The only rule of thumb for dealing with the hard-line rulers of Iran is to take everything they promise with a pinch of salt – especially on Iraq.
Last weekend, they solemnly informed the Americans and the four Grand Ayatollahs of Najef that they were relinquishing their mission to mediate an end to the standoff with rebellious Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in the flashpoint Shiite shrine city.
(See lead article in last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly 153).
They even announced they were pulling their support from Sadr. To show they meant what they said, the Iranian delegation that talked to Sadr displayed a message to that effect signed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. To convince US watchers of the bone fides of the delegation, all its members departed Najef for Tehran via Baghdad at the same time, hoping to dispel the suspicions entertained by US intelligence that some members had entered Iraq secretly through Al Amara or al Kut for purposes that were certainly not above board.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Iraq stress the importance of the departing Iranian team’s composition as confirming those suspicions.
The names they list are: Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Ghassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al Quds Brigades, a special operations unit tasked with protecting top Iranian media figures and al Qaeda officers sheltering in Iran, General Moghtada Rezai, head of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence, and Sadegui Ghomi, Iran’s charge d’affaires in Baghdad. Ghomi, Iran’s liaison with Sadr before the recent fighting began, was declared persona non grata by the Americans and sent back home only three weeks ago. The US military command in Baghdad allowed him to return as a delegation member after being overruled by a directive from Washington.
The al Qaeda caretakers in the Iranian team were charged with secretly liaising with the network’s operatives in Iraq; the diplomats’ task was to nurse Tehran’s ties with Iraqi Shiite leaders and lay the groundwork for full strategic coordination between Tehran and Najef.
But that was not the impression Iran wanted to leave with the United States, particularly as Tehran aimed for yet another unspoken goal, to test American willingness to accept the Iranian officials who looked after al Qaeda leaders in Iran as members of the truce mediation team in Najaf. That acceptance was taken by Tehran as a mark of legitimacy.
In a bid to muddy the water, before recalling its mediators from Najaf, Iranian officials passed a secret assurance to Washington that they were doing all they could to disrupt the activities of Tehran-based al Qaeda leaders, including Mussab Zarqawi.
Washington snapped back a frosty reply challenging the veracity of the Iranian statement. Tehran was stiffly advised to stop stalling and prevaricating if it ever hoped to mend its fences with the United States.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran and Washington, the Iranians let this point ride and instead sent off another secret message to the United States with fresh good cheer: Supreme Ruler Khamenei had ordered the dismantling of the Tehran-based secret committee overseeing Iran’s (subversive) activities in Iraq. This was the first time Iran had admitted such a forum existed. In its message, the Iranians said Khamenei had instructed the committee’s chairman, Ali Agha Mohammadi – his personal adviser and watchdog over Iranian television and radio broadcasts — to discontinue the group’s operations. Mohammadi’s appointment as media czar underscores the importance Tehran attaches to the impact of Iranian broadcasts to Iraqi Shiites.
Again, Washington was unimpressed.
US representatives also talked tough in undercover exchanges with Iranians taking place this week in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, informing them stiffly that Washington had gathered enough intelligence data on their nuclear program for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions when it convened at the end of June on Iran’s nuclear activities.
The Iranians countered with a move which they believed Washington would find compelling, the ultimate clincher of their good intentions on Iraq. In exchange, of course, for US concessions on the nuclear question and waiver of UN sanctions, Tehran would withdraw support from the Ansar al Islam terrorist group of northern Iraq. This announcement might have acted as a two-edged sword, because it forced from Tehran the admission that, even before the US Iraq War, it had backed a group regarded as an operational arm of al Qaeda and perpetrator of some pretty nasty terrorist strikes in Iraq.
Ansar al Islam operative are furthermore waging war against US forces at present in Falluja as well as western and northern Iraq. Earlier this month, its members fought with Mohammed’s Army guerrillas who waylaid American units in Ar Ramadi and who opened a fresh front last Saturday by ambushing US Marines in the al Qaim region near the Syrian border.
The American response to Tehran’s offer this time too was predictably skeptical and distrustful – in effect, let’s wait and see how it goes on practice.
For Tehran has worked itself into a tricky corner, boxed in since the outbreak of the Sadr uprising by the distrust of Washington and the US military command, which are no longer taken in by Iranian tricks and double games on Iraq or the nuclear issue.
At the same time, Washington is reluctant to cut away from Tehran altogether, because the Khomeinist ayatollahs if they so choose have the power to bring peace to the Iraqi Shiite arena – at least for the coming summer months. The trouble is that their big talk is no more than a cloak for their real, usually ulterior, intentions.
The massacre on Wednesday, April 21, in which five car bombs in Basra and Zubair killed some 70 people – including 16 children – and wounded hundreds, was the handiwork of networks directed and trained by Shiite master-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh before he left Iran. They performed on behalf of Iran and al Qaeda in concert. Mughniyeh, as we have reported, gets his orders from Iran, and is under the personal wing of Khamenei and members of his staff. This must surely beg the question of whether Iran, in purportedly breaking with al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam and turbulent Sadr, is keeping its hand in the Iraqi terror game through proxies while protesting its goodwill to Washington.
The departure of the Iranian delegation from Najaf and the snapping of US communication links with Sadr will force Washington to decide when and how to lay hands on the firebrand cleric or force him into exile in Iran.