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Leaked Cables Show Depth of Iranian Influence in Iraq After U.S. Invasion “Shattered” the Country

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Image Credit: The Intercept

An unprecedented leak of secret intelligence reports from inside the Iranian government has shed new light on how Iran has taken control of much of the Iraqi government in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. The documents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security were leaked to The Intercept, which then partnered with The New York Times on reporting the story. The leak includes 700 pages of intelligence documents from 2014 to 2015. The documents reveal that a number of Iraqis who once worked with the CIA went on to work with Iranian intelligence. We speak with Murtaza Hussain, a reporter at The Intercept who worked on the project. “The macro story here is that the United States shattered Iraqi society, and then Iran came in to pick up the pieces,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: An unprecedented leak of secret intelligence reports from inside the Iranian government sheds new light on how Iran has taken control of much of the Iraqi government in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. The documents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security were leaked to The Intercept, which then partnered with The New York Times to report the story. The leak includes 700 pages of intelligence documents from 2014 to 2015. In one document, Iraq’s current Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is described as having a, quote, “special relationship” with Iran. The documents also reveal a number of Iraqis who once worked with the CIA went on to work with Iranian intelligence and exposed detailed information about the CIA’s activity in Iraq.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by one of the reporters who worked on the story, but first we turn to excerpts from a video produced by The Intercept about this massive set of leaks. The video features the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen of The Intercept and Vanessa Gezari, The Intercept’s national security editor.

VANESSA GEZARI: It really shows, in very concrete and specific terms, how Iran has woven itself into every part of Iraq’s life, especially since the 2003 U.S. invasion. So, when the U.S. went in and toppled Saddam Hussein, it just opened the door for Iran to do something in Iraq that it had always wanted to do, which was essentially to get in there and control everything. … The U.S. government is very short term in terms of how it views these kinds of conflicts and, indeed, these places. So, the U.S. went in, and, you know, the CIA cultivated this whole mass of spies and assets, sources. And then they leave.

JAMES RISEN: You see in the documents several people who were Iraqis who had worked with the CIA, who were now unemployed. So they go to the Iranians and say, “I’d be happy to work with you if you pay me.” And the Iranians, in these documents, are interested in talking to them, but the first requirement they have is that they tell them everything they ever did with the CIA. …

To me, the message of these documents — and I hope this is the way we’ve presented it — is the United States’ invasion of Iraq was an historic mistake, a strategic blunder of massive proportions. We invaded, and Iran won the war. That is a lesson to be learned today in how we operate in the Middle East, what we do in the Middle East. It’s a warning against further aggression in the region. …

Iran had two adversaries on its borders. One was the Taliban Afghan government, and the other was the Iraqi government, Saddam Hussein. Both were enemies of Iran. We deposed both of them. It’s such a huge thing to admit to yourself, as a country, that everything we’ve done in Iraq for the last 15 years was a mistake. All these lives lost were in vain. All the money poured into there has gone for a misbegotten, tragic mistake, that we have benefited what we now consider one of our biggest enemies. It’s almost like it’s such a huge thing to admit, that nobody wants to admit it. And I think that’s the real power of these documents.

AMY GOODMAN: James Risen and Vanessa Gezari of The Intercept discussing The Intercept’s major exposé on leaked Iranian intelligence documents. They worked together with The New York Times. Both have stories on their websites.

We’re joined now by The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain, who worked on the project.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Murtaza. This is a massive project, a massive set of documents that are being seen for the first time. Why don’t you give us an overview of the significance and just how long the team of you at The Intercept has been working on this?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Well, the Iranian government is one of the most secretive governments in the world, and particularly its security apparatuses. We’ve never seen the inner workings of Iranian military or intelligence operations until today. This is a trove of about 700 documents we received in — written in Farsi, which was translated over an extended period of time and reported from Iraq. These documents show us how, following the U.S. invasion and then following the rise of ISIS thereafter, Iran rose to a position of hegemony, enabled by the American deposition of the previous regime.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about where you think these documents are from.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: The source’s identity is unknown to us. They identify themselves as somebody who was upset about the Iranian role in Iraq today. And as many of us know, Iran has a very powerful role in Iraqi politics. And these documents, in fact, shed light on what the source described. Iran has close relationships with Iraqi elites. In many ways, they have negated the sovereignty of that country and manipulated it in such a way that their interests are predominant over the interests of the Iraqi people. And we’re seeing this today manifest in ongoing protests in Iraq against the political elite, which is viewed as beholden to Iran. And while this is widely known, it has not been seen in black and white until this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, the U.S. considers Iran its enemy. They would have an interest in destabilizing the government and making Iran look bad. How do you know this isn’t some kind of U.S. source for these documents?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: The documents, although they show Iranian manipulation of Iraqi politics, do not portray Iran in a negative light per se. The impression that comes from the documents, of Iranian intelligence agents, is one of professionalism, pragmatism, and not an interest in destabilizing Iraq, but rather an interest in stabilizing the country in a way which still facilitates their interests. They’re not planning to ethnically cleanse it of certain groups or cause it to plunge into chaos. They want a stable Iraq in which all the different minority communities are reconciled to the existing order. And they want to defeat extremist groups, and they want a stable Iraqi economy, which is in their own interests, as well, too. So, while the documents shed light on Iranian activities, the activities they show are very much like U.S. government aims. They have similar aims, although their means, in some sense, are different.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have these leaked documents that exposed Iran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian agents to co-opt the country’s leaders and infiltrate every aspect of political life. And you have this happening after 2003, after the U.S. invasion. And talk about the assets that the U.S. had, the CIA working with Iraqis, why the U.S. let them go and how they moved over then to Iran. They were out of a job.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Well, I think the macro story here is that the United States shattered Iraqi society, and then Iran came in to pick up the pieces. So, when the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein, there were huge numbers of public servants and former military officials who were out of a job. Many of them started working for the Americans; some started fighting the Americans. And when the Americans left in 2011, the bulk of their forces, these people again needed work. They needed a way to survive. The old system had been destroyed. And Iran became the new player in town.

So, many individuals, as their documents show, they started maybe their career with Saddam Hussein, working in the government at that time. When the Americans came, they worked for the Americans. When the Americans left, maybe they were unemployed. And then, when the Iranians came to fill the void, they began working for Iranian intelligence. And they brought the skills and training they gained with the Americans over to the Iranian side. In many cases, they also brought software and technology, covert systems given to them by American handlers, and they provided that to the Iranians. So we saw the Iranians inheriting the infrastructure left behind by the U.S. occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the five sections of this massive release that you have posted at The Intercept, The Intercept has posted, and The New York Times has done a major story, as well, in partnership with you all.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, the first story is an overview of Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics. It lays out the significance of the documents as a whole. And that story is published jointly by the Times and The Intercept. The second story is about the Iranian covert war against ISIS between the period 2013-2015. It shows how Iranian spies had infiltrated ISIS at the highest leadership level. They had assets giving them communications of ISIS leaders. They were arming ISIS’s enemies. They were trying to break off other Iraqi Sunni groups to fight against ISIS. It shows a picture of professionalism and ruthlessness of Iranian spies, who, while the U.S. was bombing ISIS from the air, they were working behind the lines to undermine the group from the inside.

AMY GOODMAN: Together?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: They were not coordinating. And, in fact, the Iranians lamented that lack of coordination. While they viewed the American presence with wariness, they were also upset that the Americans and other powers were not coordinating their efforts more effectively to fight ISIS together. They were concerned about Iran’s isolation in the world, which did come to greater prominence again once the war ended.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have, in that article, “Iran’s Shadow War on ISIS,” Tehran funneling arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga and penetrating the inner circle, as you said, of the ISIS leadership.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: That’s right. The Iranian relationship with the Iraqi Kurds in some ways mimics the American relationship with the Kurds in Syria, in that they armed them to fight ISIS, supported them, but then later had a falling out over political differences. And these documents paint a very vivid picture of how Iran fought this covert war at that time, while the Americans were fighting it more overtly from the air.

The third story is about a secret summit that took place in Turkey between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Muslim Brotherhood. This summit was intended to forge a joint front, over sectarian differences, to combat what was seen as a shared enemy of Saudi Arabia. The summit ultimately did not lead to the goals that it set out, but it showed the interest in both these forces in combating a Saudi government which seems hegemonic in the region and hostile to both their interests.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this, and talk more about Saudi Arabia and where Saudi Arabia fits into this picture, an ally of the United States, an enemy of Iran.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, this document is from 2014, and things have changed to some degree since then. Saudi Arabia may be coming more around to realizing it cannot fight Iran on its own. But at that time, there was a very fierce proxy war still raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And more intimately in Egypt and other countries where the Brotherhood has a big presence. Saudi Arabia was supporting local dictatorships fighting the Brotherhood. So, while the Brotherhood and Iran have differences, they sought to put those differences aside at this meeting to see if they could forge a common front to combat Saudi Arabia as a shared enemy. And as we’ve seen in the years since, they have not overtly created such an alliance. But logically it made sense. Sectarian differences aside, Saudi Arabia was a prime enemy of both these parties and, to some degree, continues to be today.

AMY GOODMAN: “The Changing of the Overlords,” article four.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, this story is an op-ed, written by myself and my colleague Jeremy Scahill, laying out everything that’s happened in Iraq since 2003, since the U.S. invasion, which was basically an extinction-level event for the old Iraq. The Iraqi regime was destroyed by the United States. It was shattered into pieces, as I said. And then, those pieces, out of them came extremist groups, came Iranian proxies. We have not seen an end to violence that began in 2003 to this day.

And I think the short story, which our documents lay out in very great detail, is that the U.S. began the war in Iraq, but it was Iran which has won it. And they have a position in Iraq of total dominance, which will be very difficult for any foreign power to contest. We’re seeing protests in Iraq today against Iranian influence, but Iran’s presence economically and politically is so pervasive in Iraq today that it’s hard to see that influence being rolled back in the foreseeable future. And whatever goals the U.S. had in invading Iraq, in advancing its own strategic interests, has benefited far more clearly Iran, which is considered by the U.S. to this day to be an enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the leadership of Iraq and how close they are to Iran right now.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: So, there are two former — two Iraqi leaders, prime ministers, mentioned in these documents. One is Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the current PM, who is described in the documents as having a special relationship with the Iranians. There are many Iranian [sic] ministers, as well, who are described as being almost — not, say, proxies of Iran, but very closely tied to Iran, privileging their interests. And also the previous Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is mentioned having a conversation with an Iranian intelligence agent, discussing the future of Iraq and very closely identifying his own interests with the Iranians, or seeing the world the same way and seeing Iraq the same way as they did. Iran has as close and likely closer relationships with Iraqi leaders than the United States, and they have relationships with them which seem to privilege Iran’s interests over the Iraqi people or some segments of the Iraqi people. They have access to Iraq in a degree that no other country does.

AMY GOODMAN: Murtaza Hussain, talk about your reporting of these stories. You actually went to Iraq.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Went to Iraq to report the stories, to verify the veracity of documents, to visit many of the sites on the ground, to retrace the steps of Iranian spies, and particularly to map out the Iranian war against ISIS behind the scenes as it happened in 2014, 2015. We saw the impact, especially northern Iraq, of the Iranian presence. And at the time, Iran had a better reputation. It was helping Iraqi Kurds fight ISIS. But then, in 2017, there was a falling out over Iraqi Kurdish independence. And now there’s a very bitter legacy of the Iranian presence there, and the training and weapons and intelligence support they provided has mostly been washed over by the role they played in supporting the central Iraqi government and crushing Kurdish independence. So, the traces are still there, but the political landscape has changed, and it’s continuing to change as time goes on.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time that your stories have come out, CNN is reporting that a top Iraqi military chief says ISIS is coming back strong.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: Well, this is the unfortunate legacy, that ISIS was defeated militarily, but many of the same areas where we saw Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, in many cases backed by Iran or backed by the U.S. military, defeat ISIS, in those same areas we’re seeing a resurgence of ISIS in the shadows. In some towns, ISIS has a presence at night where it does not in the day. And in certain areas, ungoverned spaces, rural areas, there is a revival of the insurgency. The political drivers that create ISIS still exist today in Iraq, and they’re becoming more acute as time goes on.

AMY GOODMAN: And did the U.S. OKing, greenlighting Turkey invading Syria have any impact on what you’re looking at today?

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: It’s likely to have an impact. The proliferation of ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria is a main driver of the growth of terrorist groups. And the destabilization of northern Syria, and especially the impact on people in prison camps, ISIS members being let out or going out into an area where there’s not much security, is likely to lay the seedbed for a resurgence of the group in the near future.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Murtaza, what surprised you most? You have been working on this story for many months, over a year. This is the first time there’s been this kind of document release, hundreds and hundreds of pages of Iranian intelligence that’s never been seen before.

MURTAZA HUSSAIN: The fact of the leak is the most surprising and the most remarkable part of this leak, in my opinion. Never seen the inner workings of the Iranian government in this level. And we’ve never seen how Iranian intelligence, how Iranian spies operate. They’re very professional. They’re very pragmatic. And they’re a formidable adversary for the United States or any other local power which comes up against them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. If people go to”:, you will see the stories laid out in full. Also, The New York Times partnered with The Intercept and has also released that story at the same time early this morning at 12:11 this morning, just after midnight. Murtaza Hussain, reporter at The Intercept focusing on national security, foreign policy and human rights, worked on The Intercept’s major new exposé on leaked Iranian cables.

When we come back, we go to Bolivia, to Cochabamba, where indigenous supporters of the ousted President Evo Morales were gunned down on Friday. Stay with us.

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