Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Iranian Factor in Iraq Insurgency

Anna Badkhen, San Francisco Chronicle:
For 29 months, U.S. troops in Iraq have battled an elusive and increasingly violent insurgency that has eroded domestic support for America's involvement there. Now the United States says it faces another enemy in Iraq: Iran, the country's Shiite neighbor, which President Bush once called part of an "axis of evil." READ MORE

Senior Bush administration officials have gone so far as to publicly accuse Iran of helping to arm the insurgents and of undermining the government. But while analysts differ on the degree to which Iran is deliberately subverting U.S. policy, they agree that Tehran has become much more entwined in Iraqi affairs since the rise to power of fellow Shiites there.

"They want to clearly influence the evolution of events there," said James Noyes, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former international security expert at the Department of Defense under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

The question is how deeply is Iran involved in Iraq, and how far is it prepared to go to damage U.S. interests there?

Some analysts say that, at the very least, Iran is seeking to make America's involvement in the war-ravaged country even more difficult. "They don't want the U.S. to have an easy time with it," said Abbas Milani, an expert on Iran at the Hoover Institution. "They want to see the United States weakened (and) embarrassed."

In the past two weeks, senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, stated that Iran has been smuggling truckloads of weapons and explosives into Iraq.

"There are Iranian activities that undermine the current system," Khalilzad told ABC's "This Week" last Sunday, after U.S. troops announced that they had seized sophisticated bombs near the southern stretch of Iraq's border with Iran.

Rumsfeld called the smuggling "a problem for the coalition forces ... a problem for the international community, and ultimately ... a problem for Iran. "

British military commanders in Iraq and Iraqi officials are skeptical of the claims. Royal Marines Maj. Gen. Jim Dutton, commander of multinational forces in southeastern Iraq, said there was no proof that the weapons came from Iran, adding that there was "a lot of speculation" and "not many facts" about Iranian involvement with the insurgency.

Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, said the reports were "very much exaggerated," and Iran's defense minister, Ali Shamkhani, last week denied his country's "alleged involvement in bomb explosions."

Other experts point out that it is unlikely that Iran would be fueling an insurgency that is led primarily by Sunnis -- traditional opponents of Shiites -- and also one that is killing numerous Iraqi Shiites as well as U. S. and Iraqi security forces.

But at a time when the new, hard-line government in Tehran refuses to abandon its nuclear program, the United States has reasons to be alarmed by Iran's growing involvement in Iraq, say analysts.

"It was probably no accident that Rumsfeld chose to make his statement just days after the new Iranian President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad was inaugurated and nuclear talks seem to be breaking down," said Michael O'Hanlon, who heads the Iraq Index project at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

It is easy for Tehran to bolster its position in Iraq. Both the Iraqi parliament and government -- elected in Jan. 30 balloting in which the majority Shiite population voted in far greater numbers than the minority Sunnis -- are dominated by Shiite politicians and parties with close ties to Iran.

Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari lived in exile in Iran for almost a decade. Iraq's president, secular Kurd Jalal Talabani, received money and political support from Iran for years while he ruled half of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. The supreme religious leader of Iraq's Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who recently held talks with Iran's foreign minister, was born in Iran and spent years in exile there.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), created by Iraqi expatriates in Iran in the 1980s, and another Iran-linked Shiite party, Dawa, won the overwhelming majority of the seats in Iraq's National Assembly last January. SCIRI's military arm, the Badr Brigade, was formed and trained in Iran in the 1980s. Although most of its fighters have now joined Iraq's nascent police and military, their alliances may still lie with SCIRI and Iran, said Noyes and other analysts.

Already, Tehran has promised $1 billion in financial aid that Iraqi officials say they will use to rebuild schools, hospitals and libraries. It has negotiated lucrative deals, ranging from pipeline construction and arrangements for Iraq to export oil through Iranian ports to supplying parts of Iraq with electricity and training some of Iraq's nascent military in Iran -- an agreement that made Washington so angry it pressured Iraqi officials to rescind the deal last month.

"Iran is seeking security, regional influence ... and a market for (its) production," said Majid Mohammadi, an Iranian sociologist who is currently a resident in the Democracy, Development and Rule of Law project at Stanford University.

Critics also see Iran's influence in the drafts of Iraq's new constitution, which calls for Islamic Shariah law to be the main source of legislation and requests that Shiite clerics be granted special status, paving the way for Iraq to become an Iran-like theocracy.

"They want to have control over Iraq," said Michael Leeden, a consultant to the National Security Council under former President Ronald Reagan, and now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Their favorite way of doing it would be to create an Islamic republic," said Ledeen, who has urged the overthrow of the Iranian regime.

But other analysts warn that Iran needs to be cautious in its policy toward its neighbor, with whom it waged a bitter, eight-year war in the 1980s that cost more than a million lives.

Wayne White, a former deputy director for Middle East and South Asia in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said Iran's interests in Iraq should more closely coincide with those of the United States.

"Iran should have concerns over instability inside of Iraq because if Iraq fails and there's a civil war, Iran has a major mess on its western frontier that it should not want," said White.

However, Milani, of the Hoover Institution, says Tehran wants to see American troops bogged down in Iraq, because of fears of a possible U.S. attack on Iran -- an option President Bush raised last week when he said, in remarks about Iran's nuclear program, that "the use of force is the last option for any president and you know, we've used force in the recent past to secure our country."

"The U.S. forces are so deeply entrenched (in Iraq) that the possibility of taking on another war -- with Iran -- is simply untenable," said Milani.

There is also the financial factor. The instability in the Persian Gulf region, combined with Iraq's weakened ability to pump oil, has kept the price of crude above $65 a barrel, "and that has been a godsend for the mullahs," he said.

"Tehran is very much interested in controlled chaos."

That chaos could easily get out of control, warn some analysts, especially if Iraq splits up. An independent Kurdish state in the north, for example, would encourage Iran's own 4 million Kurds to demand independence, said Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan.

But such concerns are "small potatoes" for Iran compared to the opportunity to wield greater power over the Persian Gulf region, argued O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

"Iran's situation is pretty good," he said. "But if they want to aim more ambitiously, I suppose they could try to splinter Iraq into three pieces, in the belief that a Shia country in the south would be too small to threaten them."

A smaller Shiite Arab state in the region could also provide Tehran with "potentially a kindred spirit on various matters," O'Hanlon said.

Despite Iran's denials, it is possible that the Islamic Republic is sending weapons to Iraq -- but to the Shiite militias in the south, such as the Badr Brigade, said Noyes.

Mohammadi agreed.

"Iran does not really need to send weapons to Sunni insurgents; they have enough," he said. "Iran is and has been willing to interfere with Iraq, but through (its) friends," such as the two biggest Shiite political factions, SCIRI and the Dawa party, Mohammadi said.

Yet, there is always the possibility that certain Iranian groups are supporting the insurgency in Iraq without the government's authorization, said O'Hanlon. One of them, analysts say, could be the Revolutionary Guards, Iran's militantly anti-American paramilitary force.

"You could also imagine Iranian hardliners saying: 'Let's go for broke,' " O'Hanlon said.

E-mail Anna Badkhen at