Tehran’s Hidden Hand
Iran’s mounting threats in Iraq.

By Jonathan Schanzer
National Review Online - May 10, 2004

The State Department's annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report was issued earlier this month, complete with its usual hit parade of terrorist groups, state sponsors and emerging trends. Predictably, Iran was singled out for the "planning of and support for terrorist acts," as well as assistance to "a variety of groups that use terrorism to pursue their goals." The report also fingers Iran for pursuing "a variety of policies in Iraq aimed at securing Tehran's perceived interests there, some of which ran counter to those of the Coalition." A statement castigating Iran for such activities was long overdue. However, Washington must now challenge Iran over this growing list of nefarious activities in Iraq that have been plaguing coalition reconstruction efforts.

Conventional Fighting. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat ran this headline on March 16, 2004: "American and Iranian Forces Exchange Fire on the Border." American officials claimed that one Iranian border guard was killed, and other reports indicated that three Iranians were killed, but Tehran denied that any such incident took place. This was not the first time that open hostilities were reported. Coalition officials indicated in January and February that Abu al-Khasib, the port just below Basra on the Shatt al-Arab, has been the scene of Iranian violence against Iraqis. Iranian Revolutionary Guards have opened fire upon Iraqi water patrols along the estuary separating their two countries. Iranian fighters are also inside Iraq, and they may or may not be sanctioned by Tehran. On February 14, when a number of guerrillas attacked a police station in Fallujah, it was learned that two of the slain guerrillas were Iranian. An insurgency attack the week before, according to U.S. sources, was an attempt to free a number of Iranians who had only recently been arrested in Fallujah.

Hezbollah & IRGC. In February 2004, during a Washington Institute fact-finding mission to Iraq, one Coalition official reported that Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) offices were spotted in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Moreover, officials noted an immense amount of Hezbollah activity in the city of Karbala. Most of the activity was "intimidation and threats of intimidation...Mafia-type stuff." During our delegation's one day in Basra, we spotted a building that openly advertised the offices of Hezbollah. Members of this organization insisted that their Hezbollah was not tied to Tehran, and that the name, which means "Party of God," is a common one. According to one report in the Arabic paper al-Hayat, Iran sent some 90 Hezbollah fighters into Iraq shortly after Saddam's Iraq fell. The group now receives financing, training and weapons from Iran, and has a rapidly growing presence in the Shi'a south. Western intelligence officials also allege that the man who planned the recent suicide attacks in Basra is Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah operative responsible for bombing the U.S. embassy in Beirut in the early 1980s.

Propaganda. Even before the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Iran had begun beaming in Arabic-language television programming in an effort to gain a strategic propaganda foothold in the country — and it has not stopped. Indeed, American labors to win hearts and minds through the television station, al-Iraqiyya, and Radio Sawa have been steadily undermined by these efforts. In April 2003, an Iranian journalist reported that Iranian Revolutionary Guards brought into Iraq radio-transmission equipment, posters, and printed matter for the militia known as the Badr Corps. The Badr Corps is a militia that has not yet challenged the U.S., but it is run by SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), which is known to have close ties to the Iranian regime.

Ansar al-Islam. Not enough attention has been given to the established ties between Iran and Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish al Qaeda affiliate. Before the war, Iran allowed Ansar al-Islam to operate openly along its borders in the extreme northeast mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, just shy of the Iranian border. Kurdish intelligence, with corroboration from imprisoned Ansar fighters, has established that Iran provided logistical support to the group by allowing the flow of goods and weapons. During periods of conflict with Kurdish militia units, the Peshmerga, Iran further provided a safe haven for these Islamist fighters. One Turkish newspaper also notes that Ansar al-Islam militants actually checked cars going into Iran (rather than coming into their stronghold), indicating close security coordination with the Islamic Republic. When the U.S. struck the Ansar al-Islam enclave in March 2003, Iran permitted many Kurdish fighters to flee across the border. They were later assisted back over the border — with the help of Iran's Revolutionary Guards — so that they could fight against American soldiers in the heart of Iraq. Kurdish intelligence has since intercepted between three and ten foreign fighters crossing Iranian border each week.

Moqtada al-Sadr. Iran sent a delegation to Iraq in mid-April to mediate between the rogue cleric and the U.S. administration. However, at the same time, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, an Iranian agent, has been supporting al-Sadr's anti-American efforts. A source from ash-Sharq al-Awsat estimates that Iran may have provided al-Sadr some $80 million in recent months. Further, Sadr's Mahdi army may now be getting training from Hezbollah, according to new intelligence reports. One Iranian source told ash-Sharq al-Awsat that Iran created three training camps along the Iran-Iraq border to train fighters from Sadr's militia.

In sum, Iran may be spending up to $70 million per month in Iraq. This pales in comparison to the billions spent by the U.S. Still, it is enough to undermine U.S. efforts. As such, Washington needs not only to better patrol the Iranian border, but also to confront clandestine Iranian activity within Iraq itself. Failure to do so will only encourage Iran to redouble its efforts to destabilize Iraq.

— Jonathan Schanzer recently took part in a 12-day fact-finding mission to Iraq, sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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