The Myth of the Iranian Sanctuary

Recently I was invited to provide testimony before the Chicago City Council on a proposed resolution to oppose any US military action against Iran. I salute the City Council for having the courage and sense of civic responsibility to consider a resolution which would pressure the Congressional delegation of the State of Illinois to heed the will of the citizens of Chicago. The resolution, as written at the time of the hearing, was a strong indictment of the current policies of the Bush administration in Iran as well as Iraq, and underscored the insufficiency of just cause for any military action against Iran. The resolution pushed for a diplomatic solution to all problems that might exist between Iran and the United States, noting that a failure to pursue diplomacy with Iraq has resulted in a war which not only has killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but cost each ward in the City of Chicago some 104 million dollars which would otherwise have been used to benefit its citizens.

Not all in attendance were in support of this resolution. Alderman James A. Balcer, of Chicago’s 11th Ward, offered a strongly-felt counter argument, noting that if Iran was providing sanctuary for forces that are responsible for the deaths of American service members in Iraq, then the only viable course of action available to the United States would be an American military strike to take out such sanctuaries.

On the surface, this is a powerful and compelling argument, and one that Alderman Balcer is well positioned to make. As a Marine infantryman who served in Vietnam, Alderman Balcer was a participant in Operation Dewey Canyon, a bold assault by the 9th Marine Regiment through the A Shau Valley and into Laos, the purpose of which was to destroy military material that was being stored in, and transported through, sanctuaries in Laos by the North Vietnamese in support of their operations in South Vietnam. In short, Balcer and his fellow Marines were dispatched to ‘take out’ a sanctuary that was responsible for facilitating the deaths of Americans in South Vietnam.

The resultant Operation Dewey Canyon is the stuff of Marine Corps legend, an epic battle that left over 1,600 North Vietnamese dead, and huge amounts of combat material and weapons destroyed. The cost for the Marines was not insignificant, with 130 Marines killed and 932 wounded. Complementary combat missions into Laos by US Army Special Operations Forces, known as Operation Prairie Fire, likewise targeted North Vietnamese"sanctuaries". Dozens more Americans were killed and wounded in this fighting.

Alderman Balcer is rightly proud of his service to the Marines and our nation, and as he points out, Operation Dewey Canyon contributed to an overall degradation of enemy combat capability in South Vietnam so that a repeat of the 1968 Tet Offensive could not occur. This may be true, to a degree. However, Operation Dewey Canyon did not stop the Vietnam War. On February 23, 1969, the Viet Cong launched 110 attacks through South Vietnam, including targets in Saigon. On February 25, 1969, the North Vietnamese launched an assault on Marines stationed along the DMZ, killing 32 Marines. This prompted a Marine offensive into the DMZ on March 15, 1969. On March 17 Richard Nixon, recently sworn in as President, and promising to seek “peace with honor” in Vietnam, authorized the secret bombing of Cambodia, the purpose of which was to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries located there.

By April 1969, American force levels in Vietnam reached 543,000, the largest concentration in the history of that conflict. In mid-May 1969 US Army forces battled in the A Shau valley, scene of Operation Dewey Canyon back in January, losing 46 men killed and more than 400 wounded in a ten day battle for a piece of terrain known as "Hamburger Hill." The Vietnam War was over. American forces began the long process of drawing down, and turning the battle over to their South Vietnamese allies. Two years after the original Operation Dewey Canyon, the United States, with their newly empowered South Vietnamese allies, underscored the futility of a counter-sanctuary strategy by launching Operation Dewey Canyon II, a strike through the A Shau Valley into Laos. Over 50% of the South Vietnamese force of 14,000 men were killed or captured. The United States lost 215 men, with over 100 helicopters shot down and over 600 helicopters damaged.

There is a huge problem in trying to link the counter-sanctuary strategy employed in Vietnam and any proposed counter-sanctuary strategy that might be employed against Iran. First and foremost, it doesn’t work. Any time a nation is compelled to strike "sanctuaries" as a means of relieving pressure on the front-line forces, it is an acknowledgement that the front-line forces are incapable of accomplishing their mission. The problem facing American forces in Iraq is not so-called "sanctuaries" alleged to be operating in Iran, but rather the reality that the United States in engaged in an unpopular, and increasingly brutal, occupation in Iraq that cannot win regardless of what is transpiring in Iran. This occupation is being resisted by Iraqis, not Iranians. Bombing Iran, or worse, launching cross-border operations by US ground forces, will not reduce the will of the Iraqis who fight for their homeland and way of life. It will only enlarge the theater of operations, and increase the cost of war to the United States in terms of dead and wounded Americans, wasted national treasure, and crippled prestige around the world.

The skill and bravery of those American forces called upon to carry out any cross-border attack into Iran can never be denigrated, just as the courage and fortitude of Marines like Alderman Balcer can never be questioned as they fought in battles such as Operation Dewey Canyon. The problem isn’t the troops, but rather the policies they are called upon to implement. The Vietnam War was a bad war for America to be fighting, just as the Iraq war is a bad war. No amount of courage and sacrifice on the part of American fighting men and women can alter this fact. In fact, we do those who honor us a huge disservice by continuing to allow them to fight and die in a cause unworthy of the sacrifice they are prepared to make.

The most frustrating aspect of Alderman Balcer’s citing of the Vietnam War as a parallel argument for justifying a military strike into Iran isn’t just that historically these type of actions never work (Americans are an optimistic people, ever convinced that "this time we’ll do it right," when the reality is that history simply keeps repeating itself). It is that the Vietnam model doesn’t fit. In order for there to be a parallel between the situation in Vietnam and the one we face in Iraq, there would have to be similar casts of characters engaged in similar types of activities. On the surface, we can say that we have a protagonist (the United States), and an antagonist (North Vietnam then, Iran now). We then layer on the supporting cast – the South Vietnamese government/the government of Iraq on the one hand, and the Viet Cong and the Shi’a rebels on the other.

This is where the parallel falls apart. There was angst between the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese that manifested itself in violence, played out directly and through proxy (i.e., the Viet Cong). Yet in Iraq today, we have a situation where the government of Iraq (dominated by the Da’wa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, both Iranian created, funded and controlled) is a direct extension of Iranian political will and control in Iraq. For the Vietnam parallel to hold true, we would have to replace the South Vietnamese government with the Viet Cong, which immediately negates the whole argument in its entirety. Why would the North Vietnamese undermine the Viet Cong, when their whole purpose was to achieve Communist control of Vietnam in the first place? If the Viet Cong were in power in South Vietnam, then the North Vietnamese strategy would be to work with the Viet Cong to get the Americans out of Vietnam, not to conspire to create the conditions which would expand the American military involvement in Vietnam.

The Iranians have already achieved political victory in Iraq. All they want now is to create long-lasting stability. The last thing the Iranians would do is create a new "Viet Cong" to undermine the government of Iraq. Thus, if one accepts the premise of the United States that it is Iran which is responsible for funding and training forces hostile to the government of Iraq, then one would have to accept the notion that Iran is at war with…Iran. This is, frankly speaking, absurd in the extreme. The Iranians, far from being the instigators of violence in Iraq, play the role of peacemaker. It is Iran which brokered the ceasefire in Basra which ended the fighting between the US/Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army of the Moqtada al-Sadr. Iran likewise seeks to play a moderating force in Baghdad, and in northern Iraq, where it works to diplomatically resolve the political problems with al-Sadr and the Kurds, respectively. If only the United States were so-inclined. The so-called "Quds Force" officials captured by the United States inside Iraq were carrying out diplomatic functions conducive to peace, not facilitating the spread of violence. The fact that the United States has released most of these "Quds Force" members, declaring them neither a security threat nor being of intelligence value, only underscores this reality.

There simply is no evidence provided to sustain the allegations that Iran is waging a proxy war against the United States in Iraq, and that Iran is providing so-called "sanctuaries" for the training and arming of these proxies. The United States has yet to be able to provide physical evidence of any large-scale cache of Iranian-produced weapons. Press releases do not count as evidence. Likewise, the alleged links between the Shi’a fighters in Iraq, and Iranian/Hezbollah sponsors in Iran, are illusory. American military briefers have referred to several captured fighters – all Iraqi – who they claimed provided testimony on the existence of such a link. First, in this day and age of torture, we must be wary of so-called "evidence" produced by a system which condones torture as a means of extracting confessions. As a former intelligence officer, I can state with absolute certainty that the norms and standards which dictated that any information so gathered must be treated as suspect, since anyone can be made to say anything under duress, have not been altered by any "new reality" imagined by the Bush administration post September 11, 2001. The only thing which remains constant is the moral depravity of torture and the unreliability of information so obtained.

Another problem facing the "Iran as sanctuary" argument is that we haven’t a clue what we would be striking to begin with. Alleged camps may exist as physical points on a map, but have nothing to do with what we allege to be taking place there. The Hezbollah connection is most disturbing, not because it reinforces what we already know to be true – that Iran supports Hezbollah – but rather is underscores what we don’t understand. Moqtada al-Sadr comes from a family with long-standing historical ties with both Iran and Lebanon. Indeed, the al-Sadr family is directly linked to Lebanese Shi’a who created the Amal movement in Lebanon. It was a radicalized faction of this Amal movement, having broken away in 1985, which became Hezbollah.

The mixing of family and politics is always a complicated affair, and can only be interpreted by those who take the time to navigate the complex layers of intrigue thus created. It is not something condusive to haphazard analysis from people ill-equipped to study the problem. For military analysts in Iraq, the capture of a person carrying a Lebanese passport with Iranian immigration stamps becomes defacto evidence of an Iranian-Hezbollah conspiracy, when in fact all it might represent is the simple traveling of a family member from Lebanon, through Iran, and into Iraq – by far the safest route. And to think that the Iranian "Quds Force" would not exploit family connections in an effort to moderate the stance taken by Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army is to fail to understand the commitment of Iran for a peaceful outcome to the violence in Iraq.

The fact of the matter is, there is no "sanctuary" problem in Iran worthy of American military action. These illusory "sanctuaries" are but a myth propagated by those elements within the Bush administration, namely the Office of the Vice President, which are desirous of seeing American policy toward Iran shaped by the reality of war, no matter how artificially and fraudulently justified. These elements are fearful of a legitimate debate on the merits of military action against Iran, because they know that from such a debate the emptiness of their cause, logically and morally, will be exposed for all to see.

The worst course of action for those who seek to determine policy by exploiting the fears of a population operating in ignorance of the facts is to conduct open hearings which serve to expose bad policy to sunlight, and empower those present with knowledge and information so that their fears can be assuaged with enlightenment. The recent hearings held by the Chicago City Council on Iran are representative of this kind of "sunshine policy," which if our elected officials in Washington, DC cannot muster the courage to convene, must then be replicated throughout the United States in the councils of its cities, towns and villages so that the will of the people can be given voice. Hopefully, the will of the people, so empowered, can manifest itself in a manner which awakens the sleeping Tiger of American democracy, namely the Congress of the United States, so that irresponsible war on Iran, promoted by an illegitimate unitary executive operating void of constitutional checks and balances, can be stopped before it wreaks its devastation on the people of Iran, and by extension, the people of the United States.

I would hope that Alderman Balcer would reconsider his opposition to the resolution being heard by the City Council of Chicago, and understand that the best policy direction that can be taken today vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran is not to embrace policies which create the inevitability of new "Operation Dewey Canyons," but rather ensure that Americans are never again called upon to sacrifice their lives in vain for wars which are not only avoidable, but serve no purpose in promoting either the legitimate defense of the United States or the greater good.