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Baghdad's 'Iran Problem'

Author: Lionel Beehner
February 2, 2007

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Four years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, it is clear Iran’s influence in southern Iraq is solid and growing. Iran’s relations with Iraq’s Kurdish communities in the north are also strong, despite worries in Tehran that their push for greater autonomy from Baghdad might animate Iran’s own Kurdish minorities. As this new Backgrounder explains, Iran is believed to have operatives all over Iraq collecting intelligence and assisting various Shiite militias. It also has amicable ties with Iraq’s Shiite leadership that have boosted trade and religious tourism for Iranian pilgrims. Plans are underway to build an Iranian bank (NYT) in downtown Baghdad.

But to suggest Iraq is a puppet state of Iran is misleading, experts say. Iraqi Shiites are driven as much by nationalism as by their sectarian identities, suggests Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, an expert on Iranian foreign policy, in this CFR.org Podcast. It is further misleading for U.S. officials to blame the “mess” in Iraq on Iran, Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. “The Bush administration,” Pollack says, “seems to be regarding the Iranians as the source of many, if not all, of Iraq’s problems today. To me, it is dangerously reminiscent of how they talked about the Syrians in 2004 and 2005, when they ridiculously exaggerated Syria’s role in the Sunni insurgency.” The Los Angeles Times reports there is scant evidence linking Iranian agents to any specific attacks against American forces, though some investigators say the suspects behind an attack that killed five U.S. soldiers (NYT) in Karbala may have been trained and financed by Iranian agents. A new National Intelligence Estimate report underscores divisions within the intelligence community over the extent of Iran's involvement in Iraq.

The real enemy of U.S. interests in Iraq—argues Ali Ansari, a U.S.-based Iran expert—is the Sunni insurgency, which enjoys the support of factions within Arab neighbors and U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. “Shiites do not tend to engage in the sorts of suicide bombings that the Sunnis tend to engage in,” he tells ForeignPolicy.com. “And you certainly don’t see, by and large, Shiites beheading their opponents.” Gary G. Sick of Columbia University agrees. “[T]he place where Americans are dying most frequently, is not in the Shia territories…and they're not by Shia weapons,” he tells the NewsHour. “They are by Sunni insurgents in al-Anbar province.”

Other analysts support recent efforts by U.S. forces to put pressure on Tehran’s posts in Iraq, such as an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq recently raided by U.S. soldiers. Rick Francona, a retired U.S. military intelligence officer, supports these types of missions, writing that Iran’s Quds Forces, a special force unit heavily involved in Iraq, “have had American blood on their hands (MSNBC) for over twenty years.” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates assured reporters the gloves may come off in future dealings with Iran on Iraq. “If you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target,” he said.

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Backgrounder

Iran's Involvement in Iraq

Authors: Lionel Beehner and Greg Bruno

Iran's influence in Iraq is the subject of enormous speculation. The United States is taking steps to counter that influence.

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