Wall Street Journal: Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables provide new details on the U.S. assessment of how Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has promoted Tehran’s influence in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Wall Street Journal
By SAM DAGHER
BAGHDAD—Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables provide new details on the U.S. assessment of how Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has promoted Tehran’s influence in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The demise of archenemy Saddam Hussein, with whom Tehran fought an eight-year war in the 1980s, presented the Iranians with an unprecedented opportunity, and they appear to have exploited it from Day One.
The leadership of the Qods Force—the Guards’ paramilitary and espionage arm—”took advantage of the vacuum” in the aftermath of the fall of Mr. Hussein’s regime to begin sending operatives into Iraq when “little attention was focused on Iran,” according to an April 2009 dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The cable was part of a trove of classified U.S. diplomatic communications made public this week by WikiLeaks.
Early priorities for the Iranian operatives included assassinating former Iraqi fighter pilots who flew sorties against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, according to a December 2009 dispatch from Baghdad. As of the end of last year 180 pilots had been killed, according to the report.
But Iran’s broader goals have been the establishment of “an economically dependent and politically subservient Iraq” and the undermining of rivals, in part through paramilitary means, the cables suggest.
Iran’s ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaie-Far denied in a recent interview that Iran was meddling in Iraq’s affairs or supporting militias.
Since 2003, Qods Force commander Brig. Gen. Qasim Soleimani has been “the point man directing the formulation and implementation” of the Iranian government’s Iraq policy “with authority second only” to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to another dispatch from Baghdad dated November 2009.
Through his officers and “Iraqi proxies,” Gen. Soleimani “employs the full range of diplomatic, security, intelligence, and economic tools to influence allies and detractors in order to shape a more pro-Iran regime in Baghdad and the provinces,” according to the same dispatch.
Some Qods Force operatives have entered Iraq under the guise of charities or the Iranian Red Crescent—the Islamic version of the Red Cross—according to an October 2008 dispatch from America’s Iran Regional Presence Office based in the Gulf Arab emirate of Dubai.
The cable, which cites an “Iranian with detailed knowledge of the country’s Red Crescent” as a source, says the organization contracted companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards to build clinics in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite cities of Basra, Hilla, Karbala and Najaf to the south. The clinics were used “for treatment but also as warehouses for military equipment or military bases if needed.”
Other Iranian operatives came in as diplomats, including some allegedly as senior as Tehran’s former ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, who is described as “an associate” of the Qods Force in the November 2009 dispatch. His successor, Mr. Danaie-Far, was a naval commander in the Revolutionary Guards.
In addition to training, funding and arming Shiite militias in Iraq involved in attacking U.S. interests, Gen. Soleimani has overseen economic development assistance to Iraq and the promotion of bilateral trade that reached an annual level of almost $4 billion by the end of 2009. He also oversaw the furthering of Iranian “soft power” through activities such as the renovation of Iraq’s revered Shiite shrines by Revolutionary Guards-owned companies, according to several dispatches.
The Iranian commander also “enjoys longstanding close ties” with several top Iraqi officials such as President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to a dispatch from Baghdad.
The November 2009 cable says Iran hands out cash payments to “Iraqi surrogates,” which include some of the political parties currently in power. It says while exact figures are unknown, Tehran’s financial assistance is estimated in the cables at $100 million to $200 million a year, with an estimated $70 million going to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) party, which was based in Iran before Mr. Hussein’s fall.
Basem al-Awadi, an ISCI spokesperson, dismissed the cables, calling them “opinions,” and said his party has proven its “independence” by recently resisting Iranian pressure to back Mr. Maliki for a second term. Mr. Maliki, a devout Shiite, has had difficult relations with Iran, but his position has earned him Tehran’s backing.
In one cable, U.S. diplomats in Baghdad say sensitivity by Iraqi leaders toward being seen as “Iranian lackeys” will ultimately constrain Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Even though both countries are majority Shiite Muslim, they embrace opposing clerical traditions. Iraq’s revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is Iranian-born but rejects Iran’s clerical rule.
One dispatch that followed a visit by U.S. diplomats to Mr. Sistani’s base in Najaf last year said the reclusive cleric personally prohibited the enrollment of Iranian students at seminaries in the city in order to prevent infiltration by the Revolutionary Guards.
—Ali A. Nabhan
contributed to this article.