TOPICS > Politics

Iran’s Role in Iraq, Nuclear Ambitions Cloud U.S. Policy

April 16, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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Six-nation talks over Iran's nuclear ambitions ended Wednesday in stalemate, though President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he was open to continued talks. Amid allegations of an Iranian role in Iraqi violence, analysts consider the state of U.S.-Iranian relations.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the increasing debate over Iran’s role in Iraq, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: During hearings last week on Capitol Hill, both General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker made clear they hold Iran responsible for some of the mayhem in Iraq.

They highlighted Iran’s support for what they called “special groups,” small militia units specially selected, trained, armed and paid by Iran.

Petraeus said these special units played a major role in the fierce intra-Shia fighting that broke out in southern Iraq and Baghdad last month.

The fighting, which included rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad, came in response to the Iraqi army’s offensive against numerous Shia militia and gangs in the oil port city of Basra.

Connecticut Independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman said the special groups have proved a formidable foe to American forces, too.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), Connecticut: Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands — excuse me, hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: It certainly is; I do believe that is correct. Again, some of that also is militia elements who have been — subsequently have been trained by these individuals.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Right.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: But there’s no question about the threat that they pose and, again, about the way that has been revealed more fully in recent weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran’s motives are murky, but Crocker said Tehran’s blueprint is becoming clearer.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Because the general level of violence is down, we could see, I think, much more sharply defined what Iran’s role is in the arming and equipping of these extremist militia groups.

And what it tells me is that Iran is pursuing, as it were, a Lebanonization strategy, using the same techniques they used in Lebanon to co-opt elements of the local Shia community and use them as basically instruments of Iranian force.

MARGARET WARNER: The Basra-Baghdad fighting ended only after Iran brokered a cease-fire.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad made a high-profile state visit to Baghdad last month, but Tehran has never publicly confirmed whatever role it’s playing with the special groups in Iraq.

Late last week, President Bush also blamed Iran for continued instability in Iraq and said the Tehran regime faced a stark choice.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It can live in peace with its neighbor, enjoy strong economic and cultural and religious ties, or it can continue to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups which are terrorizing the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: The administration says it is still open to talks with Iran about Iraq. Ambassador Crocker has met with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad, but the talks have been sporadic and inconclusive.

A focus on the Quds Force

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
The Quds Force really has been given responsibility for Iran's policy in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Iran's role in Iraq, we go to David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post, and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Born and raised in Iran, he's now a U.S. citizen.

Welcome to you both. Gentlemen, welcome back to the program.

So, David, explain what more about -- what are these special groups? And is Iraq clearly behind them?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: The special groups, by the administration's account, by what I've heard from General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, privately, in addition to their testimony, are Shiite militia fighters generally associated with Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army who are recruited, who are armed, who are trained, they were trained often in Iraq before by Iranians who had come in, they're now increasingly trained in Iran.

And the trainers and the command-and-control here is said to be the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Quds Force really has been given responsibility for Iran's policy in Iraq.

The Iranian ambassador in Baghdad -- a man named Kazemi Qumi -- is, in fact, a former member of the Quds Force. The head of the Quds Force back in Tehran is said to be the key strategist.

And in the administration's view, the Iranians are conducting a policy using these special groups as the sharp end of the spear, but as part of a broad effort involving every Shia organization in Iraq, every part of the Iraqi landscape, to try to make sure that an Iraq that is basically supportive of Iranian aims will emerge.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Ray Takeyh, isn't this just one part of this very large puzzle of Iranian influence and support and backing that it has? I mean, it supports the Iraqi army as well, does it not?

RAY TAKEYH, Council on Foreign Relations: It supports the Iraqi army. It supports the Maliki government. It supports the Hakim movement, the SCIRI, with its own militia, the Badr Brigade, which was actually created by the Iranians.

Ryan Crocker is right in a sense that he talks about Lebanonization strategy. In the early 1980s, Iranians had a strategy of economically and financially buttressing the Shia movement, but also arming it in its prospective civil war in Lebanon.

And, I mean, the same thing is happening here. These arms and munitions are designed to arm the Shias should the political process fail. Then, they can actually move in and win the civil war.

Iran pursuing conflicting goals

Ray Takeyh
Council on Foreign Relations
[Iran] does want stability in Iraq, because, obviously, the civil war coming across the border is not to Iran's interest.

MARGARET WARNER: But what does that say about its medium-term aims? I mean, do they want a weak, divided Iran with intra-Shia fighting going on, that they want it to look like Lebanon?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, Iran has a number of objectives, and sometimes they contradict one another. On the one hand, it does want stability in Iraq, because, obviously, the civil war coming across the border is not to Iran's interest, and also it tends to threaten the fragmentation of Iraq into three unstable states.

It does want to have a federal structure with a weak government, and it also wants the eviction of the American forces.

Now, the policy that realizes all these objectives is actually the political process, because it leads to ascendance of the Shia political parties, given the demographic realities, and provides the veneer of stability that can actually provoke the American exodus.

Then the question is, why the arms? The arms are designed for a civil war should that process fail.

MARGARET WARNER: But aren't the arms being used now? I mean, that's what Petraeus and Crocker are saying.

DAVID IGNATIUS: The argument is that the arms are being used now. The administration hoped last year that, for the reasons that Ray has described, Iran had an interest in a stable Iraq under this Shiite-led government.

In other words, the U.S. and Iran shared that aim, and so the hope was that gradually we'll be able to meet with the Iranians, we'll encourage our ambassador to meet with their ambassador, and over time a policy will evolve in which we're moving in a parallel direction towards stability under this government.

And what's confounded the administration, what you've heard being expressed in the testimony last week, was that, despite this expectation that the Iranians would basically be cooperative, it isn't happening on the ground.

The Iranians, by backing so many different Shiite factions, by in a sense taking the sword out of the sheath, they're showing their power and then, when it suits their purpose, negotiating a truce and putting the sword back in, you know, are obstructing the American hope of stabilizing Iraq under Maliki.

And that's what's bothering them. And, frankly, Margaret, they don't know what to do about it. I mean, the administration is now involved in a broad discussion involving many different agencies trying to figure out a strategy for Iran, because, frankly, they don't have one now that's working.

The Iranian view of U.S. forces

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
I think Crocker makes a fair point that a rapid U.S. withdrawal would leave a vacuum. Iran would seek to fill a part of it, certainly.

MARGARET WARNER: Does Iran have a clear strategy here? I mean, you said sometimes that what they're doing is at cross purposes.

RAY TAKEYH: Well, it's a sort of broad strategy, and it's designed, first and foremost, to ensure the Shia consolidation of power.

But beyond that, there's also a determination, in my view, that they want the American forces out. It is often said that they want the American forces there bleeding so they're too pre-occupied and not necessarily targeting Iranian nuclear installations or what have you. They want the American forces out.

The question therefore becomes: Do American forces leave because there's some degree of stability or do you have to inflict violence upon them, as you did in Lebanon? That's the contradiction of the policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Crocker, of course -- what we saw last week was that foiling Iran is really emerging as a key stated rationale for the U.S. remaining in Iraq.

And, for example, David Crocker said that the consequences of U.S. failure there would be that, you know, Iran said publicly it will fill any vacuum in Iraq. He also said, in the event of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, Iranians would just push that much harder. Is there merit to that?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, you know, I think Crocker makes a fair point that a rapid U.S. withdrawal would leave a vacuum. Iran would seek to fill a part of it, certainly.

And the danger of that is not simply that Iran's influence would grow in Iraq, but that that would trigger a reaction from Sunnis in Iraq and the danger of sectarian killing on just a massive scale, with thousands and thousands of deaths would be a possibility.

And I think Crocker really means that. I've heard him say, you know, he spent many years in Lebanon. He said what could happen in Iraq would make Lebanon look like nothing.

At the same time, the idea that we're going to have an open-ended proxy war, in effect, to contain Iranian influence in Iraq, which you heard in a sense between the lines last week, I don't think that's an appealing prospect to anyone.

So I think they're really caught. That's why I was going to say they're looking for a strategy that's going to be more coherent than what they have now.

RAY TAKEYH: The Iranians actually do have a strategy for mediation of the conflict. I mean, the Iranian emissaries have often gone to Saudi Arabia and suggest, "You, as a leading Sunni power, we, as a leading Shia power, should mediate the civil war, the confessional civil war in Iraq."

So they do have sort of a Baker plan without Baker. And, essentially, they seem to suggest that they could better mediate the civil war in Iraq without the American presence, that the occupation is a source of instability and ethnic conflict in that country.

And they may be wrong about that strategy and that perception, but there is an Iranian diplomatic strategy that does bring in those Sunnis, at least moderate elements of the Sunnis, within the political framework that is dominated by Shias, nonetheless.

The problem with that strategy is the Sunnis don't trust them, whether in Saudi Arabia or within Iraq today.

Consequences of Iran exerting power

Ray Takeyh
Council on Foreign Relations
Once the Sunni Middle East begins to grab Iraqis and essentially embrace them, then perhaps you can see some sort of a tension between Iranian Shias and Iraqi Arab Shias. But at this point, that's not there.

MARGARET WARNER: If you go back to what Petraeus said, that unchecked these special groups, he said, pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq. I mean, is that how you see it, or do you think that's maybe oversimplifying?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think there is a feeling that the Iranians, through all of their different cut-outs and intermediaries, all the different groups that they're funding, are in a position to exercise power now almost at will.

I mean, they didn't start the fight in Basra, but as soon as Maliki sent the army in, he was confronted by Sadrist fighters working with the special group who were a very tough adversary in Basra.

In Baghdad, you know, the Iranian operatives, the special groups did begin firing mortars into the Green Zone, killing four Americans, but basically making a havoc in Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: Of the whole city.

DAVID IGNATIUS: And I'm told by my Iraqi sources that Iranians operatives were paying $1,200 per mortar round to the families who would shoot them into the Green Zone. I mean, that's sort of the way they're operating now.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Crocker said something interesting several times at the hearing last week, which is that he thought the Iranians were overplaying their hand and that there was some growing backlash in Iraq against the Iranian forces or Iranian-backed forces appearing to foment real instability. Do you think there's something to that?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, it's certainly not happening within the Shia community. The problem that the Iraqi Shia community has and the Shia political parties have is they're largely rejected by the Arab Middle East, by the Sunni Middle East.

The Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they have to make a decision whether it's possible to be an Arab without being a Sunni. And so long as they have not recognized that, so long as they do not ascribe any legitimacy to the Iraqi Shia government, then by compulsion those Shia governments have nowhere to go.

Once the Sunni Middle East begins to grab Iraqis and essentially embrace them, then perhaps you can see some sort of a tension between Iranian Shias and Iraqi Arab Shias. But at this point, that's not there.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, then does the United States really have any ability to influence this?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well...

MARGARET WARNER: Iranian behavior?

DAVID IGNATIUS: The answer that you get from the administration is that the Iranians are cocky; they're overconfident; they see us as weak; they see America as on the way out, a new administration coming in that may well try to pull the troops out.

They think they're on a roll. And the American view is, as long as they're this cocky, they really are dangerous. In this sense, they are overplaying their hand. I don't think there's much benefit to us from their overplaying their hand, but that's the sense.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. David Ignatius, Ray Takeyh, thank you.

RAY TAKEYH: Thanks.