Iran Plays Growing Role in Iraq, Complicating Bush's Strategy
Jay Solomon in Washington, Farnaz Fassihi in Baghdad, Iraq, and Philip Shishkin in Amarah, Iraq, The Wall Street Journal:
Bush administration officials who promoted war with Iraq envisioned Americans reshaping the country in their own image after the war. Instead, the reshaping is increasingly being carried out by Iran -- the same nation that has provoked a diplomatic furor over its nuclear ambitions.
Iran's influence is most apparent in Iraqi politics, where a Shiite-dominated coalition has just nominated a prime minister with close ties to Tehran, but it also emerges in many areas of Iraqi life that get less notice. Iranian businessmen are some of the largest investors in restoring Iraq's shattered infrastructure. Nonprofit groups from Iran are providing basic health services that crumbled in the chaos following the U.S.-led invasion. Iraq's Shiite media are getting training from experts across the border.
"America occupies Iraq, but Iran influences us," says Sheikh Kashef al-Qhatta, a prominent Shiite cleric and political analyst based in Baghdad. READ MORE
While Tehran has little motive now to throw Iraq into further turmoil, its ability to do so could undermine the Bush administration's attempt to stop Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and European nations are pushing Iran to freeze the program, which they fear is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon. Iran says its program is peaceful.
If Iran wished to make life difficult for the U.S. and its troops in Iraq, it might draw on the support of Iraqi Shiite leaders. One who has battled U.S. forces in the past, Muqtada al Sadr, pledged on a visit to Tehran last month to back Iran in any military showdown with the U.S. Tehran also has helped finance and train Shiite militias and paramilitary units in Iraq such as the Badr Brigades.
"They believe they can just pin us down in Iraq," says George Perkovich, a national security analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, who visited Tehran last year.
Iran's influence inside Iraq also is threatening to exacerbate Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Middle East. Muslims from the Sunni branch of Islam have long dominated Arab politics. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led ruling clique controlled a nation that is only an estimated 20% Sunni Arab. Now Sunni Arab leaders such as Jordan's King Abdullah II have voiced concerns about a possible "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran to the Arabian Gulf.
Bush administration officials say they are working to counter gun-running by Iranians into Iraq or any effort by Tehran to install theocratic Shiite rule in Baghdad. The Pentagon has increased border surveillance along the Iran-Iraq border, these officials say. The U.S. says it is ready to work with a permanent government led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who currently holds the prime minister's post on an interim basis.
U.S. officials and some who study the Middle East say the danger of Iran gaining sway in Iraq may be mitigated by differences between the two nations. Iraq's population is primarily Arab, while Iran's is majority Persian and Farsi-speaking. The countries fought a long war in the 1980s. "The political dynamics in Iraq should check the direct influence from Iran," said an administration official. "Iraqis are in control over Iraq's political destiny."
Wayne White, who headed the State Department's Iraq intelligence team during the war and now is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, says Iraq's Shiite parties aren't going to take dictation from Tehran just because they are Shiite. "Over the long run, they could operate quite separately from the Iranians," he says. "You're not seeing it now because the political situation in Iraq is not mature."
Still, Iran's influence in Iraq today runs counter to the scenario many Bush administration strategists presented in the months heading into the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the time, policy makers saw a democratic Iraq as a base for promoting Western-style democracy in neighboring countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Some advocates of the war said a post-Saddam Iraq also would provide a military platform to pressure Iran to drop its nuclear program.
"Iran was always the big enemy, and Iraq the cakewalk," says Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served in the Pentagon's office of Near East and South Asia in the months heading into the war.
Despite Washington's concerns with Tehran, U.S. military planners did little to stop Iran from spreading its influence in Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell, say American and Iraqi officials. Teams of Iranian medical workers, volunteers for charity groups and religious missionaries streamed across Iran's border into Baghdad and Iraq's predominantly Shiite south.
A nonprofit group called "Reconstruction of the Holy Shrines of Iraq" was established in Iran, with ties to the Tehran government. On its Web site, it now boasts of 300-plus construction, cultural and religious projects it has completed from Baghdad to Basra in the south.
Posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of Iran's Islamic revolution, quickly adorned the walls of Shiite neighborhoods, and Iraq's supermarkets suddenly were full of Iranian goods, especially food and health products.
On the political front, teams of Iranian volunteers traveled to Iraq to instruct Shiite activists in mobilizing mosques and clerics for a big turnout. At some Baghdad mosques, local Shiite leaders started voter-education lectures by playing a taped message in Arabic by Iran's conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Many of the Shiite politicians and Islamic scholars who quickly rose to lead post-Saddam Iraq -- such as Prime Minister Jaafari and Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim -- are men who were persecuted under Mr. Hussein's rule and exiled to Tehran. Mr. Jaafari was nominated Sunday by the Shiite-dominated ruling coalition to serve a full four-year term once a new government is inaugurated in the coming weeks. Many Sunnis accuse Mr. Jaafari of tolerating human-rights abuses of Sunni prisoners and failing to control Shiite militias.
Iran was the first country in the Middle East to formally recognize the first post-Saddam Shiite government last summer.
Iraq's most prominent Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, maintained close ties with Tehran during Saddam Hussein's rule and today channels millions of dollars monthly into Islamic research centers and theological schools in Iran, according to his Web site, demonstrating the growing convergence of Iran's and Iraq's religious elite.
One influential Tehran-funded group working inside Iraq is the Organization of Ahl-ul-Bait, whose leaders include Iranian mullahs and a former Iranian foreign minister. It has dispatched ambulances, doctors and teachers over the border to Iraq. According to its Web site, Ahl-ul-Bait has held book fairs in Shiite cities such as Najaf and has created a union to promote the shared interests of Iranian and Iraqi Shiite merchants.
The influx from Iran also has brought in a steady stream of guns and munitions, say U.S. intelligence officials. "Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anticoalition attacks," the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, told the Senate this month. He said Tehran is helping Shiite militants build improvised explosive devices.
Mr. White, the former State Department official, says he received reliable reports about significant quantities of arms coming in from Iran in the months after Saddam Hussein's fall. The Pentagon didn't have enough troops to police both the Syrian and Iranian borders, Mr. White says. The U.S. move to disband Iraq's army after the invasion resulted in large sections of Iraq's borders being practically unpoliced.
"Everyone knew there was gun-running and that it was coming through al-Amarah," says Mr. White, referring to the capital of Maysan province in southeast Iraq. "The eastern border with Iran was totally out of control."
Tehran has consistently denied charges that it is distributing munitions in Iraq or is seeking to ensnare Iraq in the dispute with the West over the Iranian nuclear program. Iran "gives special importance to restoring stability and security in Iraq," Iran's second-highest diplomat in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, said this week, according to Iran's state Islamic Republic News Agency. "An insecure Iraq can be turned into a convenient arena for terrorism that can exported to neighboring states, which Iran does not like."
Since last October, British commanders -- working with Iraqi border guards, Bedouin tribesmen and other local leaders -- have been dispatching teams of paratroopers in Land Rovers to survey and seal a 155-mile-long stretch of border separating Maysan province from Iran. It is a varied landscape of marshes, desert and rocky cliffs.
The eventual British goal is "to disrupt anything that's coming across the border, such as weapons and munitions, that can be used against multinational forces" in Iraq, says Maj. Chris Titcombe, who led a patrol last year. The British military is encouraging the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement to take the lead in these operations, say British officials.
The British say they are seeing an increasing number of "shaped charges," sophisticated explosive devices that are triggered via an infrared signal and can pierce armor. These devices first appeared in Maysan last summer and later were used near Basra in attacks against British forces. Local commanders and coalition officials say they have no evidence linking them directly to Tehran, but they say the technology is similar to that used by Hezbollah, a radical Shiite group in Lebanon funded by Tehran.
Iran has also influenced Iraq's media. When Iraqi Shiites set up two broadcast television stations called al-Furat and Miladi after Mr. Hussein was toppled, they received technical help from Iranians, according to Iraqi journalists and government officials. "Everything from A to Z was done by Iran," says Khazzal Ghazi, an Iraqi correspondent for al-Alaam, an Iranian satellite news channel.
Al-Alaam, which airs in Arabic, is itself a major influence in Iraq. Unlike Western media organizations holed up in Baghdad, al-Alaam has bureaus and correspondents in every one of Iraq's 18 provinces, including those dominated by Sunnis.
Even in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, which is dominated by Sunni Kurds and is generally pro-American, Iran enjoys economic influence. Iraq's first trade and commerce fair after the fall of Saddam Hussein was sponsored by Iran's minister of commerce and was held in Sulaimaniyah, part of Iraq's Kurdish region, in September 2003. Today, construction materials such as cement, glass and bricks are imported from Iran and distributed by Kurdish businessmen throughout Iraq, according to local Iraqi and Iranian businessmen.
Tehran has signed two contracts to provide electricity to Iraq from the Iranian provinces of Ammarah and Diyalah. Tehran and Baghdad have discussed establishing a pipeline taking Iraq's oil to Iranian ports for export. The moves have irritated U.S. officials, though they have no direct way to block them.
In November, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a secular-minded Shiite, traveled to Iran and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iranian government. The memorandum stated that both countries would refrain from supporting or funding groups that aim to create trouble or overthrow the other's regime. The following month, Shiite-based parties won a plurality of seats in National Assembly elections.
One newly elected legislator is Khudeyr al-Khuzaee. He fled to Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule, lived in Tehran for two decades and taught at a state university before returning to his home country after the American-led invasion. "We have one criterion: Any country that is closest to our people and our interest is our best friend," Mr. Khuzaee says. "And right now that country is Iran."
Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon.com, Farnaz Fassihi at email@example.com and Philip Shishkin at firstname.lastname@example.org