Leaked intelligence documents reveal how Iranian agents infiltrated Iraq

Yesterday the NY Times published a story about leaked Iranian intelligence reports which outline the ways in which Iran maintains control of Iraq through a network of spies, including some highly placed Iraqis who have been sufficiently bribed:

The unprecedented leak exposes Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and religious life.

Many of the cables describe real-life espionage capers that feel torn from the pages of a spy thriller. Meetings are arranged in dark alleyways and shopping malls or under the cover of a hunting excursion or a birthday party. Informants lurk at the Baghdad airport, snapping pictures of American soldiers and keeping tabs on coalition military flights. Agents drive meandering routes to meetings to evade surveillance. Sources are plied with gifts of pistachios, cologne and saffron. Iraqi officials, if necessary, are offered bribes. The archive even contains expense reports from intelligence ministry officers in Iraq, including one totaling 87.5 euros spent on gifts for a Kurdish commander.

One amusing aspect of the leak is that the documents reveal not all of the Iranian spies were great at their jobs:

Some of the cables show bumbling and comical ineptitude, like one that describes the Iranian spies who broke into a German cultural institute in Iraq only to find they had the wrong codes and could not unlock the safes. Other officers were browbeaten by their superiors in Tehran for laziness, and for sending back to headquarters reports that relied only on news accounts.

But Iran had enough willing, well-placed spies that it had access to information on everything the US was doing:

“Iran is my second country and I love it,” the Iraqi official told the Iranian officer, according to one of the cables. In a meeting that lasted more than three hours, the Iraqi told of his devotion to the Iranian system of government, in which clerics rule directly, and his admiration for Iranian movies.

He said he had come with a message from his boss in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Hatem al-Maksusi, then commander of military intelligence in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense: “Tell them we are at your service. Whatever you need is at their disposal. We are Shiite and have a common enemy.”…

Another report reveals that Nechervan Barzani, then the prime minister of Kurdistan, met with top American and British officials and Mr. al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, in Baghdad in December 2014, and then went almost immediately to meet with an Iranian official to tell him everything. Through a spokesman, Mr. Barzani said he did not recall meeting with any Iranian officials at the time, and described the cable as “baseless and unfounded.”

The Times contacted three Iranian officials for comment on the documents. Two representatives for Iran at the UN were unavailable to comment. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who never met a camera he didn’t like, “did not respond to an emailed request.”

All of this helps explain why Iran’s involvement has become part of the recent street protests in Iraq. Earlier this month the AP reported:

Videos circulated online of a group of protesters holding a poster showing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the head of its elite Quds force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, with their faces crossed out. The video, which showed protesters beating the poster with their shoes, appeared to have been filmed Thursday in Tahrir Square. On Friday, protesters marched over an Iranian flag painted on the pavement with a swastika added to it.

The pushback from Iran against these protesters has been fierce, with several hundred killed so far. But now the stakes have risen because similar protests are happening in Iran. The internet was shut down all weekend to prevent the protests from spreading:

Iran on Monday alternatively downplayed and demonized ongoing protests across the country that have killed at least five people and renewed pressure on the government as the country struggles under the weight of U.S. economic sanctions.

The full scale of the protests, which began shortly after a 50% increase in gas prices took effect early Friday, was unknown after Tehran shut down the internet over the weekend, blocking Iranians from sharing videos and information with the outside world…

The semiofficial Fars news agency, close to the Guard, has put the total number of protesters at over 87,000, saying demonstrators ransacked about 100 banks and stores. Authorities arrested about 1,000 people, Fars reported, citing unnamed security officials for the information.

So while the publication of the Iranian documents may further enrage protesters in Iraq, Iran is now under immense pressure to clamp down on the situation. As an analysis in Haaretz put it, “If Iraqi protesters topple the government, their success could further ignite protests in Iran.” Iran won’t allow that to happen.