Sunday Times: Democracy came to Iran last week, but unfortunately for the budding reformists who dream of ending theocratic rule in Tehran, the ballot boxes were Iraqi. The lines of men and women outside polling stations were expatriates casting early votes for a new government in Baghdad. More than 60,000 exiled Iraqis have registered to vote in Iran, which is watching today’s elections with a mixture of caution and avarice. Sunday Times

Democracy came to Iran last week, but unfortunately for the budding reformists who dream of ending theocratic rule in Tehran, the ballot boxes were Iraqi. The lines of men and women outside polling stations were expatriates casting early votes for a new government in Baghdad.

More than 60,000 exiled Iraqis have registered to vote in Iran, which is watching today’s elections with a mixture of caution and avarice.

According to British intelligence officials based in Basra, Iran has also been moving quietly to extend its influence in Shi’ite areas in anticipation of an election victory by parties with close links to Tehran.

The hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is said to be developing an extensive spy network which will ensure that Tehran has access to crucial debates about the future of coalition forces in Iraq and negotiations on a constitution. The ayatollahs’ military wing is said to have recruited agents and to have placed undercover military intelligence officers in senior positions in the Iraqi police, army and political parties.

The spy claims follow months of allegations that Iranian agents have been pouring across Iraq’s borders with weapons and money for local Shi’ite radicals. While coalition officials believe that rival Iraqi politicians have exaggerated the claims, both Washington and London are concerned at Iran’s potential influence over a new Iraqi government.

Details of the Iranian manoeuvring were revealed last week by a senior adviser to Major-General Jonathan Riley who is in overall command of Britain’s 9,000 troops in southern Iraq.

The adviser, a counter- terrorism expert with access to both MI5 and MI6 intelligence, said the Iranian network could be rapidly expanded and, in the event of a civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite factions, Revolutionary Guards might be “invited” across the border to assist their Iraqi neighbours.

“If they really wanted to come in and cause problems they would have the contacts and would be able to take control of groups quite rapidly,” said the adviser.

The prospect of deepening Iranian influence in Iraq is likely to impose further strain on the coalition as it struggles to preserve a united policy towards Tehran. Washington and London are increasingly at odds over Iranian threats to continue the development of nuclear weapons.

Recent reports that the Pentagon is preparing for a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities were greeted with dismay in Europe where Britain, France and Germany are trying to strike a diplomatic deal with Tehran.

Intelligence officials believe that Iran is trying to manipulate Iraq towards a more “aggressive” form of Islam. Iranian mullahs, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, have developed close ties with Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the main Shi’ite list of Iraqi candidates, and with Moqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Iraqi Shi’ite cleric.

Al-Hakim’s party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), was formed in Iran, where al-Hakim fled about 20 years ago after many of his relatives were killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The party has a spacious office in Tehran.

“The Iranian influence in southern Iraq is strong,” said the British military adviser last week. “It comes through the religious influence of mullahs and through Iran’s overt links with political parties such as Sciri, which controls the Basra governate.

“Iran is also secretly funding individuals and smaller groups in Iraq and trains them for their purposes.”

British officials believe that a withdrawal of UK troops from the south would hasten a de facto Iranian takeover. “There is a possibility under a Shi’ite majority government that Arab countries will be asked to help with Iraqi security, perhaps even Iranian and Syrian security forces,” said the adviser.

He also confirmed that al-Sadr, who led a violent insurgency against coalition forces last year, had been in the pay of Tehran. “According to our intelligence assessments, during the Najaf uprising last April he was being given money by the Iranians to cause trouble.”

Al-Sadr’s “Mahdi army” fought running battles with the British Army in Basra and in the Maysan province.

Al-Sadr has since been keeping a lower profile and has been sending mixed signals about his political intentions. Although he has told his followers to boycott the vote he is believed to be waiting to see whether a credible government emerges. If it does, he may seek to join it. If the democratic process collapses, he may lead his army back into battle against coalition forces.

Intelligence reports suggest that al-Sadr has placed “ciphers” — undercover militiamen posing as mainstream politicians — in various political parties and will attempt to seize power in the largely Shi’ite south at an opportune moment, possibly in concert with his backers in the IRGC.

In Al-Amara in the “Wild East” Maysan province, al-Sadr is said to have already seized hold of the political process.

British military chiefs are so concerned about the popularity of al-Sadr that last week they ran a “Doomsday” contingency exercise based on the premise of a al-Sadr-backed militia taking control of Basra on or after election day.

The results of the elections may not be compiled for at least two weeks. It promises to be a difficult wait for British troops patrolling the border between Iraq and Iran.