Tehran's efforts to gain sway in its fellow Shiite nation are hampered by rivalries, officials say.
By Megan K. Stack, Times Staff Writer
KARBALA, Iraq Pouring money into political parties, charities and armed organizations in a semi-covert campaign for influence and control, Iran has emerged as a silent and powerful force in postwar Iraq, Iraqi officials and Western diplomats said.
As a neighbor, former enemy in war and sometime haven for opponents of Saddam Hussein, Iran has long been a factor in Iraq's political life. Interviews with Western diplomats and Iraqis inside and outside government paint a picture of Iran seeking a new role since the U.S.-led invasion.
But Iran's internal divisions have muddied its goals in Iraq. Instead of working toward an overarching end, the Islamic Republic's clerics, political leadership and various military and intelligence branches are pursuing their own agendas.
Top political leaders in Tehran, for example, were quick to reach out to Iraq's interim government, hailing the end of U.S.-led rule and insisting that Iran would only suffer from bloodshed next door. Meanwhile, some Iranian intelligence cells were slipping money to insurgent groups in Iraq, Iraqi officials and Western diplomats said.
"Iran, unfortunately, speaks with a forked tongue," Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said. The leaders call for stability, he said, but "every day we are catching people coming to Iraq [from Iran"> with weapons. There are political parties backed by Iran."
The Iranian government is best understood as a group of semiautonomous power structures with sharply divided agendas, Kadhim said. "There seem to be various centers of power, and I'm not sure whether the official view we hear is really getting through. In a way, we are fighting Iranian politics in the arena of Iraq. Hard-liners and reformers are using Iraq as their fighting place."
Iran has called for the release of its diplomat, Faridoun Jihani, who was kidnapped in recent days by a Sunni Muslim group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. The group said Jihani "had been involved in inciting sectarian strife and operating outside the sphere of diplomacy," the Al Jazeera satellite television channel reported. According to Al Jazeera, "The group also warned Iran against flagrant interference in the affairs of Iraq."
Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan went further and told Al Arabiya television this week that Iran was meddling in Iraqi affairs by sending weapons to Shiite Muslim insurgents.
Iran has dismissed charges that it has been stirring up violence in Iraq. There is "no logical reason or proof that would verify" Shaalan's charges, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said on Iranian state TV. Tehran also responded to the complaints by inviting Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for an official visit to try to repair relations.
Predominantly Shiite Iran has cultivated ties with Iraq, particularly in the south, where Shiites are the overwhelming majority. Iran has set about establishing clinics, factories and welfare programs, providing a socioeconomic safety net.
Iran has also spent millions of dollars in Iraq much of it funneled to political parties that acknowledge the payments in the hope of buying loyalty and influence, said Western diplomats, who asked to remain anonymous. In Iraq's four southern provinces, two of the governors and two of the police chiefs have strong links to Iran, one of the diplomats said. Smaller Iraqi Shiite parties often say they have to check with Iran before making even slight political moves, another diplomat said.
Meanwhile, diplomats fear that Iranian intelligence has established a presence in Iraq, with agents sending cash and weapons to the anti-U.S. militias. Tehran denies anything improper, but the diplomats said some elements in Iran continue to finance the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and even appear to have forged ties recently with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's forces. Sadr's militia is battling U.S. forces in Najaf.
"The Iranian government is heavily divided," said a Western diplomat who worked in southern Iraq. "Among the different intelligence and police agents [in Iraq"> you have everything from people who are just watching and gathering information to people who are actively involved in attacking the coalition."
With Saddam Hussein deposed, Iran a regional military power could use its proxies and allies to become a factor in Iraq.
But there are barriers. Shiite Islam, the potential unifying force, is rife with tensions the Iraqi and Iranian schools of thought are locked in a competition for eminence between the Koranic scholars of Najaf and Qom. And, nationalistic impulses and an ancient rivalry could hinder Iranian attempts to shape the future of Iraq, which fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.
Fouad Kadim Douraqi, head of Karbala's Islamic Dawa Party, acknowledged that the group received aid from Iran, but he denied that the contributions bought the right to steer the party.
"There are many Iraqis like me," Douraqi said in his sun-flooded offices here. "We appreciate what they have offered us, but we don't allow them to do anything on our land or take positions on our behalf."
During the 19 years he lived as an exile in Iran, Douraqi said, he never learned Persian or made Iranian friends. Now that he has returned to this sacred city, he feels gratitude, he said, but no particular obligation to follow commands from Tehran.
The links between Dawa and Iran are well known the party has long been funded by Iran but Douraqi insisted that the new Iraq had provided a moment of independence for the party. His party is "taking help" from an array of countries eager to curry favor, he said, mentioning Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
"We don't object to cooperation with any country that wants to help, as long as Iraqi interests are above all else," he said. "Among the Iraqis, there is no will to accept the Iranian way. Historically we consider ourselves leaders to Iran, not the other way around."
American and Iraqi officials are deeply suspicious about the Iranian role in Iraq. Western diplomats said Iran, fearing that a stable, democratic Iraq could stir Iranians to rise up for a democracy of their own, was eager to see the United States fail.
Some Western analysts said they believed Iran didn't want Iraq to collapse into a civil war that could spread over their long and porous border. Nor does it want Iraq to turn into a stable host to a U.S. military presence.
Wedged between Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran is hemmed in by U.S. troops and wants to make sure that the Americans stay bogged down in Iraq lest they launch a new adventure against Iran, the officials said.
There are also fears about the extent of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There are several factions in Iran, but they fall into two broad categories: traditionalists who seek to maintain the Islamic Republic, with its vision of a Shiite theocracy that controls all structures in government and society. The other camp is viewed as the modernizers; some are religious, but less strident, and some are secular.
Among the different groups are small fundamentalist elements in the Iranian intelligence services that cling to the old goal of exporting the revolution to Iraq and binding the two countries into a single nation, diplomats here said.
"They made sure that if Iran ever wanted to create any trouble, they've got control of the south," a diplomat said. "Not that Iran would use it to create a coup, but just in case they want to do something, the potential is there."
In Karbala, police say they have rounded up dozens of Iranian men who have drifted into town without passports and stayed for weeks. The men invariably say they have come to worship at the shrine of Imam Hussein, but officials accuse Iran of planting spies among the pilgrims and of willfully ignoring armed insurgents who cross the border disguised as worshipers.
"The ones who are coming to visit the holy places are clear," said Karbala police official Rahman Shawi. "But these other men are young men. They have no documents or any kind of identification card."
Links between the two countries are particularly strong in the south, where the people are bound by family connections and common religious beliefs. When Shiites and Kurds were suffering under Hussein, they were nourished by cash and solidarity from Tehran.
Shiites in Iran and Iraq have taken one another's exiles. Shiite leaders fled to Iran to escape Hussein, and it was from Najaf that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini plotted his revolt against the shah of Iran. Having opened the country to Shiites suffering under Hussein, Iran now feels a sense of ownership and duty.
"Iran feels it is their right to defend the Shiites of Iraq by demanding their rights," said Hamid Bayati, Iraq's deputy foreign minister, and a Shiite who lived in exile in Iran. "I don't think Iran will accept a situation where Shiites are undermined or ruled by a minority."
Iranians also feel a sense of duty toward the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, places from which they were banned under Hussein. The municipality of Tehran has pledged several public works projects in Najaf, said Numan Jabar Abbass, director of Najaf's municipal council.
Many of the Iranian-linked political parties insist that they will never allow Tehran to dictate their agenda. They say they are striking a thin balance between gratitude and independence.
Many of the Iraqi Shiites who fled to Iran for protection insist that they had nowhere else to go. They have seen the downside of the Iranian revolution, they say, and have no desire to repeat the experiment in their nation.
"We'll accept any kind of friendship, but not interference," Bayati said. "Iraqis always felt they were Iraqis before anything else."