The U.S. embassy and military command has once again started to raise accusations about Iranian "meddling" in Iraq. Of course, one man's meddling is another man's pursuit of national interests, but whatever you call it, there does indeed seem reason to believe that Iran has stepped up its power-play in Iraq as part of what you might call an "end-game" strategy.
Why end game? Because like everyone else, Iran has figured out that Barack Obama will be the next president, and they're positioning themselves for what will be a struggle for power and influence in Baghdad. Among other things, as I was told often during my visit to Iran last spring, Tehran sees Iraq as kind of a bargaining chip in its relations with the United States.
Tehran's main goals in Iraq have always been (1) to ensure that Iraq would remain a weak, fragmented state that cannot pose a threat to Iran, (2) to prevent the return to power of the powerfully anti-Iranian Sunni bloc, (3) to guarantee that Iran's Shiite majority would maintain a grip on the levers of power in Baghdad, and (4) that the United States not use Iraq as a launching pad for a regime-change strategy toward Iran. By now, Iran is likely confident that it has secured all of those goals. Now it can use its influence in Iraq to leverage its relations with the new Obama administration.
Earlier this week, General Ray Odierno overtly accused Iran of trying to block the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq. Said Odierno:
"Clearly, this is one they're having a full court press on to try to ensure there's never any bilateral agreement between the United States and Iraq. We know that there are many relationships with people here for many years going back to when Saddam was in charge, and I think they're utilizing those contacts to attempt to influence the outcome of the potential vote in the council of representatives."
He accused Iran of trying to "bribe" Iraq lawmakers to vote against SOFA, saying that "there are many intelligence reports [that Iranians are] coming in to pay off people to vote against it."
There can't really be any doubt that Iran is using all of its clout, behind the scenes, including cash payments, to undermine the US-Iraq accord, and probably successfully. And it starts at the top, with Prime Minister Maliki, many of whose personal security detail and the people who fly the Iraqi version of Air Force One are Iranians, according to confidential Iraqi sources.
A leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a fundamentalist Sunni party tied to the Muslim Brotherhood organization, just visited Iran to get his arm twisted. Mahmoud Mashhadani, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, visited Iran earlier this week and, according to the Tehran Times the visit focused on the "restoration of the dignity and independence of Iraq," in other words, opposition to the SOFA. A top Iranian military official, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, lambasted the SOFA during Mashhadani's visit. Said the deputy chief of Iran's armed forces:
"The Iraqi people won't be deceived by propaganda and the psychological warfare launched by the U.S. and its allies to pressure the Iraqi government to approve the security deal. Undoubtedly, the Iraqi leaders are careful of any mischief in this regard and won't allow Iraqi history be stained with such a disgrace."
Meanwhile, Iran is strengthening its on-the-ground military presence in Iraq. At CNN, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reports that there are at least three separate paramilitary groups growing in Iraq that are directly backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. She reports:
"According to the latest assessment of U.S. intelligence, the Iranian effort has broken into three main groups: Asaib-al-Haq; Kataib Hezbollah; and a reorganized so-called 'special groups' effort, the official said.
"He noted that the first two groups represent fighters are coordinated by Iranian elements, instead of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr's group, which formerly controlled them.
"'They are now directly funded and trained by the IRGC,' the U.S. official said. It is believed the IRGC is trying to model this effort after Hezbollah in Lebanon, he said."
The "special groups" are paramilitary forces formerly associated with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, but now, apparently, completely independent of Sadr.
Over the past several months the U.S military command has reported the capture of a number of officials of Kataib Hezbollah, and a military official told me: "We believe Kata'ib Hezbollah receives support from Iran."
Starr also reports:
"The U.S. military ... recently arrested an Iraqi general who says he was paid by Iran to derail a pending agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after the end of the year.
"The general was arrested a few weeks ago at the Iranian border carrying large sums of cash, according to the source. The man has known ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the U.S. official said."
So which is it? Meddling, or pursuit of national interest. It sounds the same to me. Either way, it's real. In an interview, a top expert on Iraq told me: "Every time the United States starts to put pressure on Maliki, he goes running to Iran for support." And Iran is there for him. Maliki, who is not entirely in Iran's pocket, is heavily dependend on the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq for his political survival, and ISCI is widely known to be on Iran's payroll.