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Iran: Expert Discusses Iran's Quds Force And U.S. Charges Concerning Iraq

February 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates has described as based on "hard fact" U.S. assertions that an elite branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps is training and arming Shi'ite extremists in neighboring Iraq. U.S. President George W. Bush recently accused Iran's Quds Force of supplying weapons, including armor-piercing bombs, that were used to kill U.S. soldiers. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari talks about the Quds Force and its alleged role in Iraq with Mahan Abedin, director of research at the London-based Center for the Study of Terrorism and editor of "Islamism Digest" journal.

RFE/RL: We hear a lot about Sepah Quds, or the Quds Force, these days. We know that it's an elite unit of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) that operates outside Iran. But apart from that, there is very little reliable information about it. What information do you have?

Mahan Abedin: There's been a lot of misinformation and disinformation about this specialized unit -- the Sepah Quds, or the Quds corps. As far as I know, the corps was formed in the early 1980s, at around the same time that the Sepah Badr [the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI] was created. Now there is a chain of specialized departments in the IRGC that were formed around that time, and these kind of specialized units dealt with promoting the Islamic republic's foreign policy. The Badr Corps, for instance, was created to organize Iraqi exiles in Iran; and its founder was a chap called Esmail Daghayeghi, a member of [the IRGC], an exceptionally talented young man. I suspect the Quds corps has pretty much the same history as the Badr Corps.

RFE/RL: What is its main function and in what countries has it been operating in the past two decades?

Abedin: Its essential function is to conduct special operations outside of Iran, and historically -- over the past 25 years or so -- it's been involved in the following theaters: involved in Afghanistan in the 1980s; it had extensive involvement in Lebanon; extensive involvement in Iraq throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, when they were working with Iraqi dissident groups and the Kurdish faction in the north to undermine Saddam [Hussein's] regime. [The Quds Force] was extensively involved in Bosnia in the early 1990s; it was in charge of supplying arms to the Bosnian Muslims. Their operations -- which have rarely received any coverage -- [included] their involvement in southern Sudan in the early 1990s, when they worked with the Sudanese army. So it's been involved in various theaters."

RFE/RL: What role does the Quds Force play in Iraq, and how does it operate?

Abedin: What they do essentially is work with militias and armed factions in Iraq, and they enable them to gain a critical advantage over their adversaries -- and their adversaries are, first and foremost, the Sunni factions.

RFE/RL: Does that mean they provide them with training?

Abedin: It depends on what you mean by "training." They would certainly give them highly specialized training in forming networks whose primary function is to gather and manipulate intelligence, and that's the primary battle in Iraq. Whoever is getting the best information and is able to exploit that information in the quickest time, they have a strategic advantage over others because the theater is so fluid and so complex. And that's the kind of training they do. If you talk about arms training, that is not necessarily the case, because a lot of these [fighters] already have that training.

RFE/RL: U.S. officials say the Quds Force has provided militias in Iraq with sophisticated weapons that have been responsible for the deaths of at least 170 U.S. soldiers. How solid is the U.S. evidence, in your view?

Abedin: Well, first and foremost: If the Americans are really convinced that the Iranians had killed 170 of their troops, they wouldn't be sitting pretty in Baghdad -- their response would have been much more robust. So that's an indication that these allegations are essentially political. If they have evidence, they've certainly not made it public. You could make the case that the Quds Force is giving people training in how to form these networks, how to manage them, how to manage their distribution operations, and how to manage the flow of information. You can make a case for that, but I strongly doubt that the Americans would have that kind of information. This is not the kind of information that you can access easily.

RFE/RL: Is it possible that the Quds Force is involved directly in attacks against U.S. forces and coalition troops?

Abedin: Not at all, because that's not Iranian policy. The contention which the Americans have made -- now they've backtracked from it -- is rather quite silly, because now what they are saying is that maybe the Quds Force is doing it without the official sanction of the Iranian government. The Quds Force, although it's a highly specialized department, it is subject to strict, iron-clad military discipline. It's completely controlled by the military hierarchy of the IRGC, and the IRGC is very tightly controlled by the highest levels of the administration in Iran. If the Quds Force was going around blowing up American soldiers, then that would be definitely sanctioned by the highest levels of the Iranian government. But my point is that they're not doing that, because Iranian policy in Iraq is not about that. Iranian policy in Iraq is to give proper training and support to Iran's natural allies in Iraq in order to influence their political positioning in post-occupation Iraq. The Iranians are far too smart, in my view, to challenge American power in Iraq directly.

RFE/RL: How large is the Quds Force?

Abedin: Not very large at all. I think its core doesn't go beyond 800 people. These kind of specialized departments tend to be very small. But it's a very capable force -- their people are extremely talented [and] they tend to be the best people in the IRGC.

RFE/RL: There were reports that the five Iranians who were detained in Irbil in January by U.S. forces are members of the Quds Force.

Abedin: That's quite possible. But every embassy in Baghdad, every consulate in Iraq -- whether it's American, British, [or] Hungarian -- they are all staffed by intelligence officers; so Iran is not unique in that sense.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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