The Intercept and the New York Times on Monday published a lengthy examination of leaked Iranian intelligence cables that shed new light on how thoroughly Iran dominates the politics of Iraq, with much of the dirtiest work done by the commander of Iran’s notorious Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The report is based on some 700 pages of material from the Iranian intelligence ministry (MOIS) that were provided by an anonymous Iraqi source. The source claimed to be leaking the documents to “let the world know what Iran is doing in my country Iraq.” The Intercept and the New York Times worked together to verify the authenticity of the documents.
“The unprecedented leak exposes Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life,” The Intercept wrote.
Soleimani is known to have traveled to Baghdad in the early days of the current Iraqi protests and surprised Iraqi security officers by taking control of their government’s response, which became as brutal as every other operation Soleimani gets involved with.
Judging from the leaked Iranian documents procured by The Intercept, it was far from Soleimani’s first visit to Iraq, and not the first time Tehran has acted to prop up Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Protesters in the streets of Iraq are strongly critical of the influence Iran has over their government.
The Iranian documents outline a long campaign of espionage, surveillance, and bribery to take control of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. ran plenty of intelligence operations in Iraq as well, but The Intercept argues the documents “show how Iran, at nearly every turn, has outmaneuvered the United States in the contest for influence.”
One of the key errors made by the United States, according to the report, was underestimating the depth of the ties between anti-Saddam leaders in Iraq and the Iranian government. Quite a few Iraqis who went on to hold leadership positions after the U.S. invasion enjoyed what the leaked cables euphemistically describe as a “special relationship” with Iran. When U.S. troops began pulling out in 2011, the Iranians moved in and snapped up many of the CIA’s former Iraqi informants, and even tried to set up a mole in the U.S. State Department.
There were a few stumbles along the way, but overall the leaked papers portrayed the MOIS effort in Iraq as “patient, professional, and pragmatic.”
Unfortunately for the Ministry of Intelligence, it often found itself overridden by the much more aggressive and less patient Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the military arm of the Iranian theocracy. The ultimate result of the 15-year operation is an Iraqi government firmly in the hands of Iran and thoroughly loathed by the people of Iraq, even the Shiites who should theoretically feel some religious kinship with Iran.
The Intercept’s analysis was harsh on U.S. policy in Iraq under the Bush administration, blaming “de-Baathification” (the systematic purge of Iraqis who were loyal to Saddam Hussein’s socialist Baath party) for building up Sunni Muslim resentment, sparking an ugly insurgency battle between the U.S. and Sunnis that weakened both to Iran’s benefit, and giving Iran an opportunity to develop influence in Iraq as protector of the Shiite Muslims.
Most of the leaked Iranian documents appeared to concern activities during the Obama administration, however. The real intelligence disaster from the U.S. perspective began in 2011, when Iran moved in and scooped up intelligence assets abandoned by departing American forces.
One of these former U.S. assets evidently gave up a massive trove of information to his new Iranian benefactors that exposed much of the remaining American intelligence network in Iraq, including the names of other Iraqis who worked for the CIA. That gave Iran a rich target list of U.S. contacts it could either recruit or eliminate. Several high-ranking Shiite Iraqi military intelligence officers began working for Iran in 2014, essentially handing Iran the keys to the Iraqi Army’s entire intelligence operation — and some very high-end American tech they had been provided.
Iraq’s political structure was apparently as thoroughly penetrated by Iranian intelligence as its military. One of the leaked documents described a secret meeting early in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s term where Iranian agents ran down a list of Iraqi officials and confidently pronounced most of them Iran-friendly or actively in collusion with Tehran, even though Abadi himself was sneeringly dismissed as “the Americans’ candidate.”
Iran had no trouble securing access to Iraqi airspace to facilitate operations in Syria even though the Obama administration begged the Abadi government not to allow it. Abadi himself is said to have developed a “confidential relationship with Iranian intelligence.” Everything U.S. representatives said to the Iraqis was quickly passed along to the MOIS. Iran’s Shiite militia proxies in Iraq became increasingly powerful and brutal during the battle against the Islamic State.
The latter Iranian triumph looks to have become its downfall, as even Shiite Iraqis resent the Iran-backed militia groups, while the Sunnis are terrified of them. Soleimani, who is enormously popular in Iran, used social media to tout his deep involvement in Iraq, but the Iraqis only grew more resentful of him. They also noticed that many Iranian operations in Iraq ended with the Iranians throwing around a few bribes and scooping up lucrative contracts, plundering Iraq.
One MOIS report fretted that Sunni Iraqis have taken to daydreaming about America and Israel riding to their rescue against Soleimani and his militia groups. Another worried that Iran could lose some of its valuable Iraqi intelligence assets if they believe Iran’s regional influence is weakening, or if Iran can longer pay them handsomely enough.
Most Iranian officials and Iraqi individuals named in the leaked cables either refused requests for comment or denied saying and doing what the cables attributed to them. Abadi, in particular, vehemently denied meeting in secret with Iranian intelligence operatives.
The Associated Press suggested on Monday that “no comment” might not be a viable option for Iraqi officials for much longer, because English-speaking volunteers are busy translating the New York Times/Intercept article for protesters to read.
“Most of us were not surprised by what we read in the report. It was just a confirmation of our case and the information we already had,” opined one protester, who requested anonymity because he feared reprisal from Iran or its Iraqi proxies.
“Iran is intervening in our country, but we, the people, are the decision-makers,” another protester told AFP.
“The spark that started in Iraq has reached Iran,” she added.