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Showdown With IranFRONTLINE
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Mohammad Jafari

Jafari

Jafari is deputy head of Iran's National Security Council and a senior commander of the Quds Force, which is accused of orchestrating attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. Here, Jafari denies Iran is providing Iraqi Shia extremists with explosively formed projectiles (EFP) and other assistance. He says Iran has "no interest in having an insecure Iraq" and has done more to stabilize the country than its other neighbors. Arguing that U.S. mistakes have exacerbated violence in the region, Jafari condemns the U.S. for working with the Iranian opposition terrorist group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), which is based in Iraq. As for escalating threats over the nuclear issue, he says any military action against Iran would not go unanswered. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted through an interpreter on Aug. 2, 2007.

Thank you very much for doing this. Explain what Iran's strategic objectives are with regard to Iraq.

Iran would like to see the period when Baghdad was an enemy of Tehran end, because over the past 23 years, Baghdad has cost the Islamic Republic many lives and severe economic damages. This is all Iran wants.

How can Iran contribute to that?

After the overthrow of Saddam, we provided a lot of help to give the Iraqi people an opportunity to pursue what they wanted. Iran's support of Iraqi elections and legal structures are among the most important of our efforts to establish a government of the people.

What about the [Nouri al-]Maliki government? What support has it received from Iran? Maybe you can compare that support with the support it has received, or not, from other countries in the region.

There are contracts in place between our two governments. They cover supply of electricity -- several Iraqi provinces receive their electricity supply from Iran -- fuel material such as gas, oil, cooking oil; reconstruction projects, such as building roads and tunnels, building health and medical clinics, which are currently being built there. These are all within the framework of agreements between the two governments. Also, we provided Iraqi companies with $1 billion in credit so they could engage in reconstruction projects. These are just a few examples off the top of my head at the moment.

What about the support or lack of support that the government has received from other countries in the region, for instance Saudi Arabia?

Unfortunately, most of the governments in the region would not like to see a government chosen by the people. They themselves generally don't have much interest in the voting process or in having public input in matters [of state]. This is a problem in the region.

Why not?

Because those governments themselves have come into existence through either military coups or as a result of decisions made by the superpowers after the first and second world wars. The people of those countries didn't participate in forming those governments.

For an American audience that might not know much of the history and links in the region, generally speaking, why does Iraq, and stability in Iraq, matter to Iran?

First of all, Iran shares its longest border with Iraq. Second, the majority of Iraqis are Shi'ite; we have the same religion. Third, the second largest ethnic group after Arabs are the Kurds, who are of Iranian descent. Fourth, as I mentioned in the beginning, the former Iraqi government was the single greatest source of regional problems for the Islamic Republic.

Is it important to Iran long term that the government in Baghdad be friendly or at least not hostile to Iran?

We don't like to have enemies. We would like all the countries in the region to be friends -- Iraq or any other country, no difference.

Would Iran use its influence somehow to ensure there was never again a hostile regime in Baghdad that might threaten Iran the way Saddam did?

We want the Iraqi government to be elected by the Iraqi people; that's what we want. We have faith in the choice of the Iraqi people, as well as the choice of people throughout the world. We're not worried about the Iraqi people making a bad choice. That's all we want: for the Iraqi people to make their own choices.

Tell the story of your trip to Erbil earlier this year [January 2007] and what happened, and what do you think the Americans were doing there?

[Laughs.] It appears that all American journalists are interested in the "action" part.

It's a good story.

It was not a big deal from our perspective. Mr. [Jalal] Talabani, as the president of Iraq, and Mr. [Massoud] Barzani, as the leader of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, had invited us to go there. We went there, and our visit with Mr. Talabani and Mr. Barzani [was] broadcast on television. One night while we were in Erbil, the U.S. forces attacked the Iranian consulate in Erbil and arrested our officials. That's the whole story.

And some of the reports were they were looking for you. Is that your understanding?

This is a claim that has been made. We don't have any specific information on the issue.

Did you ever feel like they were about to capture you, and how did you then leave Iraq?

Our presence in Iraq was not a secret. We departed under ordinary circumstances; there was nothing extraordinary about it. Our presence in Iraq was quite obvious.

The Americans accused Iran of, some might say, playing a double game inside Iraq: talking about stability, but in fact, the administration claims, undermining the stability at the same time, and targeting U.S. troops in particular. What's your response to that?

If Iran didn't help, Iraq would not have a political structure in place today. Iran's help made it possible for the Iraqi people to have a constitution, a parliament, a government. These are a result of Iran's help. Is helping Iraq establish a constitution, a parliament, a government contributing to its insecurity?

The truth is that U.S. forces have made repeated mistakes, and it's their mistakes that have been an impediment to security there. Iran's policy is clear. At regional and international meetings, we have supported the political process in Iraq. None of the [other] countries in the region have done so. Iran is the only state helping the political process in Iraq. How is it that the only country that supports the political process in Iraq is the one accused of undermining its security? Is that logical?

That's very clear. What about the specific accusations that they have made about the explosively formed projectiles?

JAFARI [turning to interpreter]: The questions were supposed to be about the role of Shi'a in the region. Abandon this line of questioning.

INTERPRETER: The office has sent them the questions. One of the main ones is about the Shi'ism in the region and in the Middle East, but you are not asking much about this, so --

I will ask about it, but I have to say -- yes, I will ask about that. … But I do think it's important to answer this; we'd like to have an Iranian response to these specific charges that American officials will make.

JAFARI [with a smile]: So please don't forget those questions.

Absolutely. So the charge is about the EFPs, explosively formed projectiles, and specifically the charge that American generals have made that in January, Iranian agents participated or helped organize an attack in Karbala that killed five American soldiers a week after the Erbil raid. What's your response to those two specific [charges]?

The issue was raised by U.S. forces in the media. In Tehran we have the Swiss Embassy, which has the U.S. interests section [which is charged with looking after the interests of the United States]. The U.S. government knows that if it wants a response to something, it must work through this diplomatic channel. If this wasn't propaganda, wouldn't they be better served conducting matters through the Swiss Embassy? That would give us a chance to examine the documents and to provide a response.

Have they not been raised in the Baghdad talks? Just to be clear, do you now deny those accusations?

Yes, we deny the charges. If it were not propaganda, they could have contacted us through the Swiss Embassy and we could have given them a response.

... Explain what you think is happening across the region with regard to Shi'ism. Some analysts in the West have spoken of a Shi'a revival, or an awakening, across the region -- influenced, of course, by a Shi'a government now in Baghdad. What's your sense of what's going on, on a wider level?

As I'm sure you know, Islam is made up of two major branches. Some [Muslim] followers are Sunni, others Shi'a. Within each branch, Sunni and Shi'a, there are various factions. The Middle East has people from both branches. In a country where the majority are Sunni, if there are free elections, naturally the government, the assembly, parliament will be in the hands of Sunnis. And in places with a Shi'ite majority, naturally if there are free elections, the Shi'ites will be in power. This is the natural and democratic process.

In Iraq, as a result of the free elections that took place, because the majority of people are Shi'ite, the majority in government, in parliament, are Shi'ite. This is not a revival. When Saddam Hussein was in power, free elections did not exist, so the Shi'ites couldn't reach their peak. What happened in Iraq is something natural. It was not natural in the past because a minority was imposing its rule on the majority. Shi'ites live in other countries, in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain, in the UAE [United Arab Emirates], in Lebanon. They are the majority in some places and a minority in others.

We believe that the Shi'ites and Sunnis are brothers who have been living alongside each other for centuries. If you refer to history, over the past hundreds of years we have had no Shi'ite-Sunni wars. There is a movement that does not accept any religion, not Shi'ism or Sunni. They are the source of most of the problems in the region. These people know nothing about Islam, but they use Islam in their mottos. Their behavior is condoned neither by Shi'ites nor Sunnis. Shi'ites [and Sunnis] live with each other in the Middle East; they marry, trade and do business; they live in the same neighborhoods. We have no problems. These extremists use the name of Islam to do things that are forbidden in Islam.

Are you concerned that if the situation in Iraq is not contained that the sectarian violence that we've seen there could spill over to elsewhere in the region?

Absolutely. We would like to see Iraq stabilize as soon as possible and for the people's problems to be resolved. There are those who would like to create strife among Sunnis and Shi'ites. So we'd like to have security in Iraq as soon as possible. Now that the Iraqi government has asked us to take part in three-way talks in Baghdad, representatives of the Islamic Republic are talking in Baghdad, helping Iraq gain security as soon as possible, and for Iraq's problems to be solved.

With regard to those talks [in May 2007 on the future of Iraq] in Sharm el-Sheikh -- I believe you were there -- what was it like for you, sitting across from the American delegation? What progress was made at those talks that led to the triangular discussions in Baghdad?

We didn't have any specific feelings. There were many delegations there. This was a regional meeting that included delegations from countries outside the region as well. There were no specific issues raised by the Iranian delegation except for a message that was coordinated to establish meetings later in Baghdad between the U.S., Iraqi and Iranian delegations. We met briefly, less than a minute. A representative of Iran met a representative from the United States, and we set a time for talks in Baghdad.

They had tried to capture you in Erbil and captured some of your diplomats. On a personal level, was it strange to be sitting across from the Americans in an official capacity?

We're very familiar with the mistakes Americans make. They make repeated mistakes. They don't know what they're doing in Iraq. And this was another one of those [mistakes].

I personally have no issues myself. These are matters between the governments of Iran and the United States. We don't let our personal feelings interfere with matters of state, and we consider ourselves vested with the duty to defend the interests of our people.

You mentioned some of America's mistakes. It's part of the public record that in 2001, during [U.S. military action in] Afghanistan, Iran and America cooperated to overthrow the Taliban. And Iran was helpful at the Bonn Conference [in December 2001, which established the Transitional Islamic Republic of Afghanistan]. What's happened over the past six years from that initial period of cooperation until now? What's gone wrong?

At the Bonn Conference, the Islamic Republic of Iran demonstrated its goodwill, and Iran worked very hard to help put Mr. [Hamid] Karzai in power in Afghanistan. I think less than one month after that cooperation at the Bonn Conference, Iran was accused of being part of the "axis of evil." This demonstrated [the] Americans' lack of sincerity.

The United States does not want to accept realities. It's natural that Iran no longer had a reason to continue down that path. Therefore in Iraq, helping Iraq is our primary goal. We have no other intentions.

If Iran is now participating in the Baghdad conference and speaking to the Americans, it's because the Iraqi government has asked us to do so and we have accepted.

... With regard to discussions in Baghdad and America's role in Iraq, what would you like to see the Americans do now? Does Iran favor a quick American pullout from Iraq? What specifically would you suggest the Americans do in Iraq?

Their main mistake was occupying Iraq. The next mistake was trying to support the majority in the beginning and then abandoning that process, too. It's really not clear which faction of the Iraqi people the United States is supporting today. Is it possible for the Americans to succeed without the consent of a majority of them?

On a practical level, should they start pulling out now, next year or in two years? What do you favor?

The Americans need to be honest with the Iraqis. The United States is keeping the Iraqi military and police from becoming powerful. If the United States wants to solve any problems, it should allow the Iraqi military and its police forces to grow strong so they are able to combat terrorists. Then they can quickly withdraw their troops.

Because of its oil income, the Iraqi government can become powerful very quickly. But unfortunately, the Americans are standing in the way of that; they're keeping the Iraqi military and police from becoming powerful. The terrorists have better firepower -- by that I mean weapons -- than the Iraqi military. It's really unfortunate that Iraq is being kept from acquiring the weapons necessary to take out terrorists. I provided a rough summary. The Iraqi people and Iraqi officials all know that the Americans are not being honest with them.

I think this will go down as a very negative mark against the Americans in Iraq's history, and this is something that the Iraqi people were a witness to: When U.S. forces occupied Baghdad, they guarded only one ministry -- and that was the oil ministry. The American forces stood by and watched while all the ministries were destroyed and burned to the ground by negative elements. They didn't take a single action to protect the rest of the ministries, except for the oil ministry, that is. Not a single window was shattered there. Wouldn't it have been better for the American forces to act differently so that it wouldn't have been so obvious what their real goals were in occupying Iraq?

I think it's important for Americans to know that people in the East see through all this. They follow matters closely; they're intelligent; they can make their own judgments. They know what the United States was after in occupying Iraq.

Last question. As you know, there's some speculation in Washington that before the Bush administration leaves office, it may decide to try to contain Iran and Iran's influence, perhaps with air strikes against some facilities here. Are you concerned about that? The flipside of that is others have said that over the past six years since Sept. 11, Iran has been the main beneficiary of the so-called war on terror and is stronger now than it was before. What's your sense here of Iran's position in the region? Do you feel more secure now than you did five, six years ago?

As to whether the Americans will attack, I have no certain ideas. That which is important for me is defense. It's clear that over the past three decades the Islamic Republic has left no attack without a response. That's our policy. That's our defense policy, and it will never change.

You will not find a single instance in which a country has inflicted harm on us and we have not responded. So if the United States makes such a mistake, they should know that we will definitely respond. And we don't make idle threats. Our past has demonstrated this. Just as we made Saddam Hussein forever sorry he attacked Iran, anyone else who attacks Iran will be very sorry. To say that the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was just in the interests of Iran, no, that was not the case. The Taliban weren't anything to us, or Saddam Hussein for that matter. At the time that he was very powerful and had the support of some of the countries in the region, and the United States supported him, and the former Soviet Union supported him, some of the European states supported him, we stood up against him. We defeated him. He wasn't able to gain the smallest bit of Iranian territory. That's a reality for us.

Saddam Hussein was no longer a threat to us; neither was the Taliban. Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were problems for the United States. The United States itself created them, and the United States itself destroyed them. In the meantime, it was just a great inconvenience for us and the people of Iraq, and for us and the people of Afghanistan. But ultimately terrorism spread through the support of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and all the harm was inflicted on the United States.

... Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we haven't covered here? I want to make sure we cover everything.

Let me also add that if the United States took out the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, it was only with the help of the Islamic Republic that the replacement governments were established in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today Mr. Karzai's government is operating with the help of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mr. Maliki's and Mr. Talabani's governments in Iraq are operating with the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran, meaning Iran has acted responsively, as a responsible government. But unfortunately, the mistakes being committed by U.S. forces get in the way of establishing peace in the region.

I want to also give a quick summary of Iran's foreign policy after Sept. 11.

Yes, please.

We need to look closely at why terrorism spread, first in the Middle East and then to Western countries, including the United States. At the beginning of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, terrorist groups in Iran were very active. Unfortunately, the West did not condemn them. Terrorists, just 200 meters from where we are sitting here, assassinated the president and prime minister at the same time.

France officially recognized the leaders of this terrorist Mujahideen-e Khalq [MEK] group. It was members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq who first strapped themselves with explosives and blew themselves up among civilians, killing our people and our officials. The West sat back quietly, so their behavior became an example for other terrorists. In the recent history of the region, Iran was the first country to fall victim to terrorism.

After Sept. 11, the Iranian government immediately expressed its sympathy to the American people. The president at the time sent a message expressing our condolences. We are against every kind of terrorism. From our perspective, there is no difference between "a good terrorist" and "a bad terrorist." A terrorist is a terrorist. You can't deal with one set of terrorists and not the others. All governments must denounce anyone who kills innocent people and uses violence to target innocent civilians. We believe that the Islamic Republic has dealt strongly with terrorism in the Middle East and has tried sincerely to cooperate in eradicating terrorism. The Islamic Republic and the Iranian people can be considered the first victims of terrorism. Thank you.

On the [MEK], what do you think of America's relationship with the [MEK] and Camp Ashraf in Iraq? Are they being sincere? Should they be disbanded?

The American government has also announced that this group is a terrorist group, and it was our expectation that they would be dealt with like any other terrorist group. But unfortunately, over the past four years the United States has put them under its protection in Iraq and has used them to spy on the Islamic Republic. We have solid evidence that this group is providing intelligence to U.S. forces. This group tries to further poison the mind-set that the U.S. forces in Iraq have about Iran. U.S. intelligence sources on Iran are mainly made up of members of this group. The issue we have is that this is a terrorist group. Why are you working with them? Why are they being used as a source?

In the recent negotiations that the Iranian delegation had in Baghdad with the American delegation in the presence of Iraqi officials, the Iranian delegation presented evidence that was provided by this group to U.S. officials in Iraq, and that U.S. officials relied upon against Iran.

What was the reply? What did the Americans say?

They couldn't deny it because it was heavily documented.

They [the MEK] had provided false documentation purporting to show that Iranians traveling to Karbala for reconstruction of Shi'a holy shrines [were] Iranian intelligence officers. The Iranian delegation said that all these people are well known by Iraqi officials; they're construction workers, laborers and masons. These are the same technicians responsible for other projects in Najaf and Karbala. Has the U.S. been able to single even one of them out for having been involved in anything but reconstruction efforts? They couldn't have come up with anything like that except for the [fabricated] documents provided by the Mujahideen-e Khalq.

Are you asking them to disband the [MEK]?

We are asking what Iraqi officials are asking, something that can be found in the Iraqi Constitution, and that is that no terrorist group should exist in Iraq.

That's interesting. ... When they [the Americans] present what they said is evidence of Quds Force involvement in Iraq, what's your response? What do they present as evidence? How credible is it at all? And what's your response?

[Editor's note: The interpreter rephrases the question and leaves out any mention of Quds Force, asking Jafari: "Have the Americans provided any documents to back their claims? If they have, what has been your response? What documents did they provide?"]

Well, they haven't provided any new evidence. They brought up the same things they have made issues of in the media, nothing more than that.

They say they are. They said in private discussions they're presenting evidence of Quds Force involvement, training militias inside Iraq. Is that completely false?

[Editor's note: The interpreter again omits any mention of Quds Force from the question, asking Jafari: "But they claim, at least to the media, that in private negotiations, to have provided a great deal of documents to the Iranians of their involvement, including training military forces, providing military equipment and other equipment. Is this a lie? Have they not done such a thing?"]

According to the report of the Iranian delegation, the Americans presented no additional documentation to the Iranians other than what was previously presented to the media.

After the documents regarding the Mujahideen-e Khalq had been presented to the U.S. delegation, [Ambassador] Mr. [Ryan] Crocker had said: "We consider them terrorists, whether [called] Mujahideen-e Khalq or the National Council of Resistance, and they must be prosecuted. We have blocked their funds in the United States. We've asked our European friends to block their funds." The documents were so incontrovertible that even Mr. Crocker had given such a response to the Iranian delegation.

Regarding these allegations -- even though we've gone overtime, twice as much time has passed.

[Laughs.] I know, I know.

Look, for years the U.S. government claimed that Iran was involved in the explosion of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Well, Iran always denied this allegation. We said we had no involvement whatsoever. It took several years, but this year Mr. William Perry, the former U.S. defense minister, came out and said that "We have come to discover that Iran had no hand in this."

The problem with the U.S. intelligence system is that it receives its intelligence about Iran from Iran's enemies. This may prompt the American government to make some mistakes. And you can be sure that this is the case, too, with respect to Iraq. ...

The United States gets its intelligence [about Iran] from two sources in Iraq. One is the Mujahideen-e Khalq; the other is the Mukhabarat intelligence [agency].

The Mukhabarat organization, created by the Americans and still not under the control of the Iraqis but under the control of Americans, is made up entirely of Baath Party officials, Saddam's old spies, who were active in spying on Iran. Outside these two sources, no one provides the intelligence they have on Iran.

So these are America's intelligence sources. It's natural -- what kind of information do they provide to the U.S. on Iran? Do they provide good intelligence about Iran to the United States, or will they try to exacerbate existing conflicts between Iran and the U.S. to further their own interests?

We are truly sorry for the American people and the United States, because they are apparently unable to see the truth. The Iranian government acts very responsibly in the region. If it weren't for the responsibilities taken on by the Iranian government, there would be a lot of problems in the region.

Over the past three severe winters in the region, if Iran had not very quickly exported oil and cooking oil to Baghdad and the Iraqi people, it's not clear what kind of human catastrophe would have taken place in Baghdad. We acted; no one else did. None of America's friends did anything. Isn't this responsible action?

You can confirm this information by asking the Iraqi and even U.S. officials in Baghdad, other than Iran, who came to the aid of the people in Baghdad? Why aren't some of the countries in the region, which are friends of the United States, helping? And yet the U.S. government doesn't complain about them. Why do these U.S.-friendly countries, from where the terrorists are coming, and -- you know that 70 percent of the terrorists captured in Iraq are from an Arab country that is a friend of the United States. To this day not one "Iranian terrorist" has been captured. Not one suicide bomber has been Shi'a. But the propaganda is all directed against Iran. Why?

I need to clarify something on the [MEK], People's Mujahideen. Are you saying that the U.S. government is actively using the [MEK] to spy on Iran inside Iraq? And do you believe they are trying to somehow use the [MEK] to destabilize the Iranian government?

Yes. We gave this evidence to the Americans and told them you are doing so, and asked why are you doing so?

Finally, to be clear, when America says, yes, Iran might favor a stable Iraq, but at the same it's trying to give America a black eye by cooperating with groups attacking American troops, that accusation is true or false?

I tell them that this is definitely a false accusation against the Islamic Republic. We have no interest in having an insecure Iraq, and our actions over the past four years demonstrate this. We are not helping any group that is causing problems in Iraq. Our policy has been very clear over the past four years: anti-occupation, anti-violence. That's our policy. We've strongly defended this policy. We consider this to be the correct policy.

Time will prove our case, just as it happened with respect to the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

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posted october 23, 2007

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