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Iran’s Influence in Iraq Under Increased Scrutiny

October 8, 2007 at 6:05 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iran connection in Iraq. We start with some background.

On Sunday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq again accused Iran of military meddling there and stepped up the rhetorical combat with the Iranian regime. General David Petraeus said that Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force was supplying weapons that kill American troops, and he told reporters that the Iranian ambassador to Iraq is a member of that force.

Petraeus said, “They are responsible for providing the weapons, the training, the funding, and in some cases the direction for operations that have indeed killed U.S. soldiers. The Quds Force controls the policy for Iraq.”

The Iranians responded saying, “These are not new comments. It is baseless and not right.”

The Quds Force is part of Iran’s larger Revolutionary Guards, which was recently labeled a terrorist organization in a non-binding vote by a large majority in the U.S. Senate.

Petraeus provided no evidence for his assertions, including the specific allegation about Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, but the Bush administration has increasingly sought to blame Iran for destabilizing Iraq. Last month, the president linked his Iraq policy to keeping Iran in check.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: A free Iraq will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. military officials have shown reporters large caches of weapons they say came from Iran. In particular, officials point to one devastating variant of the roadside bomb: the explosively formed penetrator. The EFP, as it is called, can destroy the largest battle tank in the U.S. arsenal.

Tensions have been exacerbated by repeated U.S. detentions of Iranian operatives in Iraq, amid an escalating war of words between Washington and Tehran.

Iran promoting radical Shia groups?

Peter Rodman
Brookings Institution
I think Iran's influence is seen in promoting the most radical of the Shia groups or supporting those who I think are the biggest obstacle to our political objectives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We get two views on Iran's role in Iraq. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Born and raised in Iran, he is now a U.S. citizen. And Peter Rodman served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs until earlier this year. He's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Gentlemen, welcome to both of you.

Peter Rodman, to you first. What exactly is the Iranian government doing in Iraq? And what evidence do we have that they're doing it?

PETER RODMAN, The Brookings Institution: What General Petraeus is saying is, I believe, the consensus of the intelligence community in the U.S. government, so he's not winging it here. He's saying what is widely believed to be true, its weapons, its training for the paramilitary groups, radical Shia that are trying to kill Americans, and in the political realm, as well.

You know, one of our key objectives in Iraq is political accommodation, reconciliation among the groups. And I think Iran's influence is seen in promoting the most radical of the Shia groups or supporting those who I think are the biggest obstacle to our political objectives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Promoting them how? I mean, people...

PETER RODMAN: Money, training, advice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that a picture pretty much, Ray Takeyh, that you see, as well, that that's what Iran is up to?

RAY TAKEYH, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, the Iranian policy toward Iraq at this point is to empower the Shia community, empower them politically, diplomatically, economically and militarily, to provide ammunitions for them, not a sophisticated variety, but the purpose of that is essentially trying to arm one side in the ongoing Iraqi civil war.

Iran is siding with SCIRI, which is a legitimate part of the Iraqi political landscape that has close relationship with Maliki government, which is the official government of Iraq, but also the Sadrist movement, as well. So in that sense, it has a lot of different allies and cards to play within the larger Shia community.

Relations with Maliki government

Ray Takeyh
Council on Foreign Relations
These demarcations don't exist easily. The Sadr movement, on the one hand, it is a radical movement, but also it has representation in the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi cabinet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you two saying the same thing here, that you both see what Iran is doing the same way?

RAY TAKEYH: I think Peter is suggesting that Iran's policy is much more antagonistic toward the Iraqi government, while that actually doesn't seem to be the case, because they do have good relations with the Maliki government. Nor would I suggest that the purpose of the Iranian policy is necessarily to bleed the Americans; it's to empower the Shia community and some of those arms coming across the border get misused or misallocated. I'm not quite sure if there's that degree of specific Iranian operational targeting of American forces.

PETER RODMAN: Well, I think there is, on the last point. But there's -- we, too, are supporting the Maliki government. We, too, have good ties with the group that's called SCIRI. Where we and Iran divert is...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What again is SCIRI?

PETER RODMAN: SCIRI is the old name of a moderate Shia group that, in fact, we've had good relations with and Iran has had good relations with.

RAY TAKEYH: And Iran created.

PETER RODMAN: That's right. But there's a point of convergence there. Where Iran and we are antagonistic is that Iran is also supporting radical groups that are displaying a very disruptive role. And, in fact, for them to support Muqtada al-Sadr, that's a rival to SCIRI.

So the Iranians are playing a spoiler role. If they were supporting the same folks we're supporting, there'd be no problem, but they're playing a spoiler role.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don't see that?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, I mean, it's much more ambiguous. These demarcations don't exist easily. The Sadr movement, on the one hand, it is a radical movement, but also it has representation in the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi cabinet. And for Iraq to have a solution, to have some sort of cohesive national government, in some form the Sadrist movement has to be part of the picture.

Keeping Iraq divided, weak

Peter Rodman
Brookings Institution
I think Iran wants Iraq to be weak, to remain divided. They want to bleed us, and they want to drive us out. This is a strategic decision I think Iran has made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What ultimately, Peter Rodman, do you think Iran's goal is in Iraq? What ultimately do they want out of all this?

PETER RODMAN: I think Iran wants Iraq to be weak, to remain divided. They want to bleed us, and they want to drive us out. This is a strategic decision I think Iran has made. If all they wanted was a friendly Shia-led Iraq, then we and they might have had a parallel interest here, because we were empowering the Shia by going in and liberating the country and turning it over to a majority.

I believe Iran is playing a spoiler role, a disruptive role. The EFPs, these advanced weapons, are killing Americans. So I think they have made a strategic decision to try to bleed us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you think they've been doing this all along, or that is this a new...

PETER RODMAN: Well, the last year or so. I forget -- when the U.S. government started speaking about it, it was a fairly recent development. I mean, it started in the south, actually, against British forces, these Iranian-sourced weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ray Takeyh, how do you see what Iran's long-term goals are here?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, there are several. And in some cases, they do converge with the American goals. Number one, maintaining the territorial cohesion of Iraq, as opposed to having it fragment into three independent states. Number two, facilitating the empowerment of the Shia community becoming the majority government. Number three is having facilitating the withdrawal of the American forces.

So, in large measure, some of those goals are consistent with ours. We want to maintain Iraq as a territorial entity. We want the democratic process that will inevitably lead to Shia empowerment, given the demographic realities. And we want to leave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying you think Iran wants a stable Iraq as a next-door neighbor?

RAY TAKEYH: A stable Iraq, but just as Peter said, an Iraq that doesn't necessarily contest Iranian power in the Gulf. That necessarily means a decentralized Iraq and, indeed, a weak Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A weak Iraq.

RAY TAKEYH: And that's essentially the Iraqi constitution, a federal structure with a weak central government.

PETER RODMAN: I think Iran is destabilizing Iraq. I mean, if our objectives were the same, then Iran would look on smiling as we helped build a stable Iraq. That's not what they're doing; they're doing the opposite.

They're destabilizing Iraq and making it harder for us to achieve the kind of reconciliation we're trying to achieve. I think it's opportunistic; I think it's mischievous; I think it's hostile to what we're trying to achieve.

Goals coincide on larger level

Ray Takeyh
Council on Foreign Relations
I think to suggest that Iranians want to kill Americans in Iraq, and that's the operational strategic policy of the country, I would say maybe it's a bit exaggerated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm trying to get at where the divergence is, and why you think their motives are bad motives, at least from the U.S. perspective, and your view is not quite so negative.

RAY TAKEYH: Well, the problem that we're in here is that, although at the larger level some of our goals may coincide -- and, indeed, that's what Ryan Crocker said, after his first meeting with Iranian counterpart Mr. Qomi. He said, on a larger level, our goals coincide.

However, they haven't translated to operational cooperation. And part of the reason for that is -- part of the reason for that is we essentially suggest that Iran has no interest in Iraq. The meetings that happened been Iran and the United States in Iraq are tantamount to Ambassador Crocker going in and reading the Iranians the riot act. That's not negotiations; that's a rebuke.

If we start from a different position, that Iran will have the interest in Iraq and will have influence in Iraq, and the challenge of American diplomacy is to have to channel those influences in the right direction, into a positive direction, then you may have a better discussion between the two countries designed to stabilize Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying that's not happening?

RAY TAKEYH: That's not happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying it should happen?

RAY TAKEYH: It should happen, and it can happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying it should or shouldn't?

PETER RODMAN: Iran has -- well, we've had a conversation, but I think the Iranians are lying. I mean, they say, "Oh, we want a stable Iraq," and they don't. Killing Americans is not a contribution to a stable Iraq or to anything that remotely resembles what we're trying to achieve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about on that point? I mean, if they're putting these EFPs down to kill Americans, is that consistent with what you see?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, these weapons are coming into Iraq, and I think there's no doubt they're coming in from Iran. They're designed to essentially arm the Shia militias in their ongoing context with the Sunni insurgency. So, in that sense, as that particular civil war intensifies, this sophistication of munitions will similarly intensify.

I think to suggest that Iranians want to kill Americans in Iraq, and that's the operational strategic policy of the country, I would say maybe it's a bit exaggerated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying that's a byproduct of what's...

RAY TAKEYH: I just don't think that's where they're at. I think, once these munitions get to Iraq, how they're used or misused is beyond the operational control of Tehran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's disagreement here. What, then, should the U.S. policy be toward Iran?

PETER RODMAN: I think we should start rolling up, as we have, rolling up Iranians that we catch on Iraqi soil, I think very aggressively, as we've started to do, detaining people, because they have no business making mischief in Iraq.

I think this also then feeds into the bigger question of Iran, dealing with Iran overall, because we have many other grievances with Iran. And the issue of economic sanctions has arisen because of Iran's nuclear weapons and subversion in Lebanon, et cetera.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So continue to be aggressive in going after any Iranian presence?

PETER RODMAN: I think we have a big Iran problem, and the Iraq problem is one part of that.

RAY TAKEYH: That's true. I mean, the level of grievances that we have with Iran and disagreements aren't limited to Iraq. They tend to be the nuclear issues; they tend to be Gulf issues; they tend to be terrorism, Palestinian peace process, Hezbollah...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in the short run, the U.S. should...

RAY TAKEYH: The door to walk in to a larger negotiations with the United States and Iran would be through Iraq, where there are some coincidence of interest, and it's possible to arrive at some sort of an agreement between the two powers and at least some sort of a (inaudible).

You can't do that if your declared policy is to prevent a country next door from having any influence in the country that is right there. It's incongruous to say the United States has interests in Iraq to the point of invading it, but the neighboring countries don't.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we hear you both, and we know that we're going to continue to talk about all of this. Ray Takeyh, Peter Rodman, thank you both. We appreciate it.

PETER RODMAN: Thank you.