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Interview with Peter Khalil and Michael Knights on Iran-Iraq Relations

Interviewer(s): Lionel Beehner
September 22, 2005

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Much has been made in recent months of Iran’s role in Iraqi politics, particularly in the heavily Shiite southern provinces. Some Sunni Arab leaders have accused Iraq’s Shiite leadership of being directly under the sway of Iran. The Iranians “are interested, they are involved, and they are active. And it’s not helpful,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters September 20. Others worry Iran’s influence, at least indirectly, may threaten Iraq’s national—or “Arab”—identity and splinter the country into three separate regions between Iraq’s Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite religious and ethnic groups.

After a spate of violence in normally quiet Basra involving Shiite-led militias—many of which have ties to Iran—some experts have called into question Iraq’s growing reliance on these militias for security in the south. Lionel Beehner, staff writer with cfr.org, spoke with Peter Khalil, former director of national security policy with the Coalition Provisional Authority and a Middle East analyst with the Eurasia Group, and Michael Knights, a London-based associate with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on Iran’s role in Iraq regarding its Shiite leadership, militia groups, Sunni-run insurgency, and national identity.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told the Council on Foreign Relations September 20, “We are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason.” Do you agree with him?

PETER KHALIL: From the Iranian point of view, quite clearly, I don’t think they would like to see Iraq as a failed, or collapsed, state. Nor do the Iranians want to see the breakup of Iraq, particularly because the disaffected Kurdish minority on the Iranian side of the border would cause a lot of problems if the Kurdish side of Iraq were to split off. But they do want to see Iraq as weak as possible to maximize their influence. So whether you can answer in the positive that “we,” I assume meaning the coalition, is handing over Iraq to Iran, I think that would be a negative. Certainly, though, Iran would like to see a much stronger regional government formed in Iraq’s southern provinces, which would again maximize Iranian influence in the south.

MICHAEL KNIGHTS: With some individuals very highly positioned within the Iraqi government, people are upset because of their associations with the Iranian government in the early 1980s [during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War]. What we’re seeing now is the culmination of a long, patient process of Iranian political penetration of Iraq’s society. But U.S. policy hasn’t really affected that. As long as democracy is a defining factor in who controls Iraq in Iraq’s future, Iran’s hand within Iraq will be strengthened [assuming Iraq’s majority Shiites are in]. So in a sense, the only way we can be said to have actually handed the country over to Iran is that we encourage the democratic majority rule.

In what ways is Iran meddling in Iraq’s affairs?

KHALIL: Well, there are sort of three different levels: Commercially, Iranians have a great deal of influence; they’re buying up a lot of property in many of the southern cities like Basra. As far as the second level, they do have a fair degree of intelligence infiltration in the south. Of course, the porous nature of the Iran-Iraq border, although it has improved in the last year or so, has meant that with hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims who cross over into Iraq, it makes it very difficult to determine which of those religious pilgrims are actually Iranian agents, for example. And thirdly, Iran has a religious influence over some of the southern clerics in Iraq. The religious side of things is a bit more complicated because while Iran would like to see a Shiite-dominated government, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, even though he is Iranian-born, has different theological position from the Iranians. The school that he comes from—the Hawza School of Quietism, as it’s called—sees a backroom role for clerics and does not necessarily favor clerics or Islamic jurists controlling the executive as they do in Iran, where you have [Ayatollah] Khomeini and the Guardian Council basically running the country.

I should note that because Iran wants a weakened Iraq to maximize its influence, this means Iran’s influence tends to be spread across a diverse number of sometimes competing Iraqi actors. There’s some evidence of Iran supporting not just Shiite actors but even members of the Sunni insurgency to try, in some ways, to create some sort of controlled disorder that suits Iran’s interests.

There’s a lot of speculation the heavily Shiite southern regions around Basra, under a federalized Iraq, may evolve into an Iranian-style theocracy.

KNIGHTS: Looking at the possibility that a provincial regional government could be formed in southern Iraq—either with two or three provinces involving Basra or other rich states or indeed all the predominantly Shiite provinces—if that occurs, then what we are seeing is the development of the worse-case scenario feared right after the 1991 Gulf War. That is, an Iranian-influenced enclave in southern Iraq that would loosen the ties that bind Iraq together. There is a case to be answered that federalism in Iraq will strengthen Iran’s hand.

When you’re talking about Basra and what is essentially atrophy of state power in Iraq, the fact is the southern regions, the provinces, and the municipalities are becoming more autonomous every day. And the governance of those areas are increasingly falling to Shiite factions associated either with SCIRI [the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance in Iraq], who are an Iranian property, or Moqtada al-Sadr’s street-level cult of personality, the Mahdi Army. There’s clearly been a serious slippage of central-government control in southern Iraq. Basra is the most serious example of this. Within the Basra government, the British have been hailed for establishing a more favorable security environment and working closely with the local powerbrokers. However, there are now some signs this kind of close relationship with local Islamist leaders, many of them members of SCIRI and its paramilitary wing, the Badr Organization, will have some negative aspects. A number of cities in the south of Iraq offered a considerable amount of local autonomy to unelected actors, including the Badr Organization and Sadr’s Mahdi militia, or local militias associated with it

What is Iran’s relationship with the Shiite militias?

KHALIL: There’s a long history of this, particularly with SCIRI. Their armed wing, the Badr Corps or the Badr Organization as it’s called, has something like 12,000 Shiite militias, many of whom spent a fair degree of the last ten years in exile in Iran being trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and being paid on the Guard’s payroll. So I think it would be naive to assume those links don’t continue and, of course, there’s a fair degree of evidence of that over the last couple of years. Iran also supports other competing Iraqi actors, other Shiite militias in the south as well. And this problem is one which the British are clearly facing at the moment as far as infiltration of some of these militias into the state security services, who might owe their allegiance to the militia commanders, but also to Iran indirectly.

KNIGHTS: I think SCIRI’s involvement with Iran is difficult to characterize in terms of direct assistance and of being part of an Iranian command-and-control network. As usual with Iran, its hand in these affairs is a lot more difficult to describe and prove than we would hope. In many cases, SCIRI owes their physical existence and survival during Saddam’s era to Iranian security services. One thing that I would say is members of SCIRI, and also the Dawa Party in Iraq, which is led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, visited Iran during the summer and took over ten ministers from the Iraqi cabinet and visited a number of former associates in Tehran, as well as the tomb of [Iranian revolution leader] Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini. I think this illustrates some of the very deep, questionable, interpersonal and inter-organizational ties that still exist between the current Shiite ruling block in Iraq and the Iranian security apparatus.

What’s the relationship between Iran and Sadr’s group?

KHALIL: That’s very complicated. On the surface, Sadr is someone who combines strong Iraqi nationalism with radical Islam and would tend to be one of those Shiite leaders who is not as strongly influenced by Iran as, say, [SCIRI leader] Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has that long history with Iran. But there has been evidence that [Sadr’s people] possibly were in contact [with Iran] and got some support from there as well.

KNIGHTS: Sadr’s connections to the Iranian security apparatus are even harder to characterize than SCIRI’s or Dawa’s. In some ways, Sadr is a very poor prospect as an Iranian proxy. He’s xenophobic. He’s very disenchanted with Iranian-sponsored exiles who are currently heading up Iraq’s Shiite block, including of course Prime Minister Jaafari and SCIRI. He has recently flexed militarily with SCIRI’s Badr forces, so he’s generally not an ideal proxy for the Iranians to use. One of the characteristics of Iran’s intelligence and security penetration throughout the Middle East is that the Iranians like to keep all their bases covered. They might well retain low-level ties with Sadr and his Mahdi Army; they will, no doubt, also maintain ties to some of the subordinate groups and tribes within Sadr’s network, particularly those operating in Iraq’s southern border provinces.

Since the invasion of Iraq, we have had to tear up many of the established truths about terrorism and sectarianism in the Middle East. The first is the fact that Islamists and Baathists won’t work together. Equally important is the notion that Sunni and Shiite militants will not work together. Zarqawi, known for his antipathy toward the Shiites, has utilized Shiite militants to undertake a number of bombings in the south. And therefore it should not be surprising that it works vice-versa also. Now, Iran’s intelligence and security apparatus has quite a long history of working with Sunni militants.

Is there any evidence Iran is abetting the insurgency, particularly the foreign jihadis?

KHALIL: There have been limited examples of this. There is some evidence of Iranian intelligence being involved with Sunni insurgents. Most of it is circumstantial evidence coming out of press reports. Obviously, there’s a real sectarian problem with supporting [Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu al-] Zarqawi and other Sunni fundamentalists. I think what Iranin support does fall into is the broader Iranian objective to create a degree of disorder in Iraq, but not so much that it will completely collapse the country.

KNIGHTS: Iran is not working directly with the foreign jihadis or Zarqawi’s networks. Instead, I would agree that Iran is working indirectly to undermine the U.S. occupation of Iraq by making available certain difficult-to-access components for the construction of improvised explosive devices. Recently, we’ve heard a lot about passive infrared triggers going into Iraq from Iran. It might very well be that these kinds of components are being sent into Iraq and then being placed on the black market where, of course, they can then be bought by either Shiite or Sunni insurgent factions.

Is Iran involved in the latest spate of violence in the southern region and Basra?

KHALIL: I don’t think we can overstate Iran’s participation in this, because while I said earlier that Iran would like to see Iraq as weak as possible, I think it’s against their interest to see Iraq collapse entirely, where you have a complete splitting off into three separate groups for example. So it’s a bit of a balancing act. Certainly the current spate of violence is more about different Iraqi Shiite religious militia jockeying for position in the south, jockeying for positions of power, trying to control the provincial councils but also trying to get a foot in the door of the state security services to try to control different areas. And it involves competing interests of Sadr’s Mahdi Army with Hezbollah in Iraq, which is another Shiite militia in Iraq, also Dawa and the Badr Organization.

KNIGHTS: I would say Iran is only one of many actors involved in the recent spate of violence in southern Iraq. I think the situation there is so complex, but I think we’re in danger of grossly overestimating Iran’s ability to control directly the insurgency in southern Iraq. I think, much like the coalition, Iranian security forces swim in a confusing sea of political factions and sectarian decisions.

In many ways, they have some advantages over the coalition. They’ve been involved in southern Iraq for nearly two decades; they have much better insight into the mentality and tribal structure of southern Iraq; and they were probably much more ready for the post-war recovery phase than we were in the multinational coalition. Now, having said that, they are still, nonetheless, an external faction who will receive varying levels of support from local proxies, depending on whether or not those proxies see benefit in cooperating with the Iranians. There are no simple relationships here; nobody is functioning as a brainless automaton under Iranian control. Iranians have to vie for influence against the coalition and against internal competitors on a day-by-day basis.

Does Iran have interests in the south outside of its religious ties to the region?Perhaps economic interests?

KHALIL: Absolutely. This is tied to the fact that oil production in Iraq, of the 1.6 or 1.7 million barrels a day that are exported out of Iraq, 1.4 or 1.5 million come out of the southern oil fields. So the south has a great deal of economic importance and I suspect the call for a regional autonomous state in the south—of up to nine provinces out of a total of eighteen in Iraq—would definitely suit Iranian interests so long as it remains within a broader, albeit weak, federal structure.

Some of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors who rely on Iraq for oil are concerned by Iran’s increasing influence. Are their fears justified?

KHALIL: There’s a general fear among Sunni Arabs—Iraqis as well as Sunni Arabs across the region—about this growing threat of a “Shiite crescent” across the Middle East [stretching from Iran to Lebanon]. While there’s some truth to the fact that different Shiite groups have made great advances in political freedoms and political power—not just in Iraq with the Shiite-dominated government, but also with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and so on—I think it’s a bit premature to talk about a Shiite crescent. If you look at a map of the region, most of the Shiites live right on top of some of the richest oil fields in the Middle East. There’s a saying that God favored the Shiites with oil. The fear now is that they are going to correlate that with political power.

When you talk about Iraqi identity, which always comes up whenever anyone mentions Iran’s influence, would you say Iraqis, particularly in the south, consider themselves as Iraqis before they consider themselves Shiites?

KHALIL: There’s a lot of evidence to suggest there’s a complicated list of ethnic, sectarian, and political groups in Iraq that cross over. For example, you can have secular Shiites that more in line with the Kurds, such as [former interim Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi. But having said that, there is this overlay of Iraqi nationalism as well, which the Shiites are part of, and in fact, Sadr’s group epitomizes this to some extent, even though they’re connected to a very strong Islamic radicalism. And Shiite Arabs do distinguish themselves from their Persian, sectarian brethren if you like. The question is, though: Has the religious identification become more powerful than some of these ethnic identifications? The strong Shiite secular movements in the 1950s and 60s in Iraq in the leftwing-type political groups—the Communist Party, trade unions, and so forth—was really crushed by the Baathist regime throughout the seventies and eighties and really what was left, as far as identification, was very tribal, was very family-oriented, and religious. And these are the identifications that survived. So it’s certainly true there’s been a shift in the way Shiite Arabs may see themselves. They might be more strongly connected to other Shiites, regardless of ethnicity.

KNIGHTS: I think they would consider themselves Shiites first. It would be wrong to underestimate the depth and breadth of pan-Shiite ties between Shiite unities in Iran, Iraq, and other areas in the Gulf and Levant. Since the fall of Saddam, we have seen the Iran-Iraq border separating the two countries begin to disintegrate. Economic, demographic, and theological integration is moving ahead very rapidly. This is one of the factors increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, and it’s a perfectly legitimate process of integration between two countries: Two Shiite communities have more in common than they have separating them.

Just how dangerous is Iran with respects to its involvement in Iraq? Are some people making much ado about nothing?

KNIGHTS: In terms of dangers, I would just say the new government in Iran [under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is a very confident, rash, and militaristic regime. There is every indication that it believes it is the first true Islamic government since 1979, and furthermore, that the Ahmadinejad faction believes that a Shiite-controlled Iraq has the potential to be the second true Islamic state.

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