Iran is conducting what U.S. officials say is a broad covert-action campaign to influence Iraq's elections next month, pumping money and other assistance to its allies. The best way to counter this assault, American officials have decided, is by exposing it publicly.
The most direct criticism of Iran's meddling has come from Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. In meetings with reporters during a visit to Washington last week, he focused on the role played by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi who lobbied the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003 and is now alleged to be working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Odierno has also briefed top Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on U.S. intelligence reports about the Iranian campaign. A source provided me with an unclassified summary of Odierno's briefing, which included the following allegations:
-- "Iran provides money, campaign materials, and political training to various individual candidates and political parties [in Iraq].
-- "Iran interferes in Iraq's political process, urging alliances that not all Iraqi politicians favor, in an effort to consolidate power among parties supported by Iran. For example . . . Ahmed Chalabi met with IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Iranian Foreign Minister [Manouchehr] Mottaki in late November to discuss" the merger of two slates of Shiite candidates backed by Iran.
-- "Iran supports de-Baathification efforts engineered by Ahmed Chalabi for the purpose of eliminating potential obstacles to Iranian influence. Chalabi is also interested in Iran's assistance in securing the office of Prime Minister.
-- "According to all-source intelligence, Ahmed Chalabi visited Iran at least three times since last year. Additionally, he met with key Iranian leaders in Iraq on at least five occasions."
The decision to release this sort of intelligence information is unusual, and it reflects concern across the U.S. government about Iran's push to shape the March 7 Iraqi balloting. The United States has "information operations" and other activities in Iraq to counter the Iranians, but apparently it has not mounted a full-scale covert-action campaign of its own, in part because of a desire not to manipulate a democracy that America helped create.
"To covertly go after Iran, we're too late," says a top U.S. official. "What we can do is expose."
Chalabi, reached by e-mail, denied Odierno's allegations that he was acting as an Iranian agent: "These accusations resurface every time we take a course of action that is contrary to the political agenda of the U.S. . . . However, we forgive General Odierno because he captured Saddam [Hussein]."
Iran's operations in Iraq are directed by Soleimani, who is described by people who have met him as a brilliant, soft-spoken Persian version of John le Carre's master spy, Karla. He is backed by his deputy for Iraq, known as Abu Mahdi Mohandes, who U.S. officials say was involved in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait in 1983.
The Iranians allegedly are pumping $9 million a month in covert aid to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party that has the most seats in the Iraqi parliament and $8 million a month to the militant Shiite movement headed by Moqtada al-Sadr.
The current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is said to play a delicate balancing game with Iran, opposing some of its moves and acceding to others. According to U.S. intelligence reports, a member of Maliki's staff hand-delivers sensitive documents from Tehran, thereby avoiding electronic communications that might be intercepted.
For the Iranians, maintaining a compliant government in Baghdad is a crucial matter of national security, especially for the generation that survived the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Tehran is still settling scores for that conflict. According to U.S. intelligence reports, the Iranians two months ago circulated a list of 600 Iraqi officers who are targeted for assassination because of their role in the Iraq-Iran war. Asked what the United States was doing to counter these killings, a commander responded: "We notify people who are on the list."
"The Iranians are everywhere, all over the place -- overtly, covertly, you name it," says a White House official who closely monitors Iraq. "They're putting chips on red and black and whatever is in between."
The best check against these Iranian machinations, U.S. officials believe, is the simple patriotism of the Iraqi people. Opinion polls show that Iran is even more mistrusted by Iraqis than is America. Iranian meddling has backfired in the past, officials say, and they are hoping that will happen again when Iraqis go to the polls.