"If Iran wanted, it could make Iraq hell for the United States." So said Iraq's deputy Foreign Minister Hamid Al Bayati last February. Well, Iran not only wants to, it already has.
The scenario is well known to the intelligence community on both sides of the Atlantic. Iran began enlarging its already wide footprint in Shi'ite Iraq as the U.S. buildup for the war on Iraq began in Kuwait in 2002.
Today, according to Time magazine's exclusive on intelligence reports from Iran, the United States and Britain, the geopolitical confrontation between the U.S. and Iran runs through Iraq. The Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government and the new Iranian government are moving steadily closer and forging a strategic relationship. Since Ibrahim al-Jaafari took over as prime minister, U.S. officials have concluded what is said or shared with the Iraqi government winds up in Tehran.
Iraqi Shi'ite leaders know when the U.S. leaves, Iran and its geopolitical heft will still be there. It wasn't that long ago (1980) that Saddam Hussein decided to teach Iran's new revolutionary regime a military lesson. He reckoned it would last a week or two. Instead, they bled each other of 1 million lives over eight years -- to a standoff.
Time's Michael Ware nailed down the details of Iran's plans to create a greater Iranian Shi'ite empire. The information came from documents smuggled out of Iran and dozens of interviews with U.S., British and Iraqi intelligence officials, an Iranian agent, armed dissidents and Iraqi militia. The Iranian endeavor's scope rivals the U.S. push for a secular Iraqi democracy. It clearly involves a confrontation with the U.S. for regional influence.
Iran's insurgency leader in Iraq is Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani. Iran supplies his network and introduced new roadside bombs more lethal than any seen before. Based on a design from the Iranian-supplied Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the weapon uses "shaped" explosive charges that can punch through a battle tank's armor like a fist through a cardboard wall.
Sheikh Sheibani's 280-strong team is divided into 17 bomb-making and death squads. A copy of what seems an April 2003 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence report describes the arrival of U.S. troops in the city of Kut (where 23,000 British Indian Army soldiers perished in a five-month siege in 1917), and says, "We are in control of the city."
Documents include extensive pay records from August 2004 showing Iran paid the salaries of at least 11,740 members of the Badr Shi'ite militia, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, the leading political party in Iraq's ruling alliance. A former member of Saddam's armored corps told Time last summer he was recruited by an Iranian intelligence officer in 2004 to compile the names and addresses of Interior Ministry officials working closely with American personnel.
As U.S. troops battle the Sunni-led insurgency, in close cooperation with a Shi'ite-leaning government in Baghdad, Iran busily consolidates its hold on Shi'ite Iraq, which comprises about 60 percent of the population.
Our intelligence community now asks increasingly often if the U.S. is on the right side of the insurgency. The stakes are no less than a greater Shi'ite empire, aided by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and acquiescence of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a populist and former revolutionary.
Some analysts believe Iran's objective could be a civil war between Shi'ite Muslim and Sunni Muslim that would (1) encourage the U.S. to pull out its troops post-haste rather than be caught in the middle, and (2) secure Shi'ite Iraq for a greater Shi'ite Islam. The eastern Saudi oil fields, where Shi'ite Arabs are in the majority, would be one small Kuwait away.
Jordanian intelligence estimates as many as a million Iranians have ventured into Shi'ite southern Iraq, site of the richest oil fields. Among them are many Iraqis who found refuge in Iran during the 8-year war. Included were 12,000 armed men and intelligence officers.
If the U.S. and/or Israel decide to launch air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities -- a prospect drawing ever closer now that Mr. Ahmadinejad has broken the U.N. seals on its Isfahan nuclear facility -- some 46 Iranian infantry and missile brigades are poised near the common border to move into Iraq.
Now that the negotiations of the EU3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- have failed, plan B involves the U.N. Security Council and tough sanctions against Iran. There, Iran can count on a Chinese and possibly Russian veto. Besides, with oil climbing to $70 a barrel, Iran could circumvent sanctions and import what it needs via the free port of Dubai across the Gulf.
President Bush said plan C -- the military air strikes option -- is on the table. It is also fraught with peril. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said count Germany out of it. A regional war would become distinctly possible. Iran can still field a global terrorist network. Sunni Osama bin Laden and Shi'ite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be locked in a common struggle against the United States and Israel.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.