Iran’s strategy in Iraq

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“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.

Now, according to Time magazine’s recent exclusive on intelligence reports from Iran, the United States and United Kingdom, the U.S.-Iran geopolitical confrontation 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 Iraq’s prime minister, U.S. officials have concluded anything 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 hasn’t been 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.

Details of Iran’s plans to create a greater Iranian Shi’ite empire were nailed down by Time’s Michael Ware 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 scope rivals the U.S. objective of creating a secular Iraqi democracy. And it clearly involves a confrontation with the U.S. for regional influence.

Iran’s insurgency leader is Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani. Iran supplies his network and introduced a new breed of roadside bombs more lethal than any before. Based on a design from the Iranian-supplied Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the weapon employs “shaped” explosive charges than can punch through a battle tank’s armor like a fist through a cardboard wall.

Sheibani’s 280-strong team is divided into 17 bomb-making and death squads. A copy of what appears to be an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence report, sent in April 2003, describes U.S. troops’ arrival 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 that show Iran paying the salaries of at least 11,740 members of the Badr Shi’ite militia. 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 accounts for about 60 percent of the population.

The intelligence community increasingly asks if the U.S. is on the right side of this insurgency whose stakes are nothing short of a greater Shi’ite empire, aided and abetted 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 and Sunni Muslims 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 then be one small Kuwait away.

Jordanian intelligence estimates there has been influx of a million Iranians into Shi’ite Iraq in the south, location of the richest oil fields. Many of those entering the south are Iraqis who sought refuge in Iran during the eight-year war. This included 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 that draws ever closer now that 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,

With the failure of the EU3 negotiations of Britain, France and Germany with Iran, plan B is to take the matter to the U.N. Security Council and seek a tough sanctions regime against Iran. There, Iran can count on a Chinese and possibly Russian veto. Besides, with oil climbing to $70 a barrel, Iran would be able to circumvent sanctions and import whatever it needs through the free port of Dubai across the Gulf.

President Bush said plan C — the military option for air strikes — is on the table. It is also fraught with peril. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Germany would not take part. A regional war would become a distinct possibility. Iran can still field a global terrorist network. Sunni Osama bin Laden and Shi’ite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would find themselves in a common crusade against the U.S. and Israel.

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