The activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been overshadowed by the attention given to the Iranian nuclear program. However, for the last several decades the IRGC has been heavily involved in a highly coordinated campaign of covert operations that function not just in the Middle East but span the globe.
The Government of Iran uses the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and IRGC-QF to implement its foreign policy goals, including, but not limited to, seemingly legitimate activities that provide cover for intelligence operations and support to terrorist and insurgent groups. The IRGC-QF provides material, logistical assistance, training, and financial support to militants and terrorist operatives throughout the Middle East and South Asia. These activities include economic investment, reconstruction, and other types of aid to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon implemented by companies and institutions that act for, on behalf of, or are owned or controlled by the IRGC and the Iranian government.
Iran also uses the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force – and state-run social service organizations ─ to support terrorism under the guise of providing reconstruction and economic development assistance or social services. Iran's support for terrorism and terrorist organizations, including Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), and the Taliban. Iran is the primary funder of Hizballah and has long been recognized as the most active state sponsor of terrorism (treasury.gov/tg810.aspx).
Two years after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini established the “Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in the World,” led by Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, who was entrusted with the role of creating a movement to establish radical Islamic states throughout the world based on the revolutionary template of Iran.28. With the cooperation of Syria, Iran established the Shaykh Abdallah Barracks of the Pasdaran, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, in the Baqa’a Valley to extend its influence over the Shi`i population of Lebanon. During the early 1980s, the Pasdaran committed as many as 2,000 of its Revolutionary Guards at its headquarters at Baalbek in southern Lebanon to assist in forming and training Hizballah.
According to its own official budget, during the mid-1990s Iran was reported to have devoted $500 million to supporting radical Islamic organizations that were sympathetic to its cause throughout the world. It was also reported to have established a network of terrorist cells that are “located in at least twenty states, including the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Pakistan.
More recently, Iran is reported to have organized Hizballah cells in Azerbaijani territory bordering on Iran. A council of fifteen inﬂuential Azerbaijani religious ﬁgures is said to organize the activities of the cells, whose responsibilities include forming “an army of God” to operate in Azerbaijan. One of the council members has also arranged for young Azerbaijanis to study at Iranian theological seminaries. In 2001, the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry arrested a group of individuals suspected of having contact with Hizballah in Calilabad. Through the IRGC and its subsidiary Hizballah Iran has extended its terror connections beyond the Middle East and the Islamic world.
In an effort to gain allies in its war against the West, during the early 1980s, the Iranian government and Hizballah made an effort to provide ﬁnancial assistance to Sinn Fein, the political section of the Irish Republican Army. Hadi Ghaffari, the president of Hizballah and the Iranian minister tasked with cooperating with the Hizballah movement in Lebanon,93 began to travel to Belfast, Ireland, in order to initiate contacts between his government and the Irish Republican Army. On one occasion, Ghaffari hosted members of Sinn Fein at a luncheon. To demonstrate his support for the IRA, Ghaffari told a 1980 rally in Tehran, “We are ready to blow up British factories and ships.”
In June 1982, IRA leaders secretly ﬂew to Tehran to attend the Conference of World Movements, an international conference of leading figures of international terrorist organizations including Hizballah, the Abu Nidal organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, the Japanese Red Army, and ETA, the Basque separatist organization. At Fayruzi Palace in Tehran, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Muhsin Reza’i, met the leaders of the organizations.
The agenda of the conference was a plan by Iran to fund and arm a new “terrorist international” in exchange for the organizations’ making a commitment to launch attacks against Western targets in Europe to make them pay a price for supporting U.S. policies in the Middle East. In return, the Iranians sent an ofﬁcial delegation to Sinn Fein’s annual conference in Dublin (web.archive.org/ ). The IRGC’s activities are not operated entirely through proxies.
In 2016 it was noted that more than 300 members and officials of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran were assassinated outside of Iran by Iran's special Intelligence teams within a few years after the Iran -Iraq war ended. Two leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party, Dr. Abdol Rahman Ghassemlou and Sadegh Sharafkandi, along with other members and officials of the party, were killed by the Iranian regime in Austria and Germany.
Although Iran later pledged to the European Union it would stop the assassinations of Iranian dissidents in Europe, the news agency notes that history has shown that in order to achieve its goals, the Islamic Republic often does not abide by its international obligations (clarionproject.org/).
On 2 October 2018, France accused Iran of plotting a terrorist attack on its soil. The alleged attempt was to bomb a People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK) rally in Paris – an organization comprised of Iranian opposition with a four-decade-long history of armed struggle and attacks within Iran. An Iranian-Belgian couple carrying an explosive device and materials was arrested in Belgium, followed by arrests of a number of Iranians in France and Germany – including an Iranian diplomat.
On 31 October 2018, Denmark accused Tehran of plotting an assassination against an opposition leader on its soil. Denmark’s intelligence service said the agency believed that Iran “was planning an attack in Denmark” against three activists – members of the separatist Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of al-Ahwaz (ASMLA) (fanack.com/).
In January of 2019 Iran was accused by the Dutch government of directing two political assassinations in the Netherlands. The two murders are alleged to have taken place in broad daylight in 2015 in Almere, a city east of Amsterdam, and in 2017 on a street close to the Dutch foreign ministry in The Hague (theguardian.comiran-behind-two-assassinations-in-netherlands-minister).
In May 2019 U.S officials accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of being directly responsible for attacks on tankers off the United Arab Emirates in what could be a foreshadowing of the conclusion of ongoing investigations into the incident (gulfnews.com/iran-directly-behind-tanker-attacks-off-uae-coast-us-says-1.64179304). Since the beginning of the Iraq insurgency, the activities of Iran have been widely known in regard to its support of Shia militias.
In the aftermath of the Iraq war and the fall of Saddam, Iran feared an easy victory so close to their borders. If Iraq became a stable democracy, it would leave the remaining American forces in the country available to divert their resources towards Iran. In an effort to curtail this, Iran conceived the idea that destabilizing Iraq with a strategy of supporting a vast insurgency movement and force the U.S. to direct its resources to combat it. The IRGC imported many weapons and trained numerous insurgents in the use of more sophisticated explosives and traps, particularly explosively formed penetrator (EFPs), that was shipped into Iraq by Iranian intelligence (O’hern, 2008). However, Iran’s insurgency strategy has been far more intricate than simply supporting Shia militias.
In his writings, noted strategic analyst H. John Poole asserts that some of the early Sunni insurgency was actually orchestrated by the IRGC. When discussing noted Sunni terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one-time Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan accused him of cooperating with Iran. The assumption was that either al-Qaeda and Iranian intelligence were coordinating battlefield operations in Iraq or, far from being the head of an al-Qaeda faction in Iraq, Zarqawi was in actuality an Iranian operative.
In late 2004 there was evidence that Iran had been contributing fighters to the Fallujah violence. Brig. Sarkout Hassan Jalal, Sulaimanyah security director, noted that insurgents were being smuggled into Iraq from Iran and then driven to Fallujah. In addition, evidence suggested there were numerous recruits pouring into Fallujah from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. It’s been proven that Hezbollah played a bigger role in the insurgency of Fallujah than did al-Qaeda.
During this time a series of high-profile assassinations were carried out against Sunni leaders which served to further alienate the Sunni community from the greater political system and cause them to boycott upcoming elections. These assassinations were likely the work of Shiite militants and possibly directed by IRGC (Poole, 2005). The IRGC mission has played a bigger role in other global conflicts.
Iran was the main arms supplier to the Bosnian Muslim military forces during the 1992-1995 civil war, in violation of the United Nations arms embargo. Iran supplied two-thirds of the total weapons and ammunition received by the Bosnian Muslim forces during the 1992-95 civil war. From May 1994 to January 1996, Iran transported over 5,000 tons of weapons and military equipment to Bosnia.
Iran sent to Bosnia members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Pasdaran, 2,000 by 1995, Â who supervised the illegal arms shipments and who were incorporated into the Bosnian Muslim Army of Alija Izetbegovic, who made official state visits to Tehran in 1992 and 1993 to secure Iranian arms shipments and military and diplomatic support.
The Iranian Intelligence Agency (VEVAK) established branches and infrastructure in Bosnia. VEVAK had established links to Alija Izetbegovic’s radical, militant, and ultra-nationalist Islamic SDA party before the civil war started in 1992. Once the war started, VEVAK strengthened and expanded its ties to the Bosnian Muslim political leadership and the Bosnian Muslim secret police apparatus. Mohammed Taherian, Â, a top Iranian intelligence agent who had armed the Taliban and was suspected of arming Shiite guerrillas, was sent to Sarajevo as the Iranian Ambassador to Bosnia. Taherian had been the former Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan. This ultimately worked to make Iran stronger and which increased Iranian influence in Europe (serbianna.com/56).
Iran has had a presence in Latin America for decades. However, its role in the region expanded and intensified after Hugo Chavez took the reins of the Venezuelan state in 1999. As such, the alliance between Venezuela and Iran has strong foundations. Hezbollah, the Iranian backed paramilitary, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have also established a presence in the region, training “soldiers of the revolution” in Venezuelan camps, and even helping to design and build the ALBA school, a military training camp in Bolivia. The school’s main purpose is to ideologically indoctrinate soldiers and strengthen the bonds between the armed forces and the new Latin American revolutions. The revolution promoted a civic-military alliance, a situation that has enabled the regime to survive. Venezuela’s own Vice President, Tarek Al Aissami, has been a key liaison between Venezuela and Iran.
Currently, Iran has a presence in 12 countries in the region including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Uruguay. Iran has sought to increase political alliances in the region for which Venezuela and its allies provided a great opportunity. It also sought a strategic position in the region to increase deterring capabilities against the U.S. Additionally, Iran has aspired to reach out to the Muslim community in Latin America.
Indeed, Iran has established a number of networks in the region with mosques and even a TV channel (HispanTV) in Spanish. (HispanTV has given wide coverage to groups that promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories). Iran also sought to use Latin American countries, particularly Venezuelan banks, to curb the effect of international sanctions. Venezuela issued passports to Iranians and Hezbollah members to facilitate their free travel around the region and the world. Likewise, several Caribbean countries that allied with Chavez established dangerous liaisons with Iran.
Guyana signed an agreement with Iran in which Iran would map Guyana’s mineral resources, including uranium. Dominica signed an agreement with Iran that enabled citizens of Iran, parts of the Middle East, and Central Asia to obtain a second citizenship and a passport. The islands of St. Kitts and Nevis have also sold passports to Iranians.
In 2007, a Hezbollah member stationed in Guyana attempted to carry out a terrorist attack at Kennedy Airport. Likewise, in 2011 Iran tried to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. Furthermore, sophisticated tunnels built along the U.S.-Mexican border have been designed in the image of the tunnels found along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Intelligence officials have raised the possibility that Hezbollah has been enlisted by drug cartels to design and improve the tunnels along America’s southern border (centerforsecuritypolicy.org/). In addition to an extensive covert campaign, the IRGC has managed to run a successful intelligence penetration of the U.S. intelligence community.
Monica Elfriede Witt, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence specialist, has been charged with espionage on behalf of Iran in an indictment that also charges four Iranians with a cyber campaign targeting U.S. intelligence personnel. She is wanted for her alleged involvement in criminal activities to include espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage.
On February 8, 2019, a grand jury in the United States District Court, District of Columbia, indicted Witt and a federal arrest warrant was issued for her after she was charged with Conspiracy to Deliver National Defense Information to Representatives of a Foreign Government and Delivering National Defense Information to Representatives of a Foreign Government, specifically the Government of Iran (fbi.gov/monica-elfriede-witt). She is alleged to have revealed to Iran the existence of a highly classified intelligence collection program and the true identity of a U.S intelligence officer. She is currently still at large and suspected of being harbored by the Iranian government (Eye Spy).
The IRGC represents an important factor to Iran’s military strategy. The covert campaigns it has orchestrated throughout the world has allowed the Iranian regime a means to expand its influence without having to risk a direct confrontation with its enemies such as the United States.
The world is currently focused on Iran’s nuclear weapons development and what type of threat a weaponized Iran could be. However, even if Iran were to develop an arsenal, it is unlikely they would use it as any part of an overt military action. Instead, Iran will continue to pursue an indirect campaign as their means of operating militarily in the world and avoid any direct confrontation with stronger powers such as the U.S.
It will also continue to quietly expand its influence in the world with the IRGC reaching out to Islamic communities and working to support organizations and nation-states that have mutual security interests particularly against the United States. The U.S. needs to recognize that they are in a new cold war scenario and the threat of such groups as al-Qaeda and ISIS have long overshadowed the graver terror threats posed by the IRGC and its subsidiary Hizballah.
U.S. traitor identified: Iran penetration of U.S cyber networks continues, Eye Spy Magazine No. 120, 2019 p, 19.
Poole, H. John, Militant Tricks: Battlefield rules for the Islamic Insurgent. Posterity Press, Emerald Isle, NC, 2005.
O’hern, Steven K. The Intelligence Wars: Lessons from Baghdad.
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2008.
In the last few years, China has showed a serious signs of expanding its interest into central and southern Asia. This is a large part of their modern security strategy. Their concern is that Afghanistan will become a stronghold for Islamic separatists threatening their western regions (Eden, 2018). China’s greatest fears and motivation all center on unrest and a perceived threat to overall national security arising out of Xinjiang. The traditionally Muslim-majority province has been a source of pronounced concern for Beijing for decades (thediplomat.com/).
For Beijing, instability in Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular is a matter of concern. It is seen to have a “direct influence” on the security of China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is known to have bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Beijing has been apprehensive over ETIM fighters and other jihadists entering Xinjiang through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to radicalize Uyghurs or carry out attacks in China (thediplomat.com/).
Badakhshan, an Afghan province in the far eastern part of the country is of particular interest. The government is worried this region will become a safe haven for Uyghur terrorists who are the primary threat in the western region (Eden, 2018). Along the 76-kilometre border between Afghanistan and China, a massive gorge is located on the Chinese side, where Chinese Muslims live, who are closely watched by the Chinese authorities. During the rule of the Taliban, large groups of Chinese Uyghurs were seen among foreign militants under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They had obviously received good military training in the Al-Qaeda camps. Today many are still active now, and not only in the ranks of the Taliban. Many have blended among different groups of foreign mercenaries, which could create great problems for the Chinese authorities. China, with the help of the army and law enforcement agencies in Afghanistan, has been trying to prevent the penetration of Uyghur militants into its territory, most of which have so far joined the IS. Law enforcers assume that that the largest group of Uyghur militants already reside in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and can make a rapid shift to China (enews.fergananews.com/).
The Chinese government has for decades tried to push back against a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region. The government crackdown increased in recent years because of the rise of the Islamic State and fears of expansion by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which China accuses of being behind several terrorist attacks in the country (www.aopnews.com/human-rights/).
The Afghan delegation, led by Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, visited China during which the parties agreed to build the base. Tariq Shah, with his Chinese colleague General Chang Wanquan and other military officials, discussed security issues and agreed to cooperate on fighting terrorism in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and the entire northern region. The agreement has specified that the Chinese side covers all material and technical expenses for this base: weaponry, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment and everything else necessary for its functioning (enews.fergananews.com/).
China has promised to provide $85 million for the Afghan army to create a mountainous brigade for the protection of the Badakhshan border (ariananews.af/).
The Afghan Defence Ministry said that preparations for the start of construction of a military base in Badakhshan by Afghan military experts has already begun. A special commission established will determine the location of the base, construction costs, and other technical issues (enews.fergananews.com/).
In a formal briefing by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, a brief explanation was given:
"According to the information provided by relevant departments, the law-enforcement departments of China and Afghanistan, in accordance with the agreement of strengthening border law enforcement cooperation between the two sides, have been conducting joint law enforcement operations in areas bordering both countries in recent years, in order to jointly prevent and fight against terrorism activities and organized transnational crimes. I’d like to point out that the report of some foreign media that the Chinese military vehicles entered Afghanistan for patrol is untrue."
Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied media reports stating that Beijing was constructing a military base in Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Though newspapers have reported citing sources that China had started building a training camp for Afghan servicemen to support Afghanistan’s counterterrorism efforts (www.aopnews.com/china-afghanistan-relations/).
Afghans consider China to be their traditional friends and trustworthy neighbors; ones which have increasingly proven to share their wisdom and wealth with others, who need them the most. The trilateral dialogue was a manifestation of China’s ongoing efforts to build confidence, friendship, and consensus among its neighbors for the pursuit of win-win goals against an entrenched zero-sum mentality, moving toward a shared future of sustainable peace, security, and stability throughout the region (thediplomat.com/). China has had a long history with Afghanistan going back to the cold war.
The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union prompted an international response to support the indigenous Mujahideen groups that formed to fight the Soviets. Chief among the nations supplying money and arms by 1980 were the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, secretly, the U.K. In 1980, China would, incredibly, receive military support from the United States to combat the threat from both the Soviet Union and Afghan Communists. Over the next several years, China would train anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahideen forces, and provide millions of dollars of weaponry to them (thediplomat.com/). And, it has continued to play a significant role.
It was in early 2015 that China began facilitating talks between the Ghani government and the Taliban. However, the efforts made little progress, partly because of deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on account of continuing Taliban attacks in Kabul. Recognizing that its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table would make no progress so long as Pakistan and Afghanistan remained at loggerheads, China set out to bring Pakistan into its peace efforts. Beijing engaged in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Islamabad and Kabul to put in place a trilateral crisis management mechanism. In December 2017, Beijing hosted trilateral talks where the three countries called on the Taliban to join the process. (thediplomat.com/).
From the Afghan perspective, the security threats that contribute to increased instability in the region also extend to the rest of the world, because they emanate from a dangerous nexus of violent extremism by transnational terrorist networks (TTNs), organized crime by transnational criminal networks (TCNs), as well as state sponsorship of terrorism. Indeed, the symbiotic relationships among these lethal networks of terror and crime involve mutual benefits in the form of facilities and capabilities like protection, logistics, financing, training, arms, intelligence, and safe havens.
In the Afghan case, these enable the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to destabilize Afghanistan. And the ensuing regional instability has provided an enabling, operational environment for such terrorist networks as al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and others to launch targeted terrorist attacks in the region and beyond (thediplomat.com/). Security is not Chinas only interest in the country.
China signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations with Kabul in 2006. Two years later, Chinese companies won a $3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Logar province. An unstable Afghanistan could derail China’s economic ambitions. Success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor hinges on a stable neighborhood, which in turn depends on a stable Afghanistan. China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor today. It is interested mainly in resource extraction and infrastructure building. It has started extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan. In the telecommunications sector, China’s role has grown from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic links in 2017. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets (thediplomat.com/). Though China’s activities have been towards the goal of stability it has also created complications.
Because China shares no direct border with Afghanistan it has had to work through intermediate countries to develop it supply network. Doing so they have had to cultivate relations with countries like Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic that separates Afghanistan and China. It has spent that last several years cultivating relations with the country to include building a series of military posts along the border, helping train Tajik troops and taking part in joint training exercises. This has created strife with the Russians, who still consider all their old Central Asian republics their territory. It is assumed that this is steadily leading to an escalation competition for influence in the region. To this effect it is presumed that the Russians may be trying to undermine China’s efforts at expansion in the region by supplying weapons to the Taliban (Eden, 2018). China’s economic development strategy has also met with poor results.
China’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan have not gone well. The Mes Aynak project, for example, has failed to take off largely because of the poor security situation in the country. A railway line linking China’s Jiangsu province and the Afghan rail port of Hairatan, which would have reduced travel time and costs substantially, runs empty from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan on its return route, as Afghanistan’s production of goods for export remains low. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets. But road and rail lines built under the BRI could suffer the same fate as the Jiangsu-Hairatan railway line: crippled by Afghanistan’s low export capacity (thediplomat.com/).
Conclusion: The future of China’s role in Afghanistan will be continuous but limited. It will seek to maintain influence with the national government in Kabul through its connections with Pakistan and sizeable economic investments there. However, having witnessed the decade long campaign that left the U.S bogged down in the country, China will limit any military involvement solely to the regions they feel most threatened by. The level of military involvement has yet to be fully understood. It is likely that it will change over time based on the circumstances in the western regions of their own country.
China should not be looked at as a potential partner for stabilizing the region. The investments and development projects have been more towards creating a viable trading partner than being a stabilizing force. They have no interest in doing any more than what is either economically advantageous or tied directly to their immediate security. While China is seeking to build itself into a dominate force in the region and develop viable security it also fears becoming bogged down in a costly military excursion such as what the U.S recently endured. They also step lightly dealing with the Russians who see themselves as the reigning power in Central Asia. That said, they will, while treading lightly, pick their battles not just in Afghanistan but in Central Asia. They will also work heavily, through soft power, to influence governments and trying to develop proxies they can use to enhance their position.
Eden, Steve, Badakhstan Converging Tensions, Modern War Magazine, issue 37 September-October 2018.