Leaked Iranian intelligence reports illustrate the folly of the US’s Middle East strategy
20 Nov 2019|

The great irony of the Iranian intelligence reports obtained by The Intercept and published jointly with the New York Times is that they don’t necessarily expose Iran as the bad guy that Washington and others in the Middle East argue it is. If anything, the revelations published to date highlight the magnitude of the problems caused by successive US administrations that have pursued a destructive and counterproductive Middle East policy, which first created the opportunity for Iran to assert its interests in Iraq and then fixated on Iran as the greatest source of instability in the Middle East.

The provenance of the documents is certainly curious: they’re purportedly from an Iraqi with access to secret intelligence reports from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) who wanted to ‘let the world know what Iran is doing in my country’. But the excerpts published so far present a credible picture of Iran’s intelligence and security operations in Iraq and provide an interesting counterpoint to the US narrative on the security situation there.

The New York Times notes that Iran’s MOIS operatives are portrayed in the reports as ‘patient, professional and pragmatic’. Their focus was on keeping Iraq from falling apart and ‘descending into sectarian warfare that might make Shia Muslims the targets of violence; and from spinning off an independent Kurdistan that would threaten regional stability and Iranian territorial integrity’.

The reports also outline MOIS’s actions against Islamic State, which included conducting intelligence operations (resulting in penetrations of IS’s leadership group), providing covert aid to IS’s enemies and working to break its alliance with other insurgent factions. Intriguingly, Iran wanted to coordinate anti-IS operations with the US, but was frustrated by Washington’s refusal to do so. One report noted, ‘The Americans’ insistence on not cooperating with Iran in the war against ISIS and not participating in the meetings with the 10 countries of the region—the Arabs and Turkey—as well as the Western and Arab countries’ extreme positions on the presence and role of Iran in Iraq has had a negative influence.’

The reports also document Iran’s adroitness in filling the vacuum created by the US’s 2011 troop withdrawal from Iraq. As part of the drawdown, the US terminated its relationship with most of its stable of intelligence sources in Iraq. Many of them then offered their services to MOIS, and some were debriefed by their new Iranian case officers on US intelligence priorities and tradecraft, including the locations of CIA safe houses, details of tactical and surveillance training, and the names of other US sources in Iraq.

But the role assumed by Iran following the US’s troop drawdown went much further than just taking over US intelligence sources across Iraq. By stepping into the void created by the US withdrawal, Tehran effectively assumed the role of security guarantor for Iraq. As noted by The Intercept, which references Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule to characterise the US’s failure in Iraq, ‘[T]he US shattered Iraq and ultimately walked away. It was Iran that ended up figuring out what to do with the pieces.’

The snippets from the intelligence reports confirm that both MOIS and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp have penetrated the Iraqi political leadership, bureaucracy and military and are exercising pervasive influence across the country.

Importantly, they also confirm strong differences between MOIS and the hardline IRGC on Iran’s strategy in Iraq. MOIS was concerned that military operations by IRGC’s Shia proxies in Iraq were alienating the local Sunni population, assessing that Iran’s gains in Iraq where ‘being squandered because Iraqis so resented the Shia militia and the Quds Force that sponsored them’. MOIS singled out IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani for criticism, painting him as a ‘dangerous self-promoter using the anti-ISIS campaign as a launching pad for a political career back home in Iran’.

But what the leaked reports make clear is that there are elements in Tehran’s establishment—specifically MOIS, but also potentially the Iranian Foreign Ministry—that appear to be pursuing an Iraq policy more focused on ensuring security and stability than on establishing pervasive influence and Shia dominance. The problem for these more constructive elements in the Iranian government is that hardline elements from the IRGC, notably the Quds Force, are in the ascendancy and are determining the direction of Iran’s operations in Iraq.

And the problem for the US in this context is that the policies of Donald Trump’s administration have arguably played a direct role in empowering hardline elements in Tehran at the expense of more moderate interests. As noted in The Atlantic, Washington played into the IRGC’s hands by terminating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—who had expended political capital in support of the agreement—had prioritised curbing the IRGC’s reach. Furthermore, the US’s resumption of sanctions against Iran directly benefited the IRGC financially, because it dominates and profits from the black-market economy and smuggling network in Iran.

One has to wonder when reading these excerpts what the security situation in the Middle East  would look like now if the US had put its differences with Iran to one side and made better use of opportunities for cooperation and collaboration, particularly in operations targeting IS. Such collaboration might have created space to resolve some of the more thorny issues arising from both the US’s and Iran’s activities in the region. It also would have empowered those in Tehran who are open to rapprochement with the West.

And while it’s highly unlikely that the Trump administration will change its trajectory with respect to Iran, which appears destined for military confrontation, hopefully the release of these intelligence reports will prompt key decision-makers in Washington to reflect on their strategy in the Middle East.