Iran's Secret Weapon
On July 18, hours following the assassination of three of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's top security grandees during a national-security headquarters meeting in Damascus, a suicide bomber in Bulgaria's Black Sea resort city of Burgas set himself off near an Israeli tourist bus, killing five Israelis and wounding scores of others.
The Damascus attack occurred on the fourth straight day of fighting in the capital, and responsibility has been claimed by both an increasingly plucky armed opposition and an obscure Islamist group calling itself the Islam Brigade (Liwa al-Islam).
The Israeli government has accused usual suspects Hezbollah and Iran for the Burgas bombing, all the more since it coincided with both the eighteenth anniversary of the AMIA Jewish center bombing in Buenos Aires and the sixth anniversary of the second Lebanon war.
As far as Damascus and Burgas were concerned, the timing was sheer coincidence.
The Syrian crisis is the most gripping of the wave of popular revolutions that have swept through the region since December 2010. Although Assad's Alawite-dominated regime has lost control over significant territory, its co-optation strategy so far has headed off the rapid internal atrophy that brought Qaddafi to his knees last October (although it has not stopped recent high-level defections). However, the Damascus blast that killed Assad's defense minister, an ex-defense minister as well as his own brother-in-law and former intelligence chief (a fourth, the incumbent head of national security, also died from his wounds later) may have marked a tipping point—regardless of who carried it out.
These events present complications for Iran, which is already facing harsh sanctions owing to its alleged nuclear ambitions. Syria under both Assads, father and son, has been Tehran's firmest state ally in the region and the logistical keystone in the edifice of resistance, which brings together the Lebanese Hezbollah and a clutch of rejectionist Palestinian factions. If Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon is Iran's most successful revolutionary export, Syria could yet turn out to be its biggest fiasco.
With the prospects of Israeli or U.S.-led strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities increasing, Assad's gradual descent to perdition risks impelling Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei to up the ante rather than stand down. And when this happens, the targeting of soft targets as happened in Burgas—such as the spate of brazen but bungled attempts attributed to Iran that spilled out onto the streets of several foreign capitals earlier this year—is likely to multiply with greater assiduity and singularity of purpose.
Persian shadow theater
Given its relatively limited conventional armed forces, the Iranian regime has invested heavily in niche, asymmetric capabilities far beyond its shores, thanks to concerted action by a nexus assumed to include the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and, to a lesser extent, the Foreign Ministry's diplomatic missions abroad: all are thought to be coordinated via two organs, the Supreme Council for National Security and the Special Operations Council.
Yet it has become a "known unknown" that the prime mover behind Iran's extraterritorial special operations is a secretive unit embedded within the powerful IRGC, if not necessarily answerable to it. The Qods (or “Jerusalem”) Force appears to focus on exporting the Islamic revolution by, among other things, fostering militant movements, creating deterrence and retaliatory networks, and destabilizing unfriendly regimes. Officially, it stands among the IRGC's five known branches alongside the ground forces, the navy, the air force (in parallel with the regular tri-services) and the brutish Basij street paramilitia.
According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Defense report, the Qods Force "clandestinely [exerts] military, political, and economic power to advance Iranian national interests abroad," making it the forward or outermost complement to Iran's mosaic homefront-defense doctrine. The Qods Force has been accused of masterminding or supporting some of the most prominent attacks against Western and Israeli targets over the past three decades, and it was instrumental in midwifing Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that attained notoriety for standing up to Israel for thirty-three sultry days in the summer of 2006.
Little wonder, then, that international attention has in recent years focused on Major General Qassem Soleimani, the enigmatic persona who runs the "handpicked elite of an already elite ideological army," as Stanford University's Abbas Milani described the Qods force. Ali Alfoneh, an Iran scholar specializing in the IRGC at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that although lacking formal qualifications, Soleimani rose through the ranks on account of his reputation for gutsiness during tough times: the traumatic eight-year war with Iraq, campaigns in Iran's restive Kurdish heartland and the persistently wayward drug country around Sistan va Baluchistan, and the 1990s’ civil war in Afghanistan. In his current role, Soleimani replaced Ahmad Vahidi in the late 1990s, who went on to become Iran's current defense minister. Moreover, Alfoneh pointed out that Soleimani's relationship with a mid-level cleric and student of Khamenei's in the late 1970s may have been the catalyst for his own proximity to the current supreme leader and his subsequent rise.