Between (roughly) 1970 and 1990, Lebanon was engulfed in a deadly and chaotic civil war. Political factions — usually armed — sprang into existence continually. Before long, Lebanon was awash in sectarian militias defined by geography, religion, ethnicity, class, and foreign sponsorship. Throughout this conflict, virtually every group aligned itself with and eventually betrayed every other. In the end, nearly 100,000 civilians perished, 900,000 were left homeless, and the Lebanese national government was destroyed.
Between 1982 and 1984, President Reagan sent 1,800 Marines into Lebanon as part of a U.N.-sponsored multinational peacekeeping force. France, Italy, and Britain also sent soldiers. Iran eyed this apparent invasion of a largely Muslim state with increasing interest. Some time earlier, Iran had begun to supply a Lebanese Shiite militia known as Hezbollah. By 1983, Hezbollah had become an Iranian proxy army, funded and supplied exclusively by Iran. (Iran is predominantly Shiite.)
On October 23, 1983, a truck bomb exploded in Beirut, killing 241 American Marines. The entire operation — including a simultaneous attack on a French barracks — was planned in Damascus by the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, and coordinated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC, a branch of the Iranian military) from their headquarters in Lebanon's Bekka Valley. The attack's staff commander was General Mohsen Rafiq-Doust, head of the IRGC; the field commander was a Lebanese-born IRGC officer named Imad Fayez Mugniyeh. The bomb was constructed by a Lebanese or Palestinian Hezbollah agent. The truck was driven by an Iranian, who died in the explosion.
The French lost 58 soldiers. In order to punish Iran, France sent fighter-bombers to destroy the IRGC compound in the Bekka Valley. Initially, President Reagan agreed to join in the attack. At the last minute — while the French jets were already on their way — Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger cancelled the American strike. When Weinberger was asked why he had cancelled the strike he replied, "... it was hard to locate who had done it out of all the different groups. The president didn't want some kind of carpet bombing that would kill a lot of innocent civilians. There were so many groups, and not all of them were responsible to the government of Iran. All we knew was that they were united in their hatred of America."
On February 7, 1984, largely because of the Marine barracks bombing, President Reagan ordered the withdrawal of all United States peacekeeping forces.
Nineteen years later, in May 2003, a United States District Court convicted the government of Iran of murdering the American Marines. Key to the decision was a message from Iranian intelligence headquarters in Tehran to Mohtashemi; a message that had been intercepted by American security agents. As paraphrased by U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, "The message directed the Iranian ambassador to contact Hussein Musawi, the leader of the terrorist group Islamic Amal, and to instruct him ... 'to take a spectacular action against the United States Marines.'" Like Hezbollah, Amal was a Shiite militia. It is unclear why Mohtashemi worked with Hezbollah rather than Amal. In the fluid world of Lebanese politics, it is possible that some of the conspirators were members of both groups.
It is important for you to understand the barracks bombing because it set the pattern for all future assaults by Iran upon America. For example, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military residence in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was almost a carbon copy of the Marine barracks bombing. So is the current conflict in Iraq, which is largely being driven by Iran. (However, in other attacks, only some of the features of the Beirut model were evident.) In order to show you this pattern, I will again resort to a list:
1. A uniformed branch of the Iranian military attacked a uniformed branch of ours.
The bombing of the Marines barracks was a clear-cut act of war; if we use the term army in a generic sense, then an Iranian army attacked an American army: the Iranian army was the IRGC; the American army was the United States Marines Corps. It matters little that only one Iranian combatant was killed, and that he was not, himself, an official member of the IRGC. He was a human weapon every bit as deadly as an IRGC missile.
2. From inception to conclusion, the bombing was exclusively an Iranian project.
Let's review the cast of characters, both persons and organizations:
• The attack was ordered by the Iranian government in Tehran.
• The order was sent to the Iranian ambassador to Syria.
• The attack was planned and coordinated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
• The staff commander was the head of Iran's IRGC.
• The field commander, Imad Fayez Mugniyeh, is an Iranian citizen. His home is in Qom, Iran. He is an officer in the Qods Force of the IRGC. He is also considered a member of Hezbollah.
• The bomb's creator was a Hezbollah agent. Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy army.
• The truck driver was an Iranian.
3. The Iranians used proxies to mask their involvement.
In the Middle East, important matters are usually handled through intermediaries: marriages are arranged by matchmakers; oil contracts are bartered by middlemen. Iran has turned this time-honored tradition into a deadly weapon, for one of its key features is plausible deniability. Without a direct link between the killers and the Iranian government, an attack coordinated by the IRGC can easily be dismissed as a generic act of terrorism by unknown Muslim extremists. In the Beirut bombing, Iran used countries, organizations, and individuals as proxies:
• Syria acted as an Iranian satellite nation.
• Islamic Amal and Hezbollah acted as Iranian militias.
• The bomb builder and the truck driver acted as Iranian soldiers.
This technique of indirection was both simple and effective. Neither the Reagan Administration nor the worldwide press publicly condemned Iran for the attack. It took 20 years for an American civil court to convict the Iranians. In the interim, Iran used the world's confusion as a screen to build itself into a military powerhouse unimpeded.
4. The Iranians were hidden in the noise.
By 1983, there were at least 24 militias and armed political parties in Lebanon. Amid all this noise, it was easy for Iran to hide its operations and intentions. Today, Iran is pursuing the same subterfuge in Iraq.
5. The Iranians used a suicide truck bomb.
From Iran's perspective, this innovation was their most successful stratagem:
• By using a truck, the Iranians were able to transport a large amount of explosives to the attack site without attracting attention or arousing suspicion.
• By using a bomb, the Iranians effectively destroyed all evidence that could implicate them in the attack. Furthermore, an explosion makes a powerful political statement: it broadcasts to the worldwide press undeniable evidence of the enemy's vulnerability and incompetence, while building up the attacker's status throughout the Muslim world.
• By using an agent who was willing to commit suicide, the Iranians eliminated the one witness who could most readily identify Iran as the culprit.
By combining all three elements, the Iranians created an ideal weapon for urban insurgency:
• The explosion could be sized, timed, and delivered with great precision. Yet the driver could maintain complete control of the attack up until the final moment.
• To the uninformed, a suicide attack with a truck bomb immediately suggested that the culprits were fanatical terrorists. But in truth, terrorism was no longer exclusively the province of marginal political militias; Iran had turned it into an instrument of state policy.
The world was slow to realize the significance of the suicide aspect of the bombing. Previously, Muslim extremists had used violence and the threat of violence as a prelude to negotiation. Both sides understood that the extremists wanted to survive the encounter, and acted accordingly with restraint. Suicide completely changed the dynamics of terrorism; if the attackers are intent on dying, no negotiation is possible.
As we will see in a later posting, martyrdom is an essential part of the Iranian Shiite national character. Sunnis, in contrast, usually eschew suicide. As a general guideline, suicide attacks perpetrated by Muslims are almost always the work of Iran.
6. The attack advanced the geopolitical ambitions of Iran.
World powers have spheres of influence. The United States, for instance, considers all of North and South America to be part of its military, political, and economic domain. Iran, too, wants to be a world power. Iran wants its sphere of influence to include:
• The Gulf states: Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
• The Palestinian Authority and Israel.
In order to dominate these other nations, Iran must purge them of Western influence. In particular, it must chase the United States military out of the Middle East. The Marine barracks bombing was the first salvo in this undeclared war upon America. From Iran's perspective, the attack was a huge success. More ominously, President Reagan's retreat in 1984 began to convince the Iranians that America had no stomach for a real fight. Unfortunately for us, as we will see, our government has consistently reinforced this view ever since.
7. The attack was backed by petrodollars from Iranian oil.
This final feature of the Marine barracks bombing was not evident in 1983. Only the perspective of history allows us to see Iranian oil wealth as the substrate upon which Iranian geopolitical power is built. From an American perspective, the Marine barracks attack seemed like an inexpensive venture. But in fact, it had taken Iran four years and billions of dollars to build the IRGC into a formidable clandestine army with diplomatic contacts and support throughout the Middle East.
The Iranian Attack Model
This, then, became the template for all future Iranian attacks upon America. It is important for you to remember its seven main features, for you will see them often in what follows. More importantly, armed with this knowledge about how Iran operates, you will be better able to make informed decisions about what we should do about Iran. Here is a summary of the model, which from now on we will call, the Iranian Attack Model:
1. The chief instrument of Iranian geopolitics is the IRGC, a uniformed branch of the Iranian military.
2. Iranian acts of aggression are carefully planned and executed, from beginning to end, by Iranian citizens working for the Iranian government.
3. The final phase of each attack, however, is carried out by proxies who may or may not be Iranian citizens.
4. The Iranians hide their culpability by attacking where non-Iranian radical groups can easily be blamed.
5. The Iranians' weapon of choice is a suicide truck or car bomb.
6. Each attack advances the geopolitical ambitions of Iran.
7. Each attack is funded by Iranian petrodollars.
If we expand the list of weapons in Item 5 to include commercial passenger jets, we have a model that could easily apply to the attacks of September 11, 2001. For now, however, this is too big a leap. Let us move next, instead, to the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996. As we will see, the Khobar Towers attack conformed closely to the Iranian Model.