Iran's radical Islamic regime is playing an increasingly
aggressive role in neighboring Iraq, where it seeks to drive out
American and coalition forces, cement its Shiite Iraqi allies' hold
on power, and prevent the consolidation of a stable democracy
that would pose a long-term threat to Iran's theocratic political
system. The recent kidnapping and holding of 15 British sailors and
marines in Iraqi territorial waters is but the tip of the
Tehran is pursuing a dual strategy of maintaining good relations
with Iraq's government while cultivating allies among radical
Shiite militias and groups that are violently opposed to the
presence of U.S. and coalition forces. Iran's ultimate goal is
to oust U.S. and Western influence from Iraq and to assert its
hegemony over Iraq and a broader crescent extending through
Syria and into Lebanon.
The Bush Administration has correctly sought to expose Iran's
efforts to radicalize and arm anti-American militias in Iraq.
The United States should continue to drive up the costs to Tehran
of continuing on its aggressive course and seek to drive a wedge
between the Iranian regime and moderate Iraqi Shiite political
parties, and ultimately between the regime and the Iranian
However, this strategy for containing Iranian influence in
Iraq can succeed only if the United States proves to the Iraqis
that it is a dependable ally. Continued congressional efforts
to undercut the Bush Administration's surge strategy in Iraq will
only make it easier for Tehran to expand its hostile influence
Iran's Goals in Iraq
Iran sought to expand its influence over Iraq long before the
2003 war in Iraq. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran's new
regime sought to subvert Iraq's Sunni-dominated regime by
radicalizing Iraq's Shia majority, which is more than 60 percent of
the Iraqi population. Iran's subversive efforts were one factor
that provoked Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in
September 1980, resulting in a bloody eight-year war that greatly
weakened both countries.
During that conflict, Tehran's revolutionary regime gave
sanctuary and aid to the Iraqi opposition, including the
political parties that form the backbone of the current Iraqi
government. Iran invested its political capital in a wide variety
of Iraqi political parties and militias. As a result, Iranian
influence in post-Saddam Iraq is "substantial and growing."
Iran's closest ally is the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which Tehran helped to create and
molded while it was in exile in Iran. The SCIRI won the most seats
in Iraq's 2005 elections and is the dominant political force within
the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite umbrella group that claims
128 seats in Iraq's 275-seat parliament. Tehran also retains strong
influence within the Dawa Party, an older, more moderate Shiite
political party that includes Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
Iran also enjoys good relations with the Kurdish Democratic
Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the two main
Kurdish political parties. Both received sanctuary and support from
Iran while they resisted Saddam Hussein's repressive regime. Iran's
good relations with these various political parties are
understandable given the long history of Iranian support.
Tehran is believed to have recruited agents from within the various
parties who now hold key positions throughout the Iraqi
Even more troubling is that, while maintaining good relations
with these mainstays of Iraq's government, Iran is also
pursuing a covert policy of arming and training militias, including
many associated with these political parties, that pose a long-term
threat to the prospects of success for a broad-based Iraqi
government. Tehran seeks to preclude the emergence of a stable
democratic government in Iraq, its historical archrival, that could
become an American ally against Iran. Although the political
parties in Iraq's ruling coalition depend on continued U.S.
political, economic, and military support, their militias are much
more hostile to the continued coalition troop presence and
could become useful allies of Iran in a possible war with the
United States. The militia leaders are also more likely to share
Iran's goal of driving out coalition forces because such an outcome
would increase their own power and importance within Iraq.
In addition to driving out Western troops and Western influence,
the Tehran regime would prefer a weak and divided Iraq to an Iraq
with a united and broad-based government. Even if such a
government were not allied with the United States, it would
pose an ideological threat to Iran's theocratic regime because it
would demonstrate the viability of a secular democratic system
in a Shia-majority nation, thereby encouraging Iranian reformers
and opposition movements to increase their efforts to reduce
the political power of Iran's unelected clerics.
Iran's radical clerics are also uncomfortable with the knowledge
that the Shia religious leaders in the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf
and Karbala wield an independent religious influence that
could undermine their own base of legitimacy. Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious leader in Iraq, is an
influential cleric who outranks most if not all of the clerics in
the Iranian regime. Although he was born in Iran, he rejects
Ayatollah Khomeini's harsh brand of Islamic ideology and opposes
Iran's system of clerical rule.
To undermine al-Sistani, the Iranians have thrown their support
behind Sayed Moqtada al-Sadr, his chief rival. The Iranian regime
was initially wary of al-Sadr because he remained in Iraq during
Saddam's rule and had an independent power base as well as
political differences with their other Shiite allies, who had fled
Iraq and were more dependent on Iran, but in recent years, Iran has
provided increasing financial support, weapons, and training to the
Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army), al-Sadr's militia.
Al-Sadr is a useful ally not only against the United States, but
also against Ayatollah al-Sistani. Al-Sadr is the son of prominent
Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam
Hussein's regime. Moqtada, a young firebrand cleric, jealously
regards al-Sistani as a rival who has eclipsed his family's
influence, and he seeks to restore it. Al-Sadr is also a
revolutionary who advocates the imposition of an Islamic state and
sees al-Sistani as an "Uncle Tom" who has tacitly cooperated
with the American occupation.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi militia has staged two violent revolts against
coalition forces and suffered great losses, but it has grown to
become the largest militia in Iraq, estimated at up to 60,000
fighters, and enjoys strong support in Shiite neighborhoods of
Baghdad and in several important cities in predominantly
Shiite southern Iraq.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards Inciting
Rebellion in Iraq
While Iran's diplomats and political leaders maintain correct
ties with the Iraqi government, particularly the Shiite parties
that form the biggest bloc in the ruling coalition, the
Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) maintain links to the shadowy
Shiite militias that seek to infiltrate and subvert government
institutions. While Iran's armed forces protect the state, the
Revolutionary Guards are charged with protecting and advancing the
interests of Iran's Islamic revolution.
The Revolutionary Guards gained notoriety in March 2007 when
they captured 15 British sailors and marines who were patrolling
the Shatt al-Arab, a disputed estuary that marks the boundary
between Iran and Iraq. This operation was designed to humiliate the
British, demonstrate Iranian power, enhance Tehran's prestige in
the eyes of anti-Western Muslim movements, and gain leverage
for Iran in its war of nerves with the United States.
The Revolutionary Guards have long maintained a presence inside
Iraq, dating back to the 1980- 1988 Iran-Iraq war, when they
operated behind Iraqi lines, often in Iraq's Kurdish areas in
cooperation with the Kurdish pesh merga militia. They
flowed into Iraq in greater numbers in the runup to the 2003 war
and were well established before the conventional fighting had
Much of Iran's subversive activity inside Iraq has been
conducted by the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Force, an elite special
operations unit within the Revolutionary Guards. According to an
officer in the Revolutionary Guards who defected, "The scale and
breadth of Quds Force operations in Iraq are far beyond what we did
even during the war with Saddam."
The Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force plays a role in Iraq today
that is similar to the destabilizing role it has played in Lebanon
for many years. In Iraq, it provides Iranian arms, training,
intelligence, and logistical support to anti-American Iraqi forces.
Most of this support goes to Shiite groups such as the Mahdi Army
and SCIRI's Badr militia, but the Quds Force also cooperates with
the Kurdish political parties. Recently, Iranian arms were
discovered at a safe house controlled by Sunni insurgents.
In addition to forging a working relationship with Iraqi
militias, Iran's Revolutionary Guards may also be seeking to
establish more direct control over militia splinter groups.
Mid-level commanders within the Mahdi Army claim that the
Revolutionary Guards have recruited and financed up to 3,000
defectors from their militia, many of whom have traveled to Iran
for training by the Quds Force.
Although these reports may be a smokescreen promulgated by Mahdi
militia commanders to deflect blame for attacks by "rogue
elements," the Revolutionary Guards could be seeking to exploit
internal differences within the militia to detach splinter groups
and reassemble them into a more pliable organization. Iran pursued
a similar strategy in Lebanon in the early 1980s when it engineered
a split in the Amal militia to form Islamic Amal, which evolved
Despite the threat of Iranian subversion, Quds Force officers
have succeeded in cultivating covert links with various Iraqi
political groups. In December 2006, American forces arrested
Mohsin Chizari, the operational commander of the Quds Force in
Iraq, at a SCIRI compound. He was subsequently released along with
another Iranian and was expelled by the Iraqi authorities. On
January 11, five suspected members of the Quds Force were arrested
in Irbil, which is in territory controlled by the Kurdish regional
government. The five are still being held by U.S. forces.
Quds Force operatives are believed to be a major channel for
transferring sophisticated Iranian-made bombs to anti-American
militias in Iraq. These explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) are
lethal shaped charges that can propel molten metal through the
armor of the heaviest tanks. They can be camouflaged in Styrofoam
rocks and set off by infrared devices. Iran developed much of this
technology during the long and bloody war of attrition in
Lebanon, where its client militia/terrorist group Hezbollah fought
the Israelis from 1982 to 2000 and again in the summer of 2006.
U.S. officials have revealed concrete evidence that Iran has
provided EFPs, rocket-propelled grenades, 60 mm mortar shells, and
81 mm mortar shells to Iraqi groups hostile to the U.S. The RPG-29,
an advanced anti-tank weapon, also turned up in the hands of Iraqi
Shiite militias in 2006. Previously, Hezbollah used RPG-29s in
Lebanon, which is circumstantial evidence of Iranian support
for Iraqi forces hostile to the American military presence.
Hezbollah, Iran's chief terrorist surrogate, has also become
increasingly active in Iraq. Hezbollah has trained Iraqi Shiite
militiamen in Lebanon and has dispatched trainers to Iraq,
facilitated by Iran. According to U.S. intelligence sources,
approximately 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and
other Shiite militias had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon
as of November 2006. Hezbollah provided training in guerrilla
warfare and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A small
number of Hezbollah personnel have also traveled to Iraq to
help with training, and a mid-level commander in the Mahdi Army has
claimed that 300 members of his militia fought alongside Hezbollah
in Lebanon during the summer war of 2006.
Combating and Containing Iran's
Hostile Influence in Iraq
The Bush Administration, spurred by rising American losses
due to Iranian-provided EFPs, has become increasingly active in
combating Iranian activities in Iraq. President George W. Bush
signaled a harder line when he promised to "disrupt" networks
operating in Iraq in his January 10, 2007, speech announcing his
"New Way Forward" in Iraq.
The next day, five suspected members of the Quds Force were
arrested in Irbil. Although the Iranian government claims that
they were diplomats, they lacked diplomatic credentials, and the
liaison office that they staffed was not accredited as a
consulate by the Iraqi government. Some of them were flushing
documents down a toilet when they were apprehended.
The Bush Administration has made greater efforts to expose
Iran's covert operations in Iraq, particularly its provision of EFP
devices. On February 11, senior U.S. military officials in
Baghdad presented the first public evidence of EFPs, which
they claim have killed more than 170 Americans and wounded 620
since their first known use in June 2004. The briefers noted that
arms caches including EFPs, mortars, and other weapons
traceable to Iran have repeatedly been found inside Iraq in areas
dominated by militias known to have ties to Iran. At least one
shipment of EFPs was captured as it was being smuggled from Iran to
southern Iraq in 2005. One senior U.S. military official stated
that the EFPs required precise machining of high-grade metals and
that "We have no evidence that this has ever been done in Iraq."
Although EFPs and other weapons are clearly flowing into Iraq
from Iran, high-ranking Administration officials have
carefully avoided blaming the highest levels of the Iranian
government. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General
Peter Pace, stated in February that he was not ready to conclude
that the top level of Iran's government was directing the arms
supply to Shiite militias. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has
also been careful in his statements, as has President Bush, not to
point the finger at Iran's top leaders. Yet the President made a
chilling point: "what's worse, them ordering it and it happening,
or them not ordering it and it happening?"
Reuel Marc Gerecht, an Iran expert at the American
Enterprise Institute, disputes the contention that the Quds Force
would transfer weapons to Iraqi groups without the knowledge of
Iran's ruling regime:
The idea that the Revolutionary Guards Corps or the Iranian
intelligence ministry- both of which have proven themselves
overseas to be faithful and lethal servants of the clerical
regime-is delivering weaponry to groups in Iraq without the
approval of Iran's leadership just isn't believable. This is not
how these two institutions work. Over 20 years, we have certainly
gleaned sufficient information about the hierarchy, rules, and
personnel of the Pasdaran and Iran's intelligence service to
know that they are not rogue warriors. The clerical regime,
following in the footsteps of the shah, likes bureaucracy. Its
national security council isn't a social club. When it comes to
killing people abroad, the Guards and intelligence operatives
do what Ali Khamenei tells them to do. The idea that the Quds
Force, the nasty elite of the Pasdaran, is delivering materiel to
Iraq without Khamenei's approval makes the clerical regime
sound like a banana republic- casual about the security services
essential to its survival. There is a reason Khamenei has an
ever-expanding private office overseeing both the Pasdaran and the
intelligence ministry: When so inclined, he runs them.
What the U.S. Should Do
To constrain and deter Iran from continuing its hostile policies
against the United States in Iraq, Washington should:
- Raise the costs and risks to Tehran of Iran's proxy war
inside Iraq. Iran has acted with impunity inside Iraq at a
steadily rising cost in American lives. The U.S. armed forces and
intelligence agencies should step up efforts to expose and
disrupt Iranian supply and intelligence networks in Iraq. A
high priority should be accorded to coalition and Iraqi efforts to
interdict military shipments at the border, seize arms caches, and
uproot Iran's network of safe houses in Iraq. The results of these
raids should be publicized to put Tehran and its Iraqi allies
on notice that they are not immune to counteraction.
Focusing international attention on Iranian activities in
Iraq could help to bring additional international pressure on
Iran, which already faces escalating sanctions over its defiance of
United Nations Security Council resolutions requiring it to adhere
to its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
American and other coalition troops operate in Iraq under a
U.N. mandate. Washington should press the Security Council to warn
Tehran to stop its cross-border meddling in Iraqi affairs or face
additional sanctions. If Iran persists, the United States and
its allies should push for targeted financial sanctions and travel
bans on the leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and the many
companies that they own and operate.
Putting a spotlight on Iran's covert activities inside Iraq will
also give Iraqi leaders an incentive to distance themselves
from Iran to maintain their credentials as Iraqi
- Pressure Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish political parties to
distance themselves from Tehran if they want continued U.S.
support. Most Iraqis do not want to become vassals of Iran's
radical Islamic regime. Even many Shia have strong nationalist or
ideological differences with Iran's ruling theocracy. U.S. embassy
officials should stress to Iraqi political leaders that continued
cooperation with Iranian Revolutionary Guards will put continued
U.S. support at risk and jeopardize their chances of assuming
a leading role in a united Iraq. The U.S. should press the
political parties to gradually disband their militias, which Iran
seeks to bolster and control to prevent the emergence of a stable
and unified Iraq.
Additionally, American intelligence agencies should establish and
work closely with counterintelligence organs within the Iraqi
government to root out cells of Iranian supporters within the
government, particularly the security apparatus, and the United
States should work with the intelligence agencies of Britain,
Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to identify and expel
Iranian agents inside Iraq.
- Privately warn Tehran that continued efforts to subvert Iraq
will have negative consequences for its own security. If
Iran persists in its shadow war, the United States should
reciprocate with financial support and increased publicity for
Iranian separatist groups that are mounting an escalating challenge
to the repressive regime. If Iran continues to provide EFPs to
Iraqi groups, the United States should provide arms and training to
Iranian separatists. In recent years, there have been signs of
growing unrest among Kurds and Azeris in northwest Iran and an
upsurge in anti-regime activity by Baluch separatists in
eastern Iran and the Arab minority in Iran's oil province of
Khuzestan in western Iran. Iranian efforts to subvert Iraqi
stability should be met with equal and opposite efforts to
undermine Tehran's repressive control over minority groups on
The Bush Administration has made a convincing case that Iran is
helping Iraqi militias to kill Americans in Iraq but has held
off on laying the blame on Iran's top officials. This has given
Iran's fractious leaders the opportunity to back off their
aggressive policies and calm the situation. If they fail to grab
this opportunity, they should know that it will entail a growing
cost to their own interests.
Iran has enjoyed a free ride in mounting a proxy war against the
U.S. in Iraq that has taken a rising toll of American lives. It is
high time to raise the costs to Iran of these hostile policies.
The goal of these actions is to force Iran to choose between the
national interests of the Iranian people and the revolutionary
interests of the increasingly isolated regime. Shining a spotlight
on Iranian subversion in Iraq and making clear the attendant risks
of continuing that policy could eventually pay dividends by driving
a wedge between Tehran's radical regime and the Iranian people, who
have a strong interest in avoiding international sanctions that
could hobble Iran's economy and constrict Iran's links to the
James Phillips is
Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
Kenneth Katzman, "Iran's Influence in Iraq,"
Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, updated
February 2, 2007, p. 1.
Mounir Elkhamri, "Iran's Contribution to the
Civil War in Iraq," Jamestown Foundation Occasional Paper,
January 22, 2007, p. 5.
Michael Gordon and Dexter Filkins, "Hezbollah
Said to Help Shiite Army in Iraq," The New York Times,
November 28, 2006, p. A1.
Gordon and Filkins, "Hezbollah Said to Help
Shiite Army in Iraq."
James Glanz, "U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to
Iraqi Shiites," The New York Times, February 12, 2007, p.
Terence Hunt, "Bush: Iran Supplying Weapons
in Iraq," Associated Press, February 14, 2007.