Iran is increasing its paramilitary Qods force operatives in Venezuela while covertly continuing supplies of weapons and explosives to Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Pentagon's first report to Congress on Tehran's military.
The report on Iranian military power provides new details on the group known formally as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), the Islamist shock troops deployed around the world to advance Iranian interests. The unit is aligned with terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, North Africa and Latin America, and the report warns that U.S. forces are likely to battle the Iranian paramilitaries in the future.
The Qods force "maintains operational capabilities around the world," the report says, adding that "it is well established in the Middle East and North Africa and recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela."
"If U.S. involvement in conflict in these regions deepens, contact with the IRGC-QF, directly or through extremist groups it supports, will be more frequent and consequential," the report says.
The report provides the first warning in an official U.S. government report about Iranian paramilitary activities in the Western Hemisphere. It also highlights links between Iran and the anti-U.S. government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been accused of backing Marxist terrorists in Colombia.
The report gives no details on the activities of the Iranians in Venezuela and Latin America. Iranian-backed terrorists have conducted few attacks in the region. However, U.S. intelligence officials say Qods operatives are developing networks of terrorists in the region who could be called to attack the United States in the event of a conflict over Iran's nuclear program.
Qods force support for extremists includes providing arms, funding and paramilitary training and is not constrained by Islamist ideology. "Many of the groups it supports do not share, and sometimes openly oppose, Iranian revolutionary principles, but Iran supports them because they share common interests or enemies," the report says.
Qods force commandos are posted in Iranian embassies, charities and religious and cultural institutions that support Shi'ite Muslims. While providing some humanitarian support, Qods forces also engage in "paramilitary operations to support extremists and destabilize unfriendly regimes," the report says.
The report links Qods force operatives and the larger IRGC to some of the deadliest terrorist attacks of the past 30 years: the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, the bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina in 1994, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and many insurgent attacks in Iraq since 2003.
Qods forces in Afghanistan are working through nongovernmental organizations and political opposition groups, the report says. Tehran also is backing insurgent leaders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ismail Khan.
"Arms caches have been recently uncovered [in Afghanistan] with large amounts of Iranian-manufactured weapons, to include 107 millimeter rockets, which we assess IRGC-QF delivered to Afghan militants," the report says, noting that recent manufacture dates on the weapons suggest the support is "ongoing."
"Tehran's support to the Taliban is inconsistent with their historic enmity, but fits with Iran's strategy of backing many groups to ensure that it will have a positive relationship with the eventual leaders," the report says.
In Iraq, Qods forces are supporting terrorists through Iranian embassies. The report says the outgoing Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, is a member, as well as the new ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Danafar.
Iranian support for Shi'ite militants in Iraq has included the supply of armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles, as well as other homemade bombs, anti-aircraft weapons, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives.
The report says the elite Iranian fighters are controlled by Iran's government, despite efforts by the group to mask Tehran's control.
"Although its operations sometimes appear at odds with the public voice of the Iranian regime, it is not a rogue outfit," the report says. "It receives direction from the highest levels of the government and its leaders report directly, albeit informally, to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei," the report says.
Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said the report's identification of Qods force operatives in Venezuela is significant.
"The new information on an increased Qods Force presence in Venezuela … amplifies the warnings of some experts about an increasingly close, anti-U.S. relationship between Iran and the government of Hugo Chavez," Mr. Katzman said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently played down the growing Iranian influence in the Chavez government. Asked about Iran's ties to Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, Mr. Gates said, "I think it makes for interesting public relations on the part of the Iranians, the Venezuelans."
"I certainly don't see Venezuela at this point as a military challenge or threat," Mr. Gates said during a visit to the region.
The report also states that Iran could conduct a test of a long-range missile by 2015 and now has missiles that can strike all of Israel.
"Iran continues to develop a ballistic missile that can (reach) regional adversaries, Israel and central Europe, including Iranian claims of an extended range variant of the [620-mile-range] Shahab-3 and a [1,242-mile] medium-range ballistic missile, the Ashura," the report says.
The report notes that Iran has the largest missile force in the Middle East, with about 1,000 missiles with ranges of between 90 miles and 1,200 miles. The missile program was developed and expanded with extensive help from North Korea and China, the report says.
The missiles have grown in sophistication with increased accuracy, warhead lethality and advanced technology that includes solid propellent for quick launches and anti-missile-defense capabilities for warheads.
The report says Iran is developing its military forces with some asymmetric weapons, including armed unmanned aircraft and coastal anti-ship missiles that can hit targets throughout the Strait of Hormuz, where up to 40 percent of the world's crude oil passes.
Iran's military is growing but "would be relatively ineffective against a direct assault by well-trained, sophisticated military such as that of the United States or its allies," the report says.
However, Iranian special forces, like the Qods force, "would present a formidable force on Iranian territory," the report says.
The report provides no new details on Iran's covert nuclear program that was described as geared toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran's purchase of advanced Russian S-300 air defense missiles, which so far have not been delivered, are for use at nuclear sites, the report says.
The U.S. is leading a U.N. Security Council effort to sanction Iran for its presumed attempts to develop an atomic weapon in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
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