You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Separate Ways

Iran's plans for Iraq.

In the first weekend of the war, a little-noticed statement from the State Department promised that the United States still took "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran very seriously." The Middle East hands at Foggy Bottom crafted the phrase after the Iranians accused the United States of firing missiles into Iran's Abadan oil refinery. It turned out the missiles were Iraqi, but State still used the occasion to send Tehran a message: You're not next.

The public statement echoed private communications that had been taking place in recent months in Geneva between the U.S. envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Iranian diplomats. In these talks, Khalilzad reportedly emphasized to the Iranians that the United States believed they could be valuable assets in the Iraq war. "We kept saying our relations will improve-everyone said this-if you behave," one American official familiar with the State Department's Iran diplomacy said. "The bottom line was things would get better."

But State miscalculated. Three weeks into the war, it's apparent the Iranians have every intention of sabotaging both America's battle plans and its efforts to rebuild Iraq. Iran, in fact, has been welcoming anyone who fought the coalition forces with open arms. Yet, despite Iran's clear actions, the Bush administration has failed to develop a clear response.

In his meetings with the Iranian diplomats, Khalilzad hoped to cement Iran's neutrality in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Khalilzad wanted to secure promises that Tehran would not flood Iraq with agents to stir up trouble for American troops or open Iran's borders to fleeing Iraqi fighters and other people American forces would want to detain. In exchange for this help, American officials say, Khalilzad promised to include Iranian-backed Iraqi groups in the government that replaces Saddam Hussein and to pursue better relations with Tehran once the campaign with Iraq is over. To demonstrate America's willingness to work with Iranian-supported Iraqi exiles, the United States even offered to train the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-based group of Iraqi Shia known for their Islamist sympathies. What's more, American officials invited SCIRI's leaders to Washington last August and then again to an opposition conference organized by the State Department in London in December 2002. At the London conference, SCIRI was allotted a role in planning for a postwar Iraq.

Reaching out to Iran's mullahs on Iraq seemed to some State officials like smart diplomacy, since this approach had produced benefits in the past. After all, the State Department believes Iran has not tried to undermine Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan in part because Iranian leaders were invited to the Bonn conference to help advise on the country's reconstruction. Indeed, Tehran has contributed most of the cloth for the uniforms of Afghanistan's nascent American-trained military and has rebuilt more roads in the ravaged country than the United States or the United Nations. According to American officials, last May the Iranians even provided a list of alleged Al Qaeda operatives who had fled from Afghanistan into Iran to the U.S. National Security Council through a third channel. Tehran would eventually expel alleged mid-level Al Qaeda operatives from its soil to three countries-Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Netherlands-thereby assisting in the war on terror.

But State's rosy assumptions about Iran's Iraq plans have proved false. Though there has been considerable pro-U.S. sentiment on the streets of Tehran in recent months, the Iranian government still believes it is at war with the United States and continues to view Washington with considerable mistrust and distaste. Since the Iraq conflict began, Iran's leaders, despite having fought a brutal war with Saddam during the 1980s, have openly condemned the U.S. and British military campaign and any U.S.-led postwar reconstruction of Iraq. On March 30, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi said his government would only respect an Iraq "established under the supervision of the United Nations." Then, in early April, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami told reporters, "Those who launch today their bombs and missiles on Iraq will reap only destruction and hatred from the Iraqi people." And, on April 4, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's powerful ex-president, warned that any damage to Shia shrines in southern Iraq would result in "more damage ... inflicted on the White House." Meanwhile, SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim has threatened to take up arms against American forces should he deem their presence an occupation. Al Hakim, who resides in Iran, announced this week that he plans to return to southern Iraq in the near future.

In addition to lashing out at the United States, the Iranians have taken a series of actions that hinder the Iraq war effort. Far from closing their border to fleeing Iraqi soldiers and irregulars, the Iranians have welcomed them. Fighters from a reputed Al Qaeda offshoot, Ansar Al Islaman organization highlighted by Colin Powell as evidence of Saddam's links to Osama bin Laden in his February 5 testimony to the United Nations-escaped to Iran after U.S. cruise missiles destroyed their base in northern Iraq 48 hours into the war, though some of the fighters have since returned to Iraq. Among those who escaped was Sa'adoon Mohammed Abdul Latif, an Iraqi intelligence officer better known as Abu Wa'il, who is believed by American intelligence to be an intermediary between bin Laden and Iraq's intelligence ministry. Another militant, Ayub Afghani, an Al Qaeda-trained explosives expert, also allegedly has found safe haven in Iran. "We know they fled into Iran, [and] we have urged the Iranian authorities to hand them over to us. So far, we have yet to receive an answer," one Kurdish official in Iraq with access to intelligence said last week.

Not only has the Iranian government welcomed people leaving the fighting, it also reportedly has sent people into Iraq in an attempt to slow down coalition forces and win influence for Iran once Saddam falls. On March 24, American intelligence sent a report to a number of senior officials detailing minutes from a meeting of Iran's National Security Council in which the Council drew up plans to send paramilitary units into Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Kirkuk, and Al Najaf after Saddam is toppled. The CIA also discovered last month that Iran's Revolutionary Guard has procured Saudi and Kuwaiti military uniforms, supposedly to give to these paramilitaries to help them confuse coalition forces in Iraq. As one American official with access to the intelligence said, "Watch the Iranians in the next three weeks."

Iran's intransigence has not led the Bush administration to take a more hard- line approach. In an interview last week with the London-based Arabic daily al- Hayat, Powell said, "Nobody in the American administration [has] talked about invading Iran. ... It seems that there is a constant desire by everybody to accuse us of invasion operations. That ... won't take place." In fact, the administration still has yet to come up with any coherent Iran policy, as hawks and doves continue battling over how to deal with Tehran. Some hawks argue that the United States should pursue regime change, citing Iran's unwillingness to help the Iraq war effort as further evidence of the need for transformation in Tehran. Some doves contend that there is no organized opposition in Iran capable of overthrowing the government and argue that, given more time and incentives, Iran could be enticed not to meddle in a postwar Iraq. Unfortunately, while the administration seems unable to settle on any clear plan, Iran seems to be pushing ahead with one of its own.