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Understand Why Iran Is Arming Iraqi Militias

The Bush administration is accusing the Iranian government of sending weapons to Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. More than a few Americans, remembering the intelligence debacle leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, are skeptical of the charges.

The skepticism is understandable, but I believe it is wrong. Equally wrong is discounting the reasons for Iran’s hostility, some of which we nurture. Sensible policy needs to start from recognizing not just the threats, but also the reasons for the threats.

For the 16 months I was in Iraq, from February 2004 to June 2005, I watched a steady increase in intelligence information about Iranian shipments of weapons into Iraq. I tended to disregard much of the human-source reporting; with a few exceptions, many sources had their own axes to grind. Nevertheless, the number of such reports, from a multiplicity of sources, increased steadily.

Information from more sensitive sources steadily multiplied the numbers of incidents and details. Of course, with a porous border between Iraq and Iran it was possible that some of the arms were sold privately, but there was an increasing body of evidence pointing to the Al Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as the source. They may operate without much restraint from other organs of government, but there is no disputing that they are a part of Iran’s official structure.

Additional evidence came to light in the fall of 2004, when the Iraqi government purchased back arms in Sadr City, a Shiite area of Baghdad. Many of the weapons collected were of Iranian manufacture. They were made before 1991, and as such did not provide clear proof of recent Iranian interference. The weapons, however, appeared to be nearly new, and it is unlikely that so many weapons had been in service for years.

Most Iraqi weapons I saw, whether belonging to soldiers or insurgents, were not well maintained. I came to the conclusion that the weapons were shipped out of Iranian government arsenals, with a keen eye for deniability. Since I left Iraq, I have continued to receive information — from friends at the professional level with no political motivation — on an increased Iranian effort to arm Iraqi militias, especially with shaped anti-vehicle explosives that tear through heavy armor.

I was similarly skeptical of reports of secret Iranian weapons shipments to Afghanistan when I assumed the ambassadorship to Kabul in 2005. Iran had been helpful in the initial post-Taliban political process, and had shown an understanding that the Taliban was a dangerous enemy of Shiites.

But the reports became so certain over time — I unfortunately cannot reveal the classified details — that I reversed my opinion. There is no doubt that official Iranian organizations have been sending light arms to the Taliban.

Much of the best evidence for Iranian complicity in both Iraq and Afghanistan was and remains highly classified. Because sensitive intelligence has been released in the past, there is a view that absent such proof, the charges must be fabricated.

But when we have revealed sensitive intelligence-collection methods, we have consistently seen sources change their methods in order to protect themselves. Make no mistake about it: The cost of revealing sources is measured in dead Americans.

I believe such evidence should be released only for overwhelmingly compelling reasons. Operating under such restrictions, it is doubtful if this or any administration could produce the kind of evidence that would convince those now skeptical of Washington’s allegations.

From the evidence I have seen, it is clear that Iranian weapons deliveries are helping to destabilize Iraq, although they are far from the leading cause. Indeed, there are a great many reasons why Iran would wish to ship weapons into Iraq.

Our bellicose rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear ambitions gives Tehran every reason to keep us tied down in Iraq. Iran probably wants to maintain close ties with Iraqi groups that it deems friendly to its interests and that are themselves determined to maintain their fighting abilities. And Iran would certainly prefer to maintain Shiite dominance in the Iraqi government.

In short, the causes of Iranian involvement in Iraq are more complex than blind hatred of the “Great Satan.” The challenge before us is likewise complex, and while the United States may need to respond, it needs to do so intelligently. We cannot afford to view Tehran’s involvement in Iraq as just another manifestation of perpetual Iranian threat, and we cannot afford to offer a one-dimensional response to the problem.

The same goes for Iranian involvement in Afghanistan. Unimpeachable reports have convinced me that Tehran is sending limited quantities of light weapons to Taliban fighters, but the supplies are much less than the amounts being sent into Iraq — and much less than Iran could be sending to Afghanistan. Just as the United States must seek to understand the reasons for Iran’s action, so, too, must we seek to understand its reasons for restraint.

Iran has had a pattern of reaching out to terrorist groups whenever the threat looms of armed confrontation with the United States. That may be the reason for limited arms shipments to Afghanistan: Tehran may want to deepen its ties to a potential tactical ally, without significantly strengthening the Taliban’s long-term threat to Iran. Whatever the reasons, Iranian policy in Afghanistan has clearly shifted, but it has not become nearly as confrontational as it has in Iraq.

Whether it is possible to frame an American approach that would meet Iranian concerns without conceding ground on too many of our own is uncertain. Talking to enemies need not mean giving into pressure, although opening a bilateral dialogue now might only confirm Iranian suspicions of our weakened diplomatic position. The threat may be clear, but responding to it with one-dimensional hostility only deepens the cycle of mutual danger.

Tehran’s problematic involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan does not lend itself to a simple solution — but whatever policy we pursue is more likely to be effective if it combines the willingness to react to real threats with a willingness to seek greater understanding of the reasons behind Iran’s actions.

Ronald Neumann served as American ambassador to Afghanistan until this past April. He previously served at the American embassy in Iraq as a counselor for political-military affairs and with the Coalition Provisional Authority.


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