Seeing Iran's Shadow in Iraq Unrest

Greg Bruno
Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, March 28, 2008; 3:35 PM

Black smoke swirled over central Baghdad on March 23, disturbing the fragile calm of the Iraqi capital. The attack on the Green Zone, which killed at least 13 Iraqis (NYT), was followed by the eruption of internecine Shiite violence in Baghdad's Sadr City and the southern oil port of Basra. Taken together the attacks renewed fears that a year of reduced violence, attributed in part to a beefed-up U.S. presence and a Shiite militia cease-fire, had ended. But in the eyes of U.S. military officials the attacks also highlighted another aspect of Iraq's security roller coaster: Iran's complicity in the conflict. After Iran reportedly vowed to cut off the flow of weapons and militants to Iraq in late 2007, and a subsequent wait-and-see attitude (CSMonitor) from Washington, U.S. officials have once again turned to blaming Tehran for Baghdad's woes (BBC).

There's little disagreement Iran has influence in Iraq, from political ties to economic links. Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service notes Iran's strategy for achieving "strategic depth" (PDF) in Iraq has been to foster strong ties with Iraq's Shiite-led government. Many in that government spent time exiled in Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Murkier are alleged Iranian ties to Iraqi militants. The Bush administration accuses Iran of supplying money, weapons, and training to Shiite insurgent groups in Iraq, a charge President Bush reiterated on March 27. U.S. military officials say much of the Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Iraq's south can be attributed to criminal gangs and "special groups," fighters that have broken ties with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. But Rear Adm. Greg Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, says "Iran has influenced" the violence in recent months.

The Pentagon has repeated allegations of Iranian support for Shiite militias despite Iraqi and Iranian denials (Press TV). Aside from a trickle of alleged links -- including labels on explosives and interrogations with captured operatives -- much of the Defense Department's evidence remains classified. Equally unclear is how involved the Iranian leadership might be in sanctioning strikes within Iraq. Nonetheless, independent media reports have corroborated some of the assertions. Iraqi fighters tell TIME that recruits from militant groups have traveled to Iran to attend forty-five-day training camps. The programs allegedly focused on the use of armor-piercing roadside bombs, sniper skills, and kidnapping tactics.

What might motivate Iran to destabilize Iraq militarily is harder to pin down; U.S. intelligence on Iranian thinking is lacking, as this Backgrounder explains. An American Enterprise Institute report says that while Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, "have been actively involved" in supporting Shiite militias, "the precise purpose of this support is unclear and may have changed over time" (PDF). Some experts speculate Iran wants to ensure a Sunni-led government never returns to power in Iraq. Others suggest Iran favors a kind of managed chaos in Iraq, to keep the U.S. military busy. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution tells The Nation, "Iran is putting money on every number of the roulette wheel."

Those pointing to Iranian meddling say Tehran's activities undermine U.S. and Iraqi interests. Katzman argues Iran's aid to Shiite militias has "accelerated competition among Shiite factions in southern Iraq," as evidenced by recent violence in Basra. Iranian support has even prompted an anti-Iran backlash (WashPost) from disenfranchised Iraqi Shiite civilians. Iran's alleged support to militant groups also bodes poorly for U.S. prospects of victory, some experts say. As Department of Homeland Security analyst Ryan Carr notes in Strategic Insights, successful insurgencies "often depend on some measure of external support."

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