Months before the invasion of Iraq, the signs seemed clear that its neighbor, Iran, would have a strong influence in the post-war nation.
How much does Iraq matter to Iran?
Iraq matters a great deal to Iran. It is, first of all, a Shi'a-majority country; more than half the population is Shi'a. And given [Shi'a] Iran's own aspirations to a kind of pan-Islamic standing, the fate of Iraqi Shi'a was a matter of you could say ideological importance for the for the Islamic Republic.
Strategically, Iraq had always been treated by the United States and other Arab states as kind of the bulwark against the spread of Iranian influence in the region, particularly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The United States and every Arab state except Syria had supported Iraq in an aggressive war against Iran during the 1980s, a war in which Iraq had used chemical weapons against military and civilian targets in Iran. And Iran was determined that if Saddam was going to be overthrown, that Iraq never again be allowed to act as that kind of platform for attacking the most vital Iranian interest. It's very, very important to them in that sense as well.
And I think in even broader balance-of-power terms, one of the objectives of Iranian foreign policy during the Islamic Republic has been to reduce the American presence in the region. ... And particularly following an American-led military campaign to overthrow the Taliban, if you then had an American-led war to overthrow Saddam Hussein -- for all that the Iranians hated the Saddam Hussein regime, you really had a serious risk of things running in the wrong direction, from an Iranian perspective, in terms of U.S. standing and influence in the Persian Gulf. So for all of these reasons what the United States was going to do in Iraq vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein was a very important matter for the Islamic Republic. ...
I don't believe the United States understood the depth of cultural ... relationship between Iran and Iraq, and then also Iraq and Lebanon. There is an enormous amount of popular-level desire in Iran for the shrine cities of Iraq to be open to Iran. This is not just a project of Iranian government. The Iranian government may want strategic influence in Iraq, may want intelligence influence, may want military influence, but the Iranian people want access to those shrines. [More than 1 million] Iranians go to Iraq, despite the threats of suicide bombing.
And why do they go?
Because the Shi'a religion is very much attached to the shrines of saints who defined this religion early on, the most significant being the shrines in Najaf and the shrine in Karbala. ...
We sort of thought of Iran and Iraq in nation-state terms: They are Arab and these guys are Iranian. They fought a war and they should hate one another.
Now this shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of the cultural, social, political scene in the region. Yes, it's true that Iranians are Iranians and Iraqis are Iraqis, but they are bound together at this moment in time by a variety of factors. Some are political, but a lot of them are cultural and economic. The economy of southern Iraq, particularly Najaf and Karbala compared to either Basra or Baghdad, is doing very well, largely because of the money that the Iranian pilgrims bring in, because of the investments that a lot of Iranians have made in Iraq. Southern Iraq is full of Iranian goods: air conditioners, cars, various kinds of consumer manufactured goods. ...
So while the United States was busy trying to locate connections between intelligence operatives -- which are there -- what it was missing was that at a much more fundamental level, southern Iraq and western Afghanistan were being integrated into a larger Iranian sea of influence. Language matters, religion matters, culture matters, but so does economic relationships and people-to-people relationships. ...
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, there are a couple of meetings [about Afghanistan] that you're at with the Iranians, where, as a side issue, Iraq is discussed and the impending hostile military action. Tell us about this.
We had essentially focused on Afghanistan until June 2002 with loya jirga. ... But by January 2003, the composition of the talks on the Iranian side changed; on their side, one of the people was replaced by, at that time it was a deputy foreign minister. ... And he comes, and he wants to talk about Iraq, and we start to talk about Iraq. [Then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] Ryan [Crocker] starts to talk about it.
Essentially the Iranians say what they said about Afghanistan; that they would provide the same type of unconditional support that they had provided on Afghanistan; that they would not view it as a hostile intrusion on their air space if an American plane crossed into their air space; if an American plane was either shot down or accidentally ended up on their territory that they would provide assistance; and any humanitarian need could go through Iran.
They wanted our help to make sure that they got the financial assistance to do that. And they wanted our help in a post-Saddam phase in reparations to Iran emanating from their eight-year conflict with Iraq. ... And they wanted to work with us to help politically reconstitute the country in a way that would make sure that Iraq was democratic and not a threat to its neighbors.
The [pre-invasion] December 2002 meeting with the Iraqi opposition in London. What was the atmosphere?
There were two very important lessons I think the U.S. learned in London then. One, that Ahmad Chalabi was a paper tiger. He spent most of his time marching from meeting to meeting but very little time in meeting with Iraqis. They just didn't give him the time of day.
The other important lesson had to do with Iran's influence. The U.S. government recognized for the first time that a lot of these Iraqi Shi'a groups were much more beholden to Tehran than they were to us.
And when it became time for Iraqis to designate an advisory council to [U.S. Ambassador at Large for the Free Iraqis Zalmay] Khalilzad, as a transition planning process was moving forward, none of those Iraqi Shi'a groups were prepared to put names on the table before they got on the phone with Tehran and cleared that. ...
During the meeting they were on the cell phone calling Tehran?
I wasn't privy to those conversations, but it was certainly Khalilzad's view that he couldn't get names from them because Iran wouldn't green-light those names.
How did he react to that?
Angrily. He felt that Iran was bring disruptive. He had a job to do, which was to create a show that Iraqis were unified and in support of America's agenda, and it wasn't nearly as clean in reality as it was in the script.
U.S. officials that I've talked to, ... they all knew about Iran's influence with these groups. Why was it a surprise to the Bush administration?
Everybody knew that Iran had influence, but as we got closer and closer to pulling the trigger in Iraq, we discovered the degree of Iran's influence. And I think Iraqis also recognized that when we got close to showtime, that they needed to keep their friends close to them. They had friends in Tehran, and they weren't going to disassociate from those relationships. Chalabi was outspoken about saying that, "We have allies in Iran, and those are good friends. We're not going to leave them." ...
During the week before the London opposition conference, the penultimate event during the run-up to the war, all the leading opposition figures met in Tehran to caucus their strategy. The fact that they went to Tehran to do that was revealing. They certainly weren't there only to speak to one another; they were there to talk to Iranian officials about how to comport themselves.
How did that go down in the U.S. government?
U.S. officials weren't happy about it, but there was nothing they could do about it. That was the bitter pill that they had to swallow. That was the reality check. ...
Was there naiveté on the part of the U.S. to think Iran was not going to try to exert its influence so strongly in a post-war Iraq?
Look, there were many mistakes made in the evaluation about Iraq and what state its society was in, what would happen after the war. But among those many mistakes there was certainly was not any underestimation of the role that Iran would play in Iraq.
There was a good understanding that the Shi'a community in Iraq was going to be the heart and center of post-war politics and that that community would want good relations with Iran and that there would be powerful pro-Iranian voices within that community. And in the thinking in Washington in the lead-up to the Iraq war, we looked in the mirror and decided we can accept that. ...
... What was Iran's position, activities, on the ground inside Iraq in the first year or so after the invasion? ...
Iran wanted to have agents of influence in the disordered circumstances of post-war Iraq. That meant doling out large amounts of money and doling out arms. Although the country wasn't awash in arms, the money was probably much more important. And Iran was particularly concerned about grabbing influence with the religious establishment, so Iran spent lots of money to cement a close relationship with the theological seminaries in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Were they holding back on creating trouble with the U.S.?
There was some parallel interest between Iran and the United States. Think of the first referendum held in Iraq. If it hadn't been for all those thousands of clerical students that the Iranians sent to beat the bushes in the Shi'a areas urging people to turn out, that referendum would have been very different. So that's a good example of a strong, parallel interest between the two sides.
And when did Iran start really ratcheting up their support for an attack on U.S. troops?
... Things got dramatically worse in 2006 after the bombing of a major mosque in February. Then, many of these Shi'a militias go on a rampage of random killings and starting the civil war that Al Qaeda in Iraq had said was its only hope, a civil war between Sunni and Shi'a. And at that time, the Iranian activities with these militias became a much bigger threat.
What were they doing?
Iran has long provided funding for the militias, but what was particularly troubling in 2006-2007 is that Iran's been encouraging the most radical elements within these militia movements. People were not even really under the control of Moqtada al-Sadr. ... And Iran seems to have a strategy of isolating Moqtada al-Sadr in dealing with him the way it did with the mainstream Shi'a movement in Lebanon in the 1980s. That is, Iran, in Lebanon, in the 1980s, created a more radical movement, Hezbollah, which was directly under Iranian control, which undermined the mainstream movement there. ... And that seems to be the model that Iran's pursuing in Iraq; namely, supporting the most radical elements and hoping to create a Shi'a movement directly under its control as radical as possible. ...
Brig. Gen. David B. Lacquement
... What we're seeing is disturbing, because we're getting mixed messages. In the press Iran is saying that they're very keen to have a secure, stable Iraq. What we're seeing on the ground in Iraq, however, is 180 [degrees] out from that.
We're seeing very aggressive operations by the Iranian Quds Force, the organization designed to export revolution from Iran around the world. That organization is very active with regard to funding, training and equipping militias and special cells.
With regard to training, we're seeing activities being conducted across a wide spectrum. Generally, groups of individuals around 12 to 20 being the norm, travel from Iraq into Iran. They're trained at about three different locations that we're certain of; however, we believe there are several more.
Those locations are inside Iran? The training bases?
Those training bases are inside Iran, that is correct. The training normally runs about 30 days at a block and begins with small-arms training, sniper training, teach them how to use mortars, call and deliver and direct fire. They teach them how to fire rockets, a wide range of rockets and increasingly wider range as they increased the caliber just recently. ... They also train on kidnapping operations.
And probably, most disturbing, the explosively formed penetrators are being trained: how to complete the assembly of those items inside of Iraq and how to employ them. And when we look at the trend line on the employment of the EFPs [explosively formed penetrators], that is very disturbing. Starting with the beginning of [the 2007 Baghdad Security Operation] Operation Fardh Al-Qanoon, we have seen almost a three-fold increase in the employment of these explosively formed penetrators that are quite deadly against armored vehicles -- this in spite of the rhetoric that they're looking for a secure and stable Iraq.
Although these only comprise about 1 percent of the overall attacks that are perpetrated against coalition forces, they're responsible for 18 percent of coalition force KIA [killed in action], so it's of great concern to us. ...
Do you consider yourself, with the U.S. military, on some level at war with Iran?
I would say it would not be a reach to say that there is presently a proxy war being carried out by Iranian-supported surrogate forces against U.S. coalition forces who are not here for the purpose of conducting a war against Iran, but are here to try to provide a stable environment and help this young democracy in Iraq stand up.
In its response to this proxy war, is the U.S. military actually engaging in some sort of low-level proxy war of its own with Iran?
Yeah. The coalition forces are engaging very aggressively inside of Iraq against these proxy forces.
Our approach is a constructive one. If [the Americans] really want to solve the problem, we are eager to help. We are sad to see anyone killed in Iraq, whoever it happens to be, either Iraqi or not. I will emphasize again that Iran is part of the solution in Iraq. ...
Just to be clear: Are the American charges that Iran is providing weapons and training to Shi'a militia inside Iraq true or false?
Iran gains no benefit from creating instability in Iraq or from such training. The problems in Iraq have their own solutions. Americans should put forward their questions correctly in order to get the right answers.
From you, from your delegation?
From themselves, from themselves. They should analyze the situation in Iraq properly. They need to review their policies in Iraq. ...
Mohammad Ali Abtahi
Iran is the epicenter of Shi'ism in the world. Iraq also had a Shi'a majority. Naturally, there was common ground between the two countries. There were family interrelations, common religious values, Iraqis were in Iran at some point.
For a long time after the democratic elections in Iraq, Iran was less often accused of meddling in Iraq, but after the destruction at the Samarra shrine, there was a new chapter. Shi'ites took on a new role. As I said, I'm not speaking as a government spokesman, and I don't know anything about Iranian interference in Iraq, but there were other aspects to the issue of Iraq. For example, the Iranian nuclear issue and other issues transformed Iraq into a good venue for Iran to try to use Iraq to solve its problems with the United States in general. ...
... [Do you mean] Iraq is a means of solving problems? If they can solve Iraq and work together, then it'll solve other problems? Is that what you're saying?
I should reiterate, I don't have any concrete intelligence. My analysis is that Iran can use Iraq to solves its problems with the United States. ...
Historically we realize these two behemoths in relative terms have fought each other and bloodied each other quite a bit. There is some antipathy that exists between Arabs and Persians, and I think that once the United States ultimately has removed itself and there is some stability -- and it's a relative term -- in Iraq then more traditional rivalries between Persians and Arabs may crop up.
So what do you think of the analysis that says Iran is digging in deep in Iraq?
I think deep is, again, a relative term. If it's in terms of money -- and money is important to all parties in Iraq -- then yes they are in deeply. But whether that means they're in permanently I think is quite a different thing.
I can remember shortly after the invasion of Iraq I traveled there. I went down to Hilla and other places and had a lot of conversations, and the Iraqis themselves who seem to be now beneficiaries of Iranian largesse were decrying the fact that Iran was their neighbor and that Iran historically has been troublesome in Iraq. So I think history would suggest that relations eventually will again becomes somewhat rocky. ...
... 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? And 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 guaranteed $1 billion in loans for Iraqi companies to engage in reconstruction projects. These are just a few examples off the top of my head at the moment. ...
... 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? ...