, underscoring the need to comprehend the domestic system if we're going to understand Tehran's foreign policy. 

The Guard's wield a full-spectrum of influence enabling them to function as an independent institution inside Iran. This includes a standing army with conventional and law-enforcement responsibilities, political leadership with clout inside Tehran, economic holdings that funnel wealth into private projects, and cultural indoctrination. I wish to attach no negative connotations to the term “indoctrination”, I merely mean that the IRGC has proved exceptionally adroit at the propagation of their narrative internally. When all this comes together the result is not necessarily a rogue actor, but an autonomous one that often functions outside clear chains-of-command in pursuit of their own factional agenda, but still one that functions very much as a part of the system. 

It is this last point that makes me believe it's unlikely that the IRGC could ever function as a truly rogue actor for any length of time. Precisely because the IRGC relied on the favorable political climate in Tehran post-2004 to facilitate their power-grab, it is unlikely that they would have perused any sort of policy in Iraq if they were weren't acting with the Supreme Leader's consent. Indeed, it's unlikely that they could do so without the consent of the National Security Council, which broadly represents the major factional players in Tehran.

9. Besides the EFPs it seemed like the main thing that Iran was providing to Iraqi militias were small arms. Why do you think Iran only provided light weapons instead of more sophisticated and deadlier devices?

This illustrates the political calculus described above. One of Tehran's motivations was to keep the U.S. off-balance by tying them down and sapping Washington's political capital. Thus we get weapons like EFPs, rockets, and mortars, which are especially useful in harassing attacks against high-tech and heavily armored adversaries like the U.S.

This was tempered by Tehran's need to remain anonymous, which is likely why we didn't see weapons from Iran in any truly decisive amount or quality. Man-portable-air-defense-systems (MANPADS), of which Iran has numerous examples are emblematic of the type of weapons Iran could have supplied that would have had a significant operational effect, yet did not appear beyond a handful, because of what I suspect, were concerns over remaining anonymous.

Another reason we didn't see unrestricted support is because of Iran's balancing game between military and political engagement. Tehran didn't actually want to see anti-government forces triumph. That would have risked their long-term investment in Baghdad. They just needed to be able to supply enough to keep pressure on the government. This held particularly true as Iran began to shift their support to the Special Groups, which acted autonomously and were notoriously difficult for Iran to control.

10. Overall, what was Tehran’s motivation in providing weapons to Iraq?

I believe Tehran's decision-making can be evaluated through the lens of security politics. At the highest level, Iran wants to prevent the rise of another hostile threat to its territorial integrity on its western border. 

Operationally, this has translated into a strategy of broadly shaping the nature of post-Saddam Iraq, the long game.

Preventing the rise of a hostile rival requires ensuring they never have the ability, or inclination to threaten Iran in the first place. Iran's investments in exiled political groups that were brought into the fold post-2003 has paid off in spades as the emerging Baghdad government, and population at large, came to view them as a valued ally rather than security threat. This also means ensuring that Iran's perpetual source of fear, the U.S., remains unable to threaten Iran from bases in Iraq.

This strategy alone, attempting to win over an empowered, stable Iraq by attraction, carries with it a significant risk. No matter how much Baghdad and Tehran may profess to be committed to regional cooperation, both parties will always be aware, if only in the back of their minds, that they can never be certain the other won't suffer some change of government in the future, or otherwise shift away from this temporary period of friendship. Tehran wants to be sure that if this ever happens in Baghdad, they won't be in a position to pose a threat to Iran. In other words, Iran is committed to preventing the rise of a strong, highly centralized Iraq.

This, I believe, is ultimately why Iran supported armed anti-government activity, it helped prevent the rise of a Baghdad government able to wield threatening amounts of power, and all power is threatening. Dividing support between a wide multitude of actors gave Iran strategic flexibility by preventing any one pole of power from developing in Baghdad. For instance, helping to ensure that Sadr could control vast swaths of the south pre-2008 essentially kept the government hobbled.

It's almost eerie the degree to which this resembles the way Tehran's political environment: carefully managed competition between different factions prevents the rise of any one powerful actor that could dominate the system, and exercise independent policy. I'm not sure what the connection, if any, might be behind this correlation, but it's worth thinking about.

Second, the escalation in violence post-2003 destabilized Iraq in every sense of the word. It may seem self-evident to point this out, but it sapped the Bush administration's campaign of revolutionary regime change that might not have stopped with Iraq otherwise. They may be playing the long game in Iraq, but in the short term Tehran was determined to prevent the U.S. from using Iraq as a launching pad into Iran.

It's going to be really interesting to see what happens with Iran's relationship with Maliki over the next couple years. His increasing attempts at consolidating power may be temporarily attractive for Iran since he's their horse, but they may pay for it in the long run by helping to create another Baghdad autocrat. This may be helpful to the U.S. in the long run since geostrategic competition between Iran and Iraq, like in nature and in markets, is inevitable. Any strong, assertive leadership in Baghdad would inevitably lock horns with Tehran at some point, helping to check Iran's ambitions of regional hegemony. This might be something of a Pyrrhic victory though since the most desirable end state is a return to something like the pre-2003 status quo.


Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “U.S. says Iraqi militiamen being trained in Iran,” Associated Press, 4/11/07

Felter, Joseph Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq Politics and “Other Means,”” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08

Kramer, Andrew, “Iraqi Premier May Discuss Allegations in Iran Visit,” New York Times, 6/3/08

Wright, Galen, “Iraq – Iranian Arms Interdicted,” The Arkenstone, 7/1/10


Anonymous said...

This subject old and obsolete.

What you should write about A History of Iranian Weapons Shipments to Syrian regime and very close relations isn't more important to you/US today than ever?

Joel Wing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is an excellent piece. I did a lot of weapons int on the projectiles (107mm, 122mm, 240mm, mortar rounds) back in 2011 but - weirdly - Jane's redacted a bunch of it from the submitted copy.

One point that I would slightly push back on: the EFPs were regularly tracked entering Iraq from Iran on small boats and 4x4s, right up to their hides, and then onwards to operational cells. A lot of the data was as close to definitive as you can get but was not released for political and operational security reasons. At some points we did not want to provide smoking gun evidence, partic as nuclear negotiations loomed or as withdrawal from Iraq beckoned.

Interesting to see EFPs still leaking out of hides and being used: one device was used in an intimidation attack the other day in Suq ash-Shuyukh, the old smuggler town in the marshes near Nasiriyah, a notorious den of Badr/AAH/Kataib Hezb EFP distributors and trigger men.

I am glad the naysayers from back then have been proven totally wrong. Knowingly exaggerating the risk of WMD in Iraq was wrong: knowingly downplaying the Iranian role in Iraq, partic the EFPs, was also wrong.

Michael Knights

Joel Wing said...

I think there was a lot of knee jerk reactions to the reports about Iran's role in Iraq by opponents of the war. After the failure to turn up WMD a lot of people just assumed that everything the American government said about Iraq was a lie. Plus there was the assumption that the U.S. wanted to invade Iran next, so all the stories about Iranian backed Special Groups, etc. was rejected.