Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

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Iran's Growing Levers for Counter-Attacking
It is clear that Iran will not halt its nuclear program. How far away the nation is to being able to build a bomb is the subject of much debate, and I don't know enough to opine.

But one thing makes attacking Iran far more difficult and dangerous on a global level than attacking Iraq or Afghanistan because Iran can strike back in many places around the world.

It has a network of well-trained operatives, in the form of Hezbollah operatives and small numbers of Quds forces, already in place, trained in the arts of sabotage, demolitions and intelligence gathering. This network can be activated quickly, if Iran feels the need to retaliate against U.S or European targets.

These groups, in turn, have access to economic resources that make cutting off, even with concerted efforts, because they are deeply entrenched in the grey economies of Africa and Latin America that have been relatively impervious to previous crackdown efforts.

Iran will not be occupied militarily, and will likely be able to continue to function as a state after any possible attack-a state under sanction and pressure, but a state nonetheless, with all the trappings that go with it.

Iraq was destroyed as a functioning state and did not have an outside military wing working for decades to establish itself in the far corners of the world and that retained an independent source of financing.

But the Hezbollah network, which I have written about before, can generate up to $200 million a year, according to intelligence estimates by serious people with significant experience on the ground. This comes not only from the illicit trade and taxes contributed by the Lebanese diasporas in Africa and Latin America, but from legitimate businesses and front companies.

In addition, Hezbollah has won hard-earned credibility by taking on the Israelis last summer and, while not achieving a victory, holding ground and not collapsing, as Arab armies have traditionally done. Despite the Shia-Sunni divide, Hezbollah was seen on the Arab street as at least standing for something, unlike the corrupt and quiescent Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf.

The money flow for Hezbollah is not enough to sustain a state, but more than enough to a keep a non-state actor operational. While some crackdown would likely diminish the flow of money, Hezbollah's financial stream is deeply embedded in the economy, not entirely dependent on donations, as al Qaeda has traditionally been. (This may be changing if al Qaeda is as deeply involved in the drug trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the Taliban is.)

Hezbollah has also carried out sophisticated attacks in the Western Hemisphere (the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires), a model of attacks that could come. Iranian diplomats facilitated the movement of weapons and personnel of Hezbollah to carry out the attack.

There have also been arrests of Hezbollah operatives in the United States, both for financing and in operations personnel stopped at the border. (The latter was revealed in a little-noticed bit of Congressional testimony by Robert Mueller in March 2006. That is something that never happened with al Qaeda.

It seems to me that building and expanding this network has to be one of the key reasons Iran has spent so much time, energy and money courting Latin American leaders. Proximity is extremely important, as is the ability to blend in and cross relatively unsecured borders. Latin American networks have a long history of smuggling people across, with a success rate of about 90 percent. The risk is low and so is the cost.

It seems to me that Venezuela's $4 billion in weapons purchases in two years is also probably not entirely unrelated to Iran and Hezbollah's need to create the ability to strike back at the United States should the need arise.

There is, perhaps, strategic thinking going on into how to deal with this threat if the decision is made to attack Iran. Or if Iran decides to strike preemptively. It seems to me that the way Iran has configured the map to favorably suit its interests should give policy makers a great deal of pause.

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