WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Leon Panetta accused Iran’s paramilitary force of an intensified campaign to destabilize the Middle East by smuggling antiaircraft weapons to its militant allies.
Iran’s export of so-called manpads—antiaircraft missiles that can be carried by a single person—represent what Mr. Panetta called a dangerous escalation.
“There is no question when you start passing manpads around, that becomes a threat—not just to military aircraft but to civilian aircraft,” Mr. Panetta told The Wall Street Journal in an interview describing shifting threats to the U.S. as he prepares to leave his post. “That is an escalation.”
Western officials have long worried about the spread of such weapons and the risk they pose to airline passengers as well as to military helicopters and jets. Recent U.S. intelligence pointed to new efforts by Iran to smuggle manpads, but few shipments had been intercepted before Jan. 23, when Yemen, aided by the U.S., intercepted a boat carrying the weapons.
“It is one of the first times we have seen it,” Mr. Panetta said.
U.S. investigators said evidence indicated the missiles were supplied by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Tehran’s paramilitary force.
Iranian officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about distributing weapons to regional allies.
Mr. Panetta said the U.S. is stepping up efforts to counter the Iranian threat, and is leading a multination exercise in the United Arab Emirates though Feb. 7 to improve the interdiction of Iranian arms and other weapons. The defense secretary called the exercise critical to building up Arab capabilities to help halt Iranian arms transfers, including the smuggling of manpads.
The disclosures by Mr. Panetta came as he prepares to step down after 19 months as defense secretary, a period marked by an intensified focus on Iran as concerns mount about its nuclear ambitions, an expanded campaign of drone strikes against militants in several countries, and the emergence of a new al Qaeda haven in Africa.
Chuck Hagel, whom President Barack Obama has nominated to succeed Mr. Panetta as civilian leader of the U.S. military, is skeptical of military intervention but has said he agrees with the administration’s policy of considering all options in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Hagel’s views on Iran have been subject to withering Republican criticism, in particular his vote while serving as a senator from Nebraska against labeling the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. However, at his confirmation hearing Thursday he endorsed the administration’s strategy of isolating Tehran, including the Revolutionary Guard.
Senior U.S. officials said the antiaircraft weapons intercepted on Jan. 23 likely were headed to northern Yemen’s Houthi separatists, who are fighting the U.S.-backed government in San’a and have also clashed with Saudi forces. Iranians also have stepped up aid to rebels in the south of Yemen in recent months, when previous shipments have involved mainly cash, small arms and explosives, U.S. officials said.
The weapons are a major concern for Israel, which borders territory controlled by Iran’s allies. U.S. officials also believe Iranians are shipping similar weapons to Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and have in the past shipped weapons to Syria and Hezbollah.
Extremists in Gaza long have used rockets in their conflict with Israel. Manpads could give them the capability to shoot down Israeli aircraft. The concern about Iranian arms proliferation has grown as an uprising has made Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s position more precarious.
Underscoring Israeli concerns, U.S. and Western officials said Israel this week struck a convoy in Syria carrying antiaircraft missiles that officials said were being transferred to the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria disputed that account, and said Israeli warplanes bombed a research facility near Damascus.
Mr. Panetta is preparing to leave the administration, after leading the Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon, with a U.S. war in Afghanistan beginning to wind down and an extremist threat rising in Africa.
The administration initially sent mixed messages about its level of support for the French military campaign in Mali, launched on Jan. 11, against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and its militant allies.
Mr. Panetta, however, has been a vocal proponent of the operation, and said he believes a consensus is emerging on a way forward.
“They [France] acted because of what they saw AQIM doing. I’ve commended them because I think it was the right step to take. And I think now, there really is a recognition that this is an opportunity now to be able to make sure that not only do we confine AQIM but ultimately we defeat them,” Mr. Panetta said.
Mr. Panetta, after taking over as CIA director in 2009, sought to build up counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda’s affiliates in northwest Africa.
Today, he said, the U.S. still lacks the full range of capabilities to deal with the terrorist threat there. “We’re not even close,” Mr. Panetta said. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Mr. Panetta said the U.S. response to the threat from groups such as AQIM was complicated by the difficulty of coordinating regional partners, the vastness of the area where the group operates, and by Washington’s focus on more immediate threats, particularly Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Part of the problem was everybody was concerned about it, but, operationally, it took a lot more work to try to kind of build the kind of infrastructure you needed to go after them,” Mr. Panetta said. “In just the natural system of prioritizing, we were going after them where they represented the biggest threat. And then suddenly…AQIM started to expand and started to then gain control of these communities.”
Mr. Panetta said a campaign in North and West Africa would require the U.S. to set up a robust network of informants on the ground. Likewise, the U.S. needs a constellation of bases, a process that got a boost on Monday when the U.S. signed a security agreement with Niger. The U.S. is considering putting surveillance drones there.
“All of that demands time,” Mr. Panetta said.
More important, Mr. Panetta said, the White House has to make a series of policy decisions about whether AQIM and its allies in North and West Africa “represent an imminent threat to our country.”
Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal