Iran’s Great Game

In 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran because he believed Iranian fundamentalists were plotting against him. Today, with increasing chaos on the ground, is Iraq still threatened by Iranian subversion?

No country is watching the American occupation of Iraq with closer interest than one of the charter members of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” Iran. It has a population that is ninety percent Shiite, and shares a thousand-kilometre-long border with Iraq. With Saddam Hussein gone and his brutal decade-long war against Iran still in living memory, Iran’s concern is understandable. Yet the mainstream Western media, preoccupied with insurrection and rising death tolls in Iraq as the June 30th date for the handover of authority approaches, were paying scant attention.

On one level, Tehran shares with Washington an interest in strengthening and stabilizing Iraq’s fifteen-million Shiite majority and ensuring that, ultimately, the Shiites hold the balance of political power. Hence, Iran has adopted a policy of short-term cooperation with the U.S. It tried, for instance, to settle an impasse after the U.S. military trapped a radical Shiite militia in Najaf in April. On another level, however, Iran has been working assiduously among Iraqi Shiites ever since the fall of Baghdad in April, 2003, to exploit every upsurge, every advance, every disaster. Tehran’s intelligence agencies, its ministries, its private charities, and above all, some of its clerics are steadily extending their reach in Iraq, although not always with the same ultimate aims in mind. One particular Iraqi cleric, the Ayatollah Kadhim al-Husseini al-Haeri, may ultimately turn out to be Tehran’s pre-eminent man in Iraq.

Publicly, Iran’s most efficient conduits of influence are the two main Iraqi Shiite political parties. The large and powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri) was formed in exile in Iran in 1982, and leans naturally toward its Iranian theocratic roots. Tehran is also reviving its historical links with Da’wa, Iraq’s oldest homegrown Shiite party.

Some of this activity has been greatly facilitated by Washington’s inability to enforce the border between the two countries. According to the London Arabic daily, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, agents of the Al-Qods militia – the external intelligence section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – have moved into Iraq along with the thousands of Iranian pilgrims who stream into the country each day to visit Iraq’s holy cities. According to Haj Sa’idi, an Al-Qods defector now in British custody, Tehran is spending U.S. $70 million per month in Iraq. Sa’idi also claims that eighteen Iraqi charities in the largely Shiite south are serving as cover for Iranian agents, who have rented 2,700 apartments and rooms for the use of the Revolutionary Guard in Najaf and Karbala. While Washington worries about political stability, Israel, and a secure source of oil in the region, Tehran has its own reasons for developing an Iraqi Shiite power base. Iran’s control of the Shiite south may be used, for example, as leverage against American support of Israel on the Palestinian question, or as a bargaining tool to reduce American scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran may also want the security of another Shiite theocracy on its border.

To further their respective ends, both Tehran and Washington have been courting the highly popular head cleric of Iraq’s Shiites, the Ayatollah Sistani, who is based in the holy city of Najaf. Sistani, however, poses a problem for Iran’s hard-line clerics. Though he was born in Iran and speaks Arabic with a Persian accent, he represents Iraq’s more moderate Shiism, which adamantly rejects Iranian theocracy, supports a partial separation of secular and religious power, and appears willing to let democratic, secular power lead the way. According to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tehran may be operating a covert, two-track policy of reward and reprimand. When it feels that Sistani or Washington is doing the right thing among the Shiites, it sends its agents in to help. When it doesn’t like developments among Iraq’s Shiites, it sends in its spy service. ’

This dual approach, however, seems tidier on the surface than it really is. Down below, there appears to be a lack of coordination among government ministries, the intelligence agencies, “parastatal” organizations such as the independent clerics and charities, and the Al-Qods army. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat claims, for instance, that Al-Qods had tried to kill Sistani last year. There are also claims that Al-Qods was behind the assassination last August of Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, an Iranian-backed cleric who, like Sistani, preached accommodation with the United States. And it seems that Al-Qods was in contact with Moqtada al-Sadr, the thirty-year-old renegade Iraqi cleric based in Baghdad, whose militia began an insurrection this April. In each case, Al-Qods may have been acting on its own and out of line with official Iranian foreign policy.

This clash within Iranian policy has emerged most clearly in Iran’s dealings with Moqtada al-Sadr. The volatile young cleric is the son of a revered Shiite ayatollah, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whose Shiism was closer to the Iranian theocratic model than Sistani’s. Since the elder al-Sadr was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999, his son’s mission has been to carry on his father’s work among the poor and uneducated who make up a third of Iraq’s Shiites. Moqtada is certainly no moderate: he belongs to the Mahdist strain of Shiism, which believes that the Shiite messiah, Mahdi, will return to earth during a time of great suffering, battle the Antichrist, and liberate the Shiites from their enemies. Some believe that this time has arrived with the American occupation.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s absolutist politics, together with his actions against Iraqi Shiite moderates (in April, 2003, Moqtada’s supporters murdered a U.S.- sponsored Iraqi ayatollah, Majid al-Khoei, allegedly on Moqtada’s orders) appear to appeal to Iran’s hardline clerics and those in Al-Qods who want to undermine the Ayatollah Sistani. Al- Qods is directly answerable to Iran’s hardline supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and may have access to Khamenei’s private funds. Moqtada al-Sadr visited Khamenei in June, 2003, to commemorate the anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death; he returned to Iraq, apparently with significant funding in return for a commitment to establish Iranian-style clerical rule at home. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reports that Moqtada al-Sadr’s organization received U.S. $80 million from Iran this past winter and spring. True or not, Moqtada’s militia is certainly well-equipped, his charities rich, his network massive.

There are other factions in Iran, however, that do not trust Moqtada al-Sadr. Reform clerics in Iran tend to believe that he has been using his Iranian backing simply to bolster his personal power. Even Iranian hardliners are alert to the possible rise of the kind of anti-Iranian, Arab Shiite chauvinism that may have inspired Moqtada in his move against the Ayatollah Sistani. Moreover, attacks by Moqtada against Sistani’s mosques in Karbala eventually irritated Tehran, and they apparently paid him to lay off. David Patel, an expert on the Shiites, who travels back and forth to Iraq, believes that Iran has little real interest in backing Moqtada, as it has a bigger and better ally in the mainstream Shiite party, sciri.

Coalition officials have begun to worry about the rise of Moqtada’s sometime sponsor, the Iraqi Ayatollah al-Haeri who, until recently, lived in exile in the Iranian holy city of Qom and remains close to the Ayatollah Khamenei. Moqtada’s martyred father, the Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr, had named al-Haeri his successor, but after the fall of Saddam, al-Haeri bent the rules to pass the ecclesiastical authority of the father on to the son, Moqtada.

Last February, David Patel warned that rumours of al-Haeri’s plans to return to Iraq were circulating every few weeks, and that American contingency planners were deeply concerned by the news. “A year from now,” Patel wrote, “al-Haeri’s views and political ambitions could be extremely important for U.S.- Iraqi relations.”

Al-Haeri has been very active ever since the U.S.-led invasion. A few days before the fall of Saddam, in April, 2003, al-Haeri issued a decree, or fatwa, to Iraqi Shiites urging them to seize the first possible opportunity to fill the power vacuum in the administration of Iraqi cities. A month later, he declared that Shiite “compromisers” should be killed. And last July, he demanded death for any Jews who buy land in Iraq. Clearly, what al-Haeri wants for Iraq is nothing less than an Iranian-style theocracy. Patel believes that al-Haeri has been setting himself up to succeed the Ayatollah Sistani as Iraq’s top Shiite cleric.

But al-Haeri, like almost everyone else, has had trouble with Moqtada al-Sadr. Last July, al-Haeri broke with Moqtada and quickly bestowed his blessing on the older, more scholarly and obedient Sheikh Mohammed Yaqubi, whose strident writings attribute the crisis in the Middle East to a conspiracy of Jews and Masons, and identify Western power as Islam’s version of the Antichrist.

Nevertheless, Moqtada seems to have retained a low-level usefulness to Tehran; shadows of the Iranian hand re- emerged during Moqtada’s uprising this spring, which was triggered when U.S. administrator Paul Bremer closed Moqtada’s paper, Al-Hawza, for its incendiary rhetoric. Inexplicably, Bremer also chose that occasion, a few days later, to enforce a year-old warrant for Moqtada al-Sadr’s arrest in the murder of the U.S.-backed cleric, al-Khoei.

Whether or not Iran had a hand in Moqtada’s uprising, Moqtada was reported to have received a gift of hundreds of satellite phones, apparently from Tehran, in early April. On April 8th, the Italian daily La Stampa quoted Italian military intelligence reports saying that Ayatollah Khamenei had dispatched al-Haeri to help force the Coalition to withdraw. The London based newspaper, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, quoting its source, Abu Hayder, claimed that many of Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia attacks against the Coalition had been led by Al-Qods agents.

But not everyone agrees that Iran was behind the April insurgency. A leading authority on Iraq’s Shiites, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, believes the violence was fuelled not by Iran but by a broader spectrum of Shiite anger at the Americans’ mishandling of the occupation. The CIA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the State Department also doubt, or at least play down, Iran’s involvement. On the other hand, the Pentagon and those close to Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, say they are certain of it.

In fact, both points of view may be right. Anger against America most certainly exists in Iraq, but that very fact provides fertile ground for exploitation by Iran. And even if Tehran did not directly instigate Moqtada’s rebellion, it had already given him sufficient financial support to cause trouble.

After the U.S. military trapped Moqtada and his militia in Najaf, Tehran responded positively to a British request to send diplomats into Najaf to help defuse the standoff. And by maintaining a posture of impartiality, Tehran seemed to have returned to a policy of short-term accomodation with the U.S. Still, it was the Iranian mission that, according to Italian intelligence, finally brought the hard-line Iraqi Ayatollah al-Haeri to Iraq, where he was rumoured to have intervened, not on behalf of Moqtada, but in favour of Sistani, by attempting to persuade Moqtada to leave the holy city in order to preserve it from a U.S. attack.

Reports that Ayatollah al-Haeri is finally in Najaf are ominous. If Moqtada al-Sadr’s influence has indeed been weakened, al-Haeri’s Iraqi nationality and his scholarly standing could allow him to unite Moqtada’s radical following with mainstream moderate Shiites who are running short on patience with the U.S. occupation. As early as last October, members of sciri were under pressure to accept alHaeri’s spiritual leadership, though they have so far resisted. An unnamed western diplomat quoted by David Patel warned late last year that “if [al-Haeri] returns to Iraq, he will strengthen Sadr and will open a real battle with Sistani for the soul of Iraqi Shiites. It will be very dangerous for the Americans. It will be like throwing a match onto gasoline.”

And so, the great game will continue. Before June 30th, Washington will continue to do all it can to stabilize Iraq, while accepting help from Iran on the side. For its part, Iran will continue to exploit the American lack of control on the ground to push its own influence into Iraq. Sovereign or not, Iraq can expect both Iran and the US to have a hand in the elections planned for next January. (The former Al-Qods officer, Haj Sa’idi, has claimed that Iraqi Shiites are being encouraged to support candidates put in place by Iranian intelligence agents.) On the Iranian side, reformers and radicals alike will put forward a religious and political agenda that is simpler and probably more effective than Washington’s plan to use Iraq to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. It is a battle of wits that the Americans did not expect, do not welcome, and, in all probability, cannot win.

Hugh Graham