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WikiLeaks: Iran Preys Upon Iraq

Dec 18, 2010 – 9:32 AM
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Justin Vela

Justin Vela Contributor

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- As the United States wonders how its legacy in Iraq will play out, documents released by WikiLeaks show how the country's two most powerful neighbors, Iran and Turkey, are seeking to exert influence in a land that threatens to again disintegrate into widespread violence.

The content of the cables, raw reporting done by U.S. diplomats, may have been meant to be assessed in Washington in order to correctly influence policy. Yet the missives hint at the future contours of the Middle East conflict, which appears to be headed in a direction where further clashes are impossible to avoid.

"Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officers are active in Iraq, conducting traditional espionage and supporting violent extremists as well as supporting both legitimate and malign Iranian economic and cultural outreach," wrote U.S. Charge d'Affaires Patricia A. Butenis in a classified diplomatic cable from April 2009.

According to the cables, Iran is spending between $100 million and $200 million yearly to exert influence over the political, religious, social and economic landscape of Iraq. Turkey is seen as more benign, its concerns focused largely on a Kurdish-dominated region stretching from Iraq into southeast Turkey. To counter this influence, Turkey has funded groups such as the Mosul, Iraq-based Sunni Al-Hudba movement, according to a cable from September 2009.

Turkey has waged a 26-year war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose demands for greater autonomy and cultural rights from Kurds in the country's southeast continue to be met with a strong military response. The PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, operates from camps in northern Iraq's Qandil Mountains, virtually undisturbed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) that administers the north of the country.

"The [Turkish] government developed a plan against us," PKK top commander Murat Karayilan told AOL News in a July 2010 interview in northern Iraq. "Their foreign policy development is a committee of three countries, the U.S., Turkey and Iraq, [that is] meant to demolish us."

Turkey is also accused of hoarding water through its growing networks of dams throughout the country. "It is the water issue that threatens to complicate an improving Iraq-Turkey relationship," reads a cable. The cable cites an Iraqi government official as saying that Iraq "needs a flow of 700 cubic meters of water for its needs but could get back with a minimum of 500. However, Turkey was only allowing a flow of about 230 cubic meters."

While the water issue is one that stands a chance of provoking further conflict, Iran's activities inside Iraq are of more immediate concern.

"The Iranians had been working for months to achieve a deal which would return [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] to office for a second term, along with the Shiite religious parties who were his major supporters. They achieved this end, and now they're in a position to take advantage of this as we go forward toward the end of 2011 and the ultimate U.S. withdrawal from the country," said Charles W. Dunne, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, in an interview with the Council for Foreign Relations.

The cables show that Washington is only too aware that Iran is one of the dominant players in Iraq. The Iranian regime was even instrumental in returning al-Maliki to the premiership after months of political deadlock inside the country. The cables report that Maliki visited Tehran several times to gain the support of the Iranian regime and the support of influential pro-Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army battled U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion.

The Iranian regime reportedly has even gone so far as to send assassins to kill members of the Iraqi air force who bombed Iran during the 1980-88 war between the two countries, the cables reveal. The cables also report that Iran used the Iranian Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, to smuggle agents and weapons into Iraq and around the world during conflicts in Lebanon and the Balkans, as well as during the Iran-Iraq war. "With the war underway, [NAME REMOVED] says the number of Qods officers seeking IRC cover increased and was between ten and 30," reads a cable from last month.

While the Iraqi government views its relationship with Tehran as normal, the U.S. is concerned that Iran might eventually come to exert too much control over the country.

"Coincidentally, Iranian efforts are driven by a clear determination to see a sectarian, Shia-dominated government that is weak, disenfranchised from its Arab neighbors, detached from the U.S. security apparatus and strategically dependent on Iran," reads a cable from September 2009. "An economically dependent and politically subservient Iraq would foster greater strategic depth for Tehran."

It is well known that Iran wants to establish itself as the dominant player in the Middle East, a position it now vies for with the U.S., according to experts. A special concern to Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia is that the cables report that "Iranian president Ahmadinejad has referred to Iraq in recent press statements as a 'Shia base.'"

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The Muslim world is largely split between Sunni and Shia sects, the two primary branches of Islam. Iran and the majority of Iraq's population is Shia, and Sunnis are concerned about a so-called "Shia triangle" extending from Iran into Iraq and through the Greater Middle East. The concerns recall traditional Persian-Arab tensions that date back hundreds of years and have led some Arab countries to privately ask the U.S. to bomb Iran to halt its nuclear program, the cables reveal.

"Ultimately, the character of the region will be decided in the crucible of Shia revival and the Sunni response to it," writes Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American academic and former professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, in his 2006 book "The Shia Revival."

Hope remains, however, that Iraq will not again fall prey to sectarian tensions. A cable from December 2009 reads, "Iraqis throughout the country were growing increasingly frustrated with foreign interference, notably from Iraq's neighbors."

However, whether Iraqi nationalism can triumph over religious sectarianism is still yet to be seen.
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