Iran Intel leak: 700 documents show how Iran outplayed the US in Iraq

Iran’s role became so connected to abuses in some cases that locals said they would prefer Israel to Iran.

U.S. army soldiers fuel a military truck at Qayyara airbase west of Mosul, Iraq, August 10, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
U.S. army soldiers fuel a military truck at Qayyara airbase west of Mosul, Iraq, August 10, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
US policy has been a mix of guns and butter in Iraq since the invasion of 2003: offering military training and arms and trying to butter up some officials that Washington thought would be its champions in Baghdad. But at every turn an Iranian octopus was lurking, outplaying the ham-handed American attempts to exert influence in Baghdad, even maneuvering Iranian-backed candidates into office with US backing, tricking Washington to make the US think it had “won.” Meanwhile Iran played the long game. New leaked Iranian documents appear to show how Iran did it.
Today the US is still training some Iraqis but it is heading for some kind of an exit eventually. The US wants to shore up the Peshmerga in the Kurdistan Regional Government and also leave a more competent layer of Iraqi security forces, with good units like the Counter-Terrorism Service, to keep ISIS and other groups in check. But America understands that in the long-term, whatever comes out of Iraq will largely be either by Iranian design or in reaction to Iran; the US simply cannot decide thousands of miles away in DC.
Symbolic of the problem were rockets fired at the Green Zone on November 17. A trove of documents were obtained by The Intercept and shared with The New York Times and their analysis - conducted jointly by the news organizations - reveals how Iran outmaneuvered the US.
Although much of this was known, the 700 pages of documents, translated from Farsi, show new details and, the report notes, shows how Iran got a firm grip on Iraq and is using it as a “gateway for Iranian power” that now stretches through Syria to Lebanon and increasingly threatens Israel. Iraq is the “near abroad” for Iran now, and Iran is building its own IRGC in Iraq, called the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
The archive of documents comes from 2014-2015 and is from “officers of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security.” 2014-2015 was a pivotal year because it is when ISIS swallowed up a third of Iraq and threatened Baghdad. In response, Iran sent advisors, and Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for mass mobilization of Shi’ite men to fight. That became the PMU, which became part of the Iraqi Security Forces; now their party is the second largest in Iraq.
2015 was also the year of the Iran deal when the Washington and Tehran appeared on the same page in Iraq. The US under the Obama administration supported the Iranian-backed Shi’ite sectarian Nouri al-Maliki to be prime minister and then supported his replacement Haider al-Abadi. In both cases, Washington wanted a “strong man” in Baghdad. And they got one. But so did Iran. Later, the US would encourage Abadi to attack the Kurds in Kirkuk, helping Iran’s Qasem Soleimani seize a strategic region of Iraq in 2017. The US thought it was empowering Baghdad to be “nationalist” and got Abadi a meeting with the Saudis. In fact, America was backing Iran’s influence, punishing its own Kurdish allies in a method that would replay itself in Syria.
Iran didn’t have an uphill battle in Iraq, the documents show. Many leading Shi’ite Iraqis had aided Iran in the 1980s against the brutal Saddam Hussein regime. While Donald Rumsfeld was shaking hands with Saddam, men like Hadi al-Amiri were with the IRGC. Even current Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi had a “special relationship” with Iran, the documents note. In each case that means Tehran had an open door to most ministries, including key areas like the Interior and oil sector.
IT'S HARD to know what “close ties to Iran,” means when Iran and Iraq are neighbors. Many American politicians may have close friends in Canada, but it doesn’t make them agents of Trudeau. Proximity and Shi’ite milieu make for close connections, as well as the clear militant link between leaders of the PMU and the IRGC.
But Iran didn’t just want friends or allies. It wanted to know what the Americans were doing. To do that it needed men with a certain set of skills. In one quoted document, an informant was procured to try to insert themself into a place where they would become knowledgeable about US “covert operations” or to know what the State Department was doing. Iran even worked to find a “spy inside the State Department” and sought to roll up former CIA assets and put them on the dole. In the free-for-all days after the 2003 US invasion, Iran also “moved some of its best officers from both the intelligence ministry and from the Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards” to Iraq, the Intercept notes.
The report characterizes some Iranian actions as silly, such as breaking into a German cultural institute, but not having the right codes. Is that more silly than the Watergate break in during the 1970s? The important thing is they tried to get to the Germans – and that Iran wanted to be everywhere. What were Iran’s goals? It wanted Iraq not to sink into chaos, as eventually happened in 2014. It wanted to stop an “independent Kurdistan,” which it did in 2017. It wanted to protect Shi’ites. It wanted to crush Sunni takfiri (apostates), and jihadists, like ISIS. It has done that. Win, win, win, and another win for Iran.
Unsurprisingly, Tehran benefited not because it is some genius actor in Iraq but because it had a massive pool of recruits and sympathizers, and people that needed its largesse. When ISIS came knocking in 2014, it’s no surprise that Soleimani of the IRGC’s Quds Force was looked on as a savior by some in the Shi’ite sectarian militias.
Iran also benefited from how the US tends to treat its friends in the Middle East. Because the US, through men like James Jeffrey at the State Department, view relationships with people in Iraq and Syria as “temporary, transactional and tactical," the US doesn’t cultivate long-term friends. It uses locals and then discards them, thinking that this short-term planning will work. Iran played the long game, the one where you start in 1981 and you work your way to get to 2019. “The CIA had tossed many of its longtime secret agents out on the street, leaving them jobless,” the Intercept notes. Whoops.
One man said that he had worked for the US for 18 months and been paid $3,000 a month. That’s a large amount in Iraqi terms. Oddly, the agent’s fake name was “Donnie Brasco,” named after an FBI agent who infiltrated the mob. In this case he apparently infiltrated Al Qaeda. Once again though, the reports of the agents reveal things that make sense. Another man, who apparently worked for Iraqi military intelligence, went to meet his Iranian “brothers” to tell them some details. His commander was happy, noting they are all fighting ISIS together. This wasn’t exactly clandestine. “All of the Iraqi army’s intelligence, consider it yours,” they told Tehran.
To track the American efforts, the Iranians not only infiltrated Sunni Arab parties and offices in Baghdad, they also followed US movements. They were concerned that Washington would work with Sunnis as it had in the past.
THE REAL coup for Iran was penetration of government institutions at all levels. In one discussion, in late 2014 or early 2015, the Iranians went down a list of Iraqi officials. At the Minister of Municipalities they didn’t need to worry: These were members of the Badr Organization, linked to the PMU and also to Amiri, allies of Iran. The Minister of Transport was close to Iran. Abdul-Mahdi was close to Iran. The foreign minister was close to Iran. The Minister of Health is from Maliki’s Dawa Party. He’s “loyal,” the note said. They were concerned about men close to Sadr, who now runs the largest party in Iraq. They preferred others.
Iran had larger strategic considerations as well. It needed Iraqi airspace to supply the Syrian regime and also to get weapons to Hezbollah. Soleimani was sent to deal with the problem through the Ministry of Transport. It wasn’t even a discussion; the minister put a hand over his eyes to indicate that he would pretend not to see the flights. Soleimani kissed the man’s forehead. It was a tender moment.
But Iran may have overstretched and been too arrogant. In 2015, an agent described the Sunnis in Iraq as “vagrants” and mocked their cities for having been destroyed by ISIS. They had little future. The Iranians would also outplay the Kurds in 2017 and use the Americans to help punish the Kurdish region. By 2018 they were supremely confident, but protests against Iran and its allied militias were beginning. Now those protests have grown. Soleimani went to Baghdad in October to help suppress them. 350 Iraqis have been gunned down by snipers, many allegedly backed by Iran. But it could backfire.
Indeed, agents reported back to Iran that Soleimani’s star was fading. He was posting too much on social media. Iraqis, angry at Shia militia abuses were saying they would turn to America and “even Israel” to enter Iraq and save it from Iran. There, the seeds were sown in 2015 for the mass protests that have come in 2019.
Iraq’s future is still unclear. But what is clear is that Iran sought total domination of Iraq. It grew arrogant through the open channels of support it had, often due to the legacy of the 1980s war. But a new generation was rising and they only knew Iran as the power in charge: not the liberator, not the underdog. For them, Soleimani, Amiri, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Qais Khazali, Abadi, Maliki and so many others were not young men fighting the power of America and Saddam, but the big men running things.
Iran now has to control Iraq, not be the one choosing the time and place of its battles. And Iraq is not easy to control.