Iran’s rulers have decided to beat a tactical retreat from the brink of a showdown with the United States over Iraq and draw lessons from their mistakes in this arena. In their secret counsels, they are prepared to concede an ad hoc American victory without a shot fired in the contest for the hearts and minds of Iraq’s 12 million Shiites. One of those secret top-level conferences took place on April 28 in the office of Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei. They examined ways to dodge the flak from Washington’s allegations that Iranian forces had gone into Iraq to incite its Shiite community against the American presence.
On the agenda was not a cessation of operations among their Iraqi coreligionists, but ways of not getting Iranian fingers singed again. One suggestion was to lower Iran’s profile by renaming the proxy groups it was running across the border and to practice greater discretion in operational and funding procedures. The meeting also decided to moderate Tehran’s public language on Big Satan; Friday Prayers preachers in the mosques were directed to be less abrasive in their anti-US sermons.
Khamenei and his advisers also calculated Tehran’s returns from its heavy investment in human, financial and infrastructural resources for the purchase of influence among Iraqi Shiites. The bottom line of the column was disappointing.
— Of the two million pilgrims who thronged the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Karbala on April 23 for ceremonies commemorating Imam Hussain’s martyrdom in 680 AD, no more than 3,000 joined the demonstrations staged by Iranian agents against the United States and in support of an Islamic state in Iraq. This was a serious let-down of expectations. Agents had infiltrated Iraq over several weeks, their mission being to exploit the holy day for a mass rally of hundreds of thousands of Shiite faithful to shake furious fists in unison against US forces in the moments before they asserted full administrative control.
The long catalogue of failure
Tehran had sent over its most expert agitators. The most prominent was Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, commander of the Badr Brigades, head of operations of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and brother of its founder, the long-exiled Ayatollah Mohammed baker al-Hakim – as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported in previous editions. His job was to spread anti-US unrest around Iraq’s Shiite cities, notably Najaf, before local government was established under American auspices.
— The SCIRI operations chief failed to win round Iraq’s Shiite masses or local groups. He found that independent Iraqi Shiite factions had formed who challenged Iranian hegemony over their community as a whole. One of the most prominent indigenous Iraqi Shiite leaders is Hojjat-el-Islam Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was murdered with two of his brothers by Saddam’s executioners. Al-Sadr already commands his own militia, the Jammat-i-Sadr-Than. Another indigenous cleric who spurned Iranian approaches is Ayatollah Murza Ali Sistani, the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq. Considered docile and impressionable Sistani first supported Saddam, but then he switched sides and ordered his followers to hold their fire against invading US forces. He has since hitched his star to Al Sadr’s chariot.
Al-Sadr is now demanding that Sistani, Fayyaz and Said Hakim – clerics whom he accuses of failing to raise a finger to prevent his father’s murder – back him all the way to the top of the ladder. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say Sistani complied by issuing a fatwa, or ritual edict, calling on his following to throw their support behind Al-Sadr. The ambitious cleric is now touring the Shi’ite provinces of southern Iraq, waving Sistani’s fatwa and proclaiming himself senior administrator of the south. Busily appointing and firing local officials, al-Sadr is working to establish a power base in the vacuum left by Saddam’s ouster, a spot which Hakim had been sent to capture for Tehran.
— In Baghdad too, Iranian agitators made little headway. There were more cameras than protesters in the streets, a poor showing after Iran laid out cash to bribe Sunni and Shiite preachers to rally their worshippers for demonstrations against the Americans and demands for an Islamic state.
— Iran recruited surrogate suicide terrorists to bedevil British forces in Basra and US troops in all the big towns. Their operations were few and far between, causing minimal casualties, certainly insufficient to create a nuisance for coalition forces. Tehran had conceived of a far more ambitious, continuous series of suicide attacks inflicting large-scale US casualties, enough to turn American public opinion against the campaign and force the recall of US forces.
In the event, Saddam’s suiciders have proved more effective.
The Fallujah scenario that developed this week in a town 30 miles west of Baghdad was meant to be repeated across Iraq. This stratagem entails shots from a crowd of protesters at US troops drawing retaliatory fire that kills large number of civilians and brings the Americans into bad odor in the country. So far, the manifestation has not spread.
The sorest blow: US-Mujahideen ceasefire
— But it was a ceasefire accord signed by the American war command with members of the Iraqi-backed Iranian opposition militia, the Mujahideen I-Khalq, that most infuriated the Iranian spiritual ruler.
Mujahideen guerrillas in bases close to the Iranian border have been permitted to keep the light and heavy weapons given them by Saddam Hussein. Khamenei had relied on the Americans wiping out the militia, which features on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. The Iranian theocrats would thus have been relieved of the most dangerous enemy on their borders. Here too they were disappointed. After first bombing Mujahideen concentrations and killing several dozen fighters, American war planners opted for a truce when they grasped that the armed Iranian dissidents provided a useful deterrent to Iranian meddling in Iraq.
In the last two weeks, armed Iranian agents infiltrated Iraq to attack Mujahideen bases. They were repulsed and retreated with heavy losses. The US-Mujahideen ceasefire accord has convinced Tehran that President George W. Bush is deadly serious about his next military moves in the Middle East.
Iranian leaders watched anxiously when Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Modarresi, head of the al-Amal Al-Islami faction that was once one of the two strongest Shiite parties in Iraq was stopped by a Muhahideen roadblock when he and his following drove from Iran into Iraq in a convoy of 60 buses. Modarresi was taken away and interrogated for two days before being handed over to the Americans, who eventually released him.
This incident showed how far the cooperation between the United States and the Mujahideen extends. It was interpreted by Iran’s former foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, now adviser on international affairs to the Iranian leadership, as pointing to the danger of the partnership being exploited to overthrow the Iranian government.
All in all, Iran’s hard-line Shiite rulers feel they have been cheated of the gains in which they invested so heavily and so long. Year after year, Tehran supported the Iraqi Shiite opposition to Saddam, creating SCIRI, funding it and training its members. Out of the 1.5 million Iraqi Shiites who fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and years of persecution, some 10,000 became SCIRI fighters. As the American invasion of Iraq drew near, Iranian strategic planners drafted a detailed plan to take over the country’s religious leadership, assure its people of top jobs in the new government rising in Baghdad and deploy terrorists to back up its demands for influence. Convoys of buses and other vehicles carried tens of thousands of Iranian agents and Revolutionary Guards Badr Brigade fighters into Iraq in the past month.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that US forces are now plugging the gaps in southern and northern Iraq, but the going is slow and the infiltration is continuing.
This painful contretemps has encouraged dissident voices in Iran to clamor for better relations with the United States. Even high-ranking Iranian officials have been unable to keep their fears of an American attack from reaching public ears.
Khamenei’s personal representative in the Revolutionary Guards, Ayatollah Movahedi-Kermanj, this week warned of an impending US strike against the Iranian government. He said that calls for better relations would only encourage American aggression.
The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Hojjat-el-Islam Mahdi Karrubi, said he was deeply perturbed by the US presence along the Iranian border.
Khamenei told the hush-hush conference he was taking very seriously the warnings sounded this week by Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state Colin Powell and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Iran was under threat, he said.
Keeping up the heat, US officials have been using every opportunity to raise Iran’s nuclear program – most recently at a meeting of the international atomic energy agency in Geneva, where Washington demanded strict limitations to be imposed on Iran’s atomic operations.
The reversal Khamenei has ordered in Iranian rhetoric is embarrassing when only three weeks ago he was hurling insults at Bush and calling on the Iraqi masses to rise up against the infidel interlopers. Iranian spokesmen are now talking neutrality in Iraq and claiming lamely that the Badr Brigade and SCIRI fighters they sent in as troublemakers were only returning exiles going home to make a patriotic contribution to their country’s future.