WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Iranian documents published jointly by The New York Times and The Intercept on Monday reveal Iran’s extensive penetration of Iraqi politics and society since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
An anonymous source provided 700 pages of Iranian intelligence documents, mostly from 2014 and 2015, to The Intercept, an online news publication which claims to hold “the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism” and which shared the papers with the Times.
Source of Documents?
The source for the documents claimed to be an Iraqi, who wanted to “let the world know what Iran is doing in my country, Iraq.” However, as any thoughtful individual now recognizes, such document dumps can come from anywhere, including intelligence agencies of countries that seek to influence public opinion elsewhere.
The Intercept (and to a lesser extent the Times) had a message to convey to Americans: you made a big mistake 16 years ago when you led that war to oust Saddam. Ironically, US President Donald Trump, who is probably at odds with these two publications in almost every other matter, quite agrees.
Perhaps, that is the message those who released these documents wanted to transmit. Or, perhaps, while that may have been a focus for the journalists, those who released these papers had the purpose that was stated: illustrate Iran’s penetration of Iraq.
If so, the source could be some Iraqi, or it could be an intelligence agency that wanted to make that point: perhaps, the Saudis or Emiratis, or even Israel. We do not know.
Moreover, our ignorance is compounded by the fact that neither The Intercept nor The New York Times published any of the documents, and we are obliged to rely on the reporters’ accounts of what they contain.
With those cautions in mind, there are, nonetheless, significant considerations that emerge.
Iran’s Dominance in Iraq
Tehran has developed ties with a wide range of Iraqi political figures. Many of those relationships go back three decades: to the 1980s, when Saddam attacked Iran, believing he could secure a quick victory, given the disarray that seemed to encompass that country following the 1979 revolution.
But there was no speedy win for Iraq. Instead, a bloody, protracted war followed lasting eight years. In that time, Iranian intelligence developed ties with many of the groups and individuals who are now running Iraq.
Kurds, too, were part of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam in the 1980s, and their ability to work on a reasonably amicable basis with a figure like Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, goes back to those days.
The documents describe Abdul Mahdi as having a “special relationship” with Iran when he was Iraqi’s oil minister in 2014. What that means is unclear, and the same cable, the Times notes, “also named several other key members of the cabinet of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as having close ties with Iran.”
Indeed, as the cables suggest, when Abadi became prime minister in 2014, following the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, Tehran saw him as “the Americans’ candidate”—which he was.
When US President Barack Obama found himself forced to return troops to Iraq, he made the removal of the prime minister – Nuri al-Maliki – a precondition for US assistance.
Abadi was the US choice to replace him. Ironically, however, Maliki had been the US choice before Abadi. Maliki proved very sectarian, and his hostility to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs was judged to have contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. So one American candidate was deposed in favor of another—who did not prove much better.
Among Abadi’s blunders was attacking the Kurds in October 2017, following the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum. Just what he was thinking remains unclear. The Kurds were, of course, furious at Abadi. So in the elections six months later, they all voted against him, and he lost his position.
Not only was Abadi a lousy politician, he quickly developed ties with Tehran. “A report written a few months after his rise to the premiership suggested that he was quite willing to have a confidential relationship with Iranian intelligence,” the Times reported.
Consequences of 2011 US Withdrawal
The documents also reveal a heretofore unrecognized consequence of the relatively abrupt withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in December 2011. As US troops left, so did US intelligence. Iraqi sources were left unemployed and vulnerable. So they turned to the Iranians!
“The CIA had tossed many of its longtime secret agents out on the street,” the Times reported, “leaving them jobless and destitute in a country still shattered from the invasion—and fearful that they could be killed for their links with the United States, possibly by Iran.”
One Iraqi who had worked for US intelligence, in fact, turned to the Iranians for protection, telling them that “everything he knew about American intelligence gathering in Iraq was for sale: the locations of CIA safe houses, the names of hotels where CIA operatives met with agents; details of his weapons and surveillance training; the names of other Iraqis working for Americans,” the Times reported.
Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni who was speaker of Iraq’s parliament until last year, “was known to have a close relationship with Iran,” the Times said. The documents reveal that one of his senior advisors reported regularly to Iranian intelligence.
“[I] am present in [Jabouri’s] office on a daily basis and carefully follow his contacts with the Americans,” the Iraqi, identified only as Source 134832, told Iranian intelligence.
US and Iran agree on maintaining the unity of Iraq!
From a Kurdish perspective, one of the most important points in the documents is the odd confluence of views between Tehran and Washington on maintaining the unity of Iraq. That has been a guiding principle of US policy since the issue first arose, with the 1991 Gulf War.
Even after that war, as Saddam imposed an internal embargo on the Kurdistan Region, and the region developed its own institutions, distinct from the rest of the country, that remained the US position.
In the name of Iraqi unity, Washington insisted on maintaining the same embargo on the Kurdistan Region that it imposed on the areas of Iraq under Saddam’s control.
Twelve years later, that remained the position of the George W. Bush administration, as the war to oust Saddam began. And that continues to be the US position.
Innovation and disruption may be prized in many areas of American endeavor, but those who make Middle East policy appear wedded to a century-old concept that actually isn’t working very well.
Most notably, the Trump administration opposed Kurdistan’s 2017 independence referendum, and then turned a blind eye, as Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in conjunction with the thoughtless and pliable Abadi, orchestrated the Iraqi assault on Kirkuk and other disputed territories.
One can infer from those events that, like the US, Iran has also been committed to preserving the unity of Iraq, but the documents make that clear.
Among the “main tasks” of Iranian intelligence in Iraq “are to keep Iraq from falling apart,” The Intercept reported, including to prevent “an independent Kurdistan.”
Iran’s calculation seems to be that it can dominate the entirety of Iraq, by dominating the government in Baghdad, even as the US has looked to a strong government in Baghdad to block Iran.
Of course, they cannot both be right! One of them must be wrong!
The publication of these documents has coincided with unprecedented unrest in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, a country, which, almost as much as Iraq, has fallen under Tehran’s sway.
Certainly, in Iran, where the protests were triggered by a sharp hike in fuel prices, US sanctions have played a major role. US officials also say that sanctions have undermined Iran’s position in Iraq and Lebanon because its proxies have much less money now.
It remains to be seen what the outcome of the unrest will be and whether it will lead to any fundamental changes. But in the meanwhile, these documents suggest that Iranian intelligence is fairly good at what it does.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany