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Iraq/Iran: Has Tehran Crossed The Line?

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> Iraqi Prime Minister al-Ja'fari (left) in Tehran with Iranian President Khatami in July 2005 (epa) Iraq observers have spent much of the past three years debating the extent of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. There is a growing belief in both Iraqi and U.S. circles that Iranian agents have permeated the Iraqi security apparatus, as well as the extra-governmental militias that engage in armed conflict with Iraqi police and army units and multinational forces. Iranian-style weapons -- in particular, more powerful improvised explosive devices -- have also made their way to Iraq in increasing numbers, posing a considerable threat to Iraqi and U.S. security forces.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated allegations that the Iranian government is "putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq."

Speaking to reporters at a March 7 press briefing in Washington, Rumsfeld added that "they're putting Iranian Al-Quds Force-type people into" Iraq. Asked if these forces were carrying out violence or trying to instigate political instability, Rumsfeld replied: "I don't think we could consider them religious pilgrims."

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the same briefing that the U.S. has found some improvised explosive devices and weapons that it believes can be traced to Iran. Pace added that there has been an influx of "individuals" across the Iran-Iraq border but declined to say how many. Asked if the people entering Iraq were backed by the Iranian government, Pace said simply "I don't know."

Asked the same question, Rumsfeld was more ominous. "Well, of course," Rumsfeld said. "The Revolutionary Guard doesn't go milling around willy-nilly, one would think."

He added that the Iranian government might some day view its role in Iraq as an "error in judgment."

Years Of Speculation

Iraq observers have spent much of the past three years debating the extent of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. There is a growing belief in both Iraqi and U.S. circles that Iranian agents have permeated the Iraqi security apparatus, as well as the extra-governmental militias that engage in armed conflict with Iraqi police and army units and multinational forces. Iranian-style weapons -- in particular, more powerful improvised explosive devices -- have also made their way to Iraq in increasing numbers, posing a considerable threat to Iraqi and U.S. security forces.

In an August 2005 feature, the newsweekly "Time" argued that the Iranian regime began planning its infiltration to Iraq in late 2002, setting up military units along the Iran-Iraq border. The units reportedly accompanied Iraqi opposition parties and militias when they entered Iraq during the opening days of the war. "Time" reported that as many as 12,000 people entered Iraq from Iran in the early days after the U.S-led invasion, including agents of the Iranian security services.

Three years later, Iran appears to have entrenched its intelligence and paramilitary forces in Iraq by playing two sides of the conflict: Shi'ite parties and militias who share a common religious outlook, and Sunni Arab Islamists bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq.

Among the possible Iranian goals in Iraq that have been bandied about are (1) establishing an Islamic state and preventing the formation of a pro-Arab, pro-U.S., secularist regime; (2) driving U.S. forces from Iraq; (3) preventing the revival of Al-Najaf over Qom as the seat of Shi'ite scholarship; and (4) obtaining influence over the exploitation of Iraq's natural resources, namely oil. A fifth possible goal is to establish a secure route linking Iran to Syria, thereby enabling the movement of goods and hardware that could be used as leverage in Iran's relationship with Israel.

Moving In

Iraq's leading Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was based in Iran for some 20 years prior to the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime. SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Corps (now known as the Badr Organization) was trained by Iran's Al-Quds Force, a special-operations unit of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. The Cairo-based weekly "Al-Ahram" contended in 2005 that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad played a role in the formation of the Badr Corps and hence wields influence over the organization today. However, the veracity of that allegation is not known.

As the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 got under way, Badr forces -- hundreds of whom are Iraqis with military training who defected to Iran in the 1980s -- entered Iraq. They quickly took control of security, local governance, and aid organizations in Shi'ite-populated towns in Mada'in, located some 30 kilometers south of Baghdad, and as far north as Samarra, located 100 kilometers north of Baghdad. Many analysts believe the Badr forces were accompanied by Iranian Al-Quds Force troops.

Within a month, their sphere of influence had spread to other areas of the country. SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim announced on April 23, 2003, that Badr forces "are in most villages and areas" in the country. "Nobody can drive them out," he said. The lack of security along the 1,000-kilometer Iran-Iraq border allowed for the free flow of weapons into Iraq.

In areas where these forces could not seize overt control, they turned to local clerics to bolster their influence. In areas where they faced resistance, they bought influence in local councils or seized power by force. Meanwhile, Iranian intelligence agents employed a systematic program to eliminate anyone with close ties to the United States, as well as former military personnel and technocrats who served under Hussein, Cairo's "Al-Ahram Weekly" reported on July 6, 2005.

The Situation Today

Iran's influence in Iraq today reportedly extends to all corners of the country but is most pervasive in the south. Iranian-backed militia consolidated their control over Al-Basrah by 2004. Now, they dominate the police, governorate council, security apparatuses, and even humanitarian organizations. The militias in the city have virtually eliminated local opposition. Now, minority Christians, Sunni Arabs, and secular Shi'ites are subjected to strict Islamic conduct in the region. Journalists have either abandoned their work altogether or work clandestinely.

In central Iraq, Iran has reportedly funded insurgents through Syria, setting up intelligence networks that some have claimed were better organized than Iraqi intelligence. In its August 2005 report, "Time" magazine wrote that it had obtained IRGC files from August 2004 showing at least 11,740 Badr Corps members were still on the IRGC payroll.

In October 2005, London's "Sunday Telegraph" reported that the Al-Quds Force had established three main smuggling routes into Iraq through Al-Basrah, Al-Amarah, and Baghdad from a base in Ahvaz, which is located inside the Iranian border southeast of Al-Amarah.

Support For Al-Sadrists

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denies any relationship with the Iranian regime, but he visited Iran in June 2003, where he met with high-level Iranian officials. Al-Sadr visited Iran again in January 2006, meeting with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani. Since that time, it appears relations have deepened, and some U.S. and Iraqi officials have alleged that Iran is funding al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

An Al-Sadr fighter in Al-Najaf in August 2004 (AFP)

Following the fall of the Hussein regime, al-Sadr, a low-level cleric, aligned himself with Qom-based Iraqi Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri, relying on the ayatollah to issue fatwas that supported his agenda. The relationship was soon on rocky ground after al-Sadr clashed with the clerical establishment in Al-Najaf in late 2003. Later clashes between al-Sadr loyalists and U.S.-led coalition forces in 2004 led to a severing of ties with al-Ha'iri -- leaving al-Sadr without the crucial backing of a senior cleric.

During this period Iran reportedly set up training camps for Al-Mahdi militia inside Iranian territory, according to several sources. According to the reports, the militiamen are trained in combat tactics, reconnaissance, and espionage.

It was also during this time that a number of attempted assassinations were carried out against leading Shi'ite clergy. Some Iraqis accused the Iranian Al-Quds Force of carrying out the attacks, saying Iran's clerical leadership was worried about the revival of Al-Najaf's hawzahs (seminaries), which they viewed as a threat to Shi'ite seminaries in Qom.

The Al-Zarqawi Link

Iran has had links to key Al-Qaeda leaders since the mid-1990s. Al-Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri was the "frequent guest" of the Iranian intelligence ministry and Al-Quds Force commander Ahmad Vahidi throughout the 1990s, according to a January 20, 2003, report by the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism. Iran's relations with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization reportedly began in 2001. According to a December 2005 report prepared by Dore Gold and Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Haleve for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, al-Zarqawi visited Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) training camps and received logistical support from the Al-Quds Force in 2001. Likewise, al-Zarqawi spent time in Syrian training camps in 2002.

While an ideological divide separates al-Zarqawi's Salafist ideology and the Shi'ite ideology of Iran, the two share some common goals, including the overthrow of corrupt Sunni Arab regimes, the desire to establish Islamist rule across the Muslim world, and the destruction of Israel and its allies, namely the United States. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that al-Zarqawi and Iran's theocratic leaders have been able to come to some sort of strategic alliance.

Iran has reportedly aided Sunni Islamist terrorist organizations in the past -- in Algeria, Egypt, and Gaza. Western intelligence analysts claim that Iran's modus operandi is to "outsource" to proxy organizations the conduct of terrorist activities so that they cannot be linked to Iran.

Iranian Brigadier General Qasim Suleimani of the Revolution Guard Corps said in 2004 that Iran supported al-Zarqawi because his activities in Iraq coincided with Iran's goal of preventing the establishment of a pro-U.S. government there, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported in August 2004.

Any al-Zarqawi-Iran connection may have been severed in recent months, however, as al-Zarqawi's ideology hardened. Al-Zarqawi announced in July that his group had formed the so-called Umar Brigade to hunt down and kill Shi'ite Badr Corps members. Despite warnings from Al-Qaeda leaders -- including No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri -- that he should cease his attacks on Shi'ites, al-Zarqawi's group has continued its activities. Around the same time, al-Zarqawi also clashed with his one-time spiritual mentor, Jordanian-based Abu Ahmad al-Maqdisi over theological issues.

Iran's Ties To The Iraqi Government

Iran's strong relations with members of Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government go back to the 1980s when groups like SCIRI and the Islamic Al-Da'wah (Call) party sought refuge in Iran from Saddam Hussein's regime.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr (RFE/RL)

Within this culture SCIRI's armed wing was born, and today members of those groups are prominent in the Iraqi government, including Prime Minister and Al-Da'wah Party leader Ibrahim al-Ja'fari and Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who is a former leader of the Badr Corps. Jabr's leadership of the Interior Ministry has been called into question after dozens of attacks on Sunni Arabs in Iraq in the past year were purportedly carried out by armed men wearing ministry uniforms. Jabr has denied any wrongdoing by his forces, saying the uniforms were worn by insurgents hoping to spark sectarian violence in Iraq.

Other Iraqi Shi'ite leaders have also blamed insurgents for attacks on Sunni Arabs. Some observers have speculated that leaders such as SCIRI head al-Hakim and al-Ja'fari have lost influence over their original base of support among Iraqis living in Iran before the war. As a result, either they can't control armed Shi'a or they won't, because they are still dependent on Iranian financial support for their extra-governmental activities.

The outgoing transitional government has worked hard to secure stronger relations with Iran, signing a number of economic agreements with Iraq's eastern neighbor over the past nine months. Al-Ja'fari has in the past supported recognizing Iranians as a minority group in Iraq, "Time" magazine reported in August 2005. Although Iraqi Shi'ite leaders have maintained that they do not support the establishment of an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq, they did lobby intensively for the new constitution to spell out a greater role for Islam.

Iraq And Iran

Iranian Shi'a protesting the Golden Mosque Bombing in Iraq on February 24

WHAT IS GOING ON? On March 8, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion on relations between Iraq and Iran. Although most analysts agree that Iran has been actively involved in Iraq since the U.S.-led military operation to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they continue to debate the nature, extent, and intent of that involvement.
The RFE/RL briefing featured WAYNE WHITE, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, and A. WILLIAM SAMII, RFE/RL's regional analyst for Iran and editor of the "RFE/RL Iran Report."


Listen to the complete RFE/RL briefing (about 75 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Iran/Iraq: Bilateral Ties Improving Despite U.S. Worries

Renewed Speculation About Tehran And Instability In Iraq

Iran/Iraq: Neighbors Mending Ties, But Outstanding Issues Remain


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran. RFE/RL's coverage of Iraq.