Monday, November 21, 2005

Intel: Iran Won't Need an Exit Strategy

Scott Johnson and Michael Hirsh, Newsweek:
Confrontations don't seem to bother Mowaffaq al-Rubaie. After Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a rathole in late 2003, Rubaie was the only senior Iraqi official to call the ex-dictator a coward to his face. And last week, after a dangerous overland journey to Tehran, Rubaie went head-to-head with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's fiery Islamist president. One of Rubaie's key messages to his fellow Shiite: stop stirring up trouble. Rubaie, Iraq's national-security adviser, and other Iraqi officials chastised Iran for supporting Shiite militias and aggravating the insurgency. More gently, they asked for Tehran's help. Mainly the Iraqis demonstrated that, at a strategic level, they are thinking about what their country could look like after the Americans leave.

Rubaie returned home on Friday with what he regards as an important prize:

a memorandum of understanding with Tehran that commits the two governments to cooperate on sensitive intelligence-sharing matters, counterterrorism and cross-border infiltration of Qaeda figures.

Yet Rubaie's bold diplomacy took even the powerful U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, by surprise. Khalilzad told NEWSWEEK in a telephone interview that he found out about the agreement only afterward. The diplomatic confusion shows that Iraq remains in a shaky state of limbo, somewhere between independence and occupation.

"It's not clear whether [Rubaie] has authority to negotiate that or not," added a senior American official involved with Iraq policy, who spoke on condition he not be identified. Rubaie, who plans to run for prime minister next month, insists he was acting with the authority of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who is expected to ratify the agreement soon. Rubaie notes he was accompanied on his mission by top Iraqi intelligence and security officials.

The Americans and Rubaie do agree on one thing: Iranian interference continues to haunt future scenarios for an independent, stable Iraq. Khalilzad, echoing other U.S. officials, said he is hoping for a "significant withdrawal" of U.S. troops from Iraq next year. But the Bush administration worries that a fractured Iraq under weak leadership will be Tehran's playground, a place where rabid anti-Americans like Ahmadinejad can continue to sap U.S. strength, diverting Washington from its efforts to confront Iran over its own nuclear plans. Already many Iraqis are convinced that Iranian intelligence provides key support to Shiite militias. Some see Iranian hands in the torture chambers discovered last week beneath an Interior Ministry compound, which was run by Shiite officials allegedly linked to Tehran.

While most of Iraq's insurgents are Sunni, there is considerable evidence that Shiite Iran is helping to prolong the conflict. Khalilzad says that Tehran's "short-term goal may be to keep the U.S. preoccupied in Iraq while it's advancing its long-term goal of establishing [regional] domination."

Some Western officials believe the new, shaped bombs being used against Coalition forces
with deadly effect—called "explosively formed projectiles" or EFPs—are made to the exact design perfected by Iranian intelligence and supplied to Lebanese Hizbullah in the 1980s. According to a senior security source in Iraq's Maysan province, the Iranians have also been supplying one of the Shiite militias, the Mahdi Army, with surface-to-air missiles.

The area along the 1,200-mile border between the two countries, once littered with tens of thousands of bodies after the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, continues to be a dangerous no man's land. The Iraqi delegation's 20-car convoy from the border to Baghdad, traveling at well over 100mph for long stretches, proved just how hazardous this corner of Iraq still is. (A NEWSWEEK reporter accompanied the delegation from the border crossing.) Along the way, guards from the convoy shot at some cars and forced others off the road. There were several Iraqi Army checkpoints—a signal of the increased presence of the nation's security forces—but also what appeared to be at least three ad hoc checkpoints that looked to be illegal.

The Iraqis and Iranians signed the diplomatic memo after three days of all-night negotiations in which senior officials bickered over many topics. Among them: whether the Iraqis would agree to single out the controversial anti-Tehran group based in Iraq, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, in the wording of the memorandum (Rubaie refused); and whether Iran would acknowledge its role in supporting Hizbullah activities in Iraq. After an angry denial, Tehran did finally sign on to language that states "both countries should stop any support of groups, official or non-official, including proxies" that cause trouble. The Iranians "were adamant [at first]," says Rubaie. "They didn't want to sign." But the clause was so important to the Iraqis that one of their delegation stayed until 5 in the morning to ensure that the language was included in the final draft.

Iraqi officials are all too aware of how deeply Iran has infiltrated Baghdad. Some assert that a special unit controlled by a man named Ahmed al-Mohandiss, with ties to Iran, abused the prisoners in the Interior Ministry facility. Last week, as the government was launching a promised investigation into alleged torture at the Jadriyah jail, three senior Iraqi officials told NEWSWEEK that Mohandiss was now in Iran. "He is certainly one of the people who, if we find him, there are a few questions we'd like him to answer," Rubaie says.

The Iraqis also met resistance on other issues—principally how to handle the Great Satan. Iraqi officials said they were struck by how skittish Iran remains about the continued American presence in its backyard. When one of the Iraqi delegates invited Iran's new president to visit Iraq, as thousands of Iraqi pilgrims have done over the past two years, Ahmadinejad told him, "We can't be in the same place as the Americans are. The Americans have to leave before I can come."

Afterward, on the trip back to Baghdad, the official observed: "They're obsessed with the Americans. They're really obsessed." That's exactly what has everyone so worried. Still, the Iraqis believe that the implicit message they had to deliver to Tehran—the sooner you stick to the agreement, the sooner the Americans will depart—may be their only leverage. READ MORE

With Owen Matthews in Maysan
A deeply troubling report on many levels.