​​Espionage, Moles and Bribery: Iran’s Covert Activity in Iraq



Liora Hendelman-Baavur*

ACIS Iran Pulse no. 103 | January 1, 2020


On December 3, 2019, protesters reportedly set fire to buildings of the Iranian consulate in southern Iraq for the third time since ongoing demonstrations began rattling Iraq in early October (TheBaghdadPost). The protests against the local dysfunctional government and its widespread corruption, as well as against Iran’s widespread involvement in the country raised again questions about the nature and extent of Iran’s influence in Iraq to the public agenda (Beehive, May 25, 2019). Against this backdrop, on November 18, The Intercept, an independent news agency, and The New York Times shared lesser-known details about Iran’s involvement in Iraq. Citing hundreds of documents attributed to Iranian intelligence that were leaked to Western media, the report points to how covert channels such as espionage, moles and bribery have, for years, allowed the Islamic Republic to deepen its hold on Iraq while simultaneously undermining American influence in the country. Despite staunch denials from Iraqi politicians and senior executives whose names are mentioned in the documents, the findings were also published and broadcast by the Foreign Policy podcast on November 25, 2019.

The Iranian intelligence documents, of which only some have been disclosed in the US media, relate to 2014-2015 and reveal various aspects of Iran’s process of establishing itself in Iraq. They include operational information, procedures for recruiting local informants, and various details on the espionage activity of agents working on its behalf. The extent of influence that Iran achieved was largely the result of local political circumstances that played into the hands of Tehran, especially considering the failure of the US to achieve its goals after nearly a decade of presence and involvement in Iraq. 

The Window of Opportunity for Iranian Intelligence


The US invasion and the overthrow of Sadam Hussein’s regime in 2003 led to an attempt by the US-led Western coalition forces to normalize Iraq, stabilize it and promote democracy. Special efforts were invested in establishing local elite units that were equipped and trained by US forces. However, in the process, the civilian population was neglected and the continued US military presence provoked their opposition. Iraqi expatriates in Iran, for example Grand Ayatollah Kazem Hosseini Haeri, further incited (and continue to incite) this opposition (CFR, Feb. 7, 2005; IRNA, Aug. 23, 2019).


Iraqi citizens’ expectations for a better future under Western patronage have been waylaid by the activities of militants who resisted the presence of the Western coalition, responding with guerrilla actions including car bombs and the escalation of ethnic confrontation and fighting between the various communities (Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds) in Iraq. These circumstances have made Iraq a hotbed, refuge and focal point for forces related to al-Qaeda and other jihad fighters from around the world, including ISIS. The ongoing fighting between various militias in Iraq has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and led to massive waves of refugees fleeing to Iran, Syria and other countries.


In an interview, Farnaz Fassihi, a New York Times correspondent who was among the international reporters who processed and examined the accuracy of the documents for about a year, noted two key reasons that prompted Tehran to intervene in Iraq and, according to some analyses, act to subordinate Iraq to Iran. One is defensive, related to Iranian concerns in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the collapse of the regimes there, that the Islamic Republic would be next in line for elimination as a member of the “axis of evil,” as defined by US President George Walker Bush in 2002. The second is offensive, and argues that Iran is working to export its revolution and consolidate its status as the dominant player in the Gulf ideologically and militarily. Iraq, where 60% of the population is Shiite, is an important link between Syria and Lebanon, where the Iranians also seek to establish their grip. That ambition was reinforced in December 2011, when the United States declared that after nine years of fighting it was ending its military involvement in Iraq.


The vacuum that the US withdrawal created in Iraq was another window of opportunity that Iran was quick to exploit. Moreover, the increased presence of ISIS in various parts of Iraq posed a security challenge to which the Islamic Republic was compelled to respond. From the Iranian intelligence documents leaked to the Western media, it emerges that some agents and informants who had been recruited by the CIA and worked with it for years, turned to Iranian intelligence after being abandoned by their American operators, while others had previously been recruited by the Iranians to serve as dual agents. In exchange for benefits, incentives (economic and other) and protection promised by Iranian operators, the Iraqi agents and informants handed over large amounts of information that they had acquired during their years with the CIA.


The leaked documents also reveal many details about the nature and scope of Iran’s clandestine activities. This information is varied, ranging from descriptions of routine intelligence gathering through nighttime meetings on roadsides, shopping centers and at family events to visual documentation of US aircraft taking off and landing, and tracking US and allied forces that were redeployed in Iraq in 2014, to fight ISIS. Beyond this, the documents divulge significantly more classified and sensitive information, including locations of hiding places and details of the Iraqi agents’ operational activities on behalf of their American operators.


The double agents even offered to share the advanced technological equipment they received from the Americans with their Iranian operators, including spyware, surveillance devices and monthly software updates needed for their operation. Alongside Iraqi politicians, Shiites and Kurds, as well as local clerics, the dual agents became a central pillar of Iran’s activity in Iraq. They also served as an efficient channel for transferring large bribes to senior officials in Iraqi politics and the justice system, which were designed to advance Iran’s economic interests in Iraq. The documents reveal details about the long-standing efforts of Iranian agents to gain cooperation of the Iraqi leadership and infiltrate into all systems of political, economic and religious life in Iraq.


Power Struggles and Rivalry in the Intelligence Community


In addition to information on Iran’s covert activities in Iraq, the documents inexplicitly disclose certain details of the Islamic Republic’s intelligence system. An article published in 2014 by the Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), offered a rare glimpse into the complexities of Iranian intelligence. It reported on a political power struggle between the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the intelligence units of IRGC. While the former is administratively subordinate to the president and the government, the IRGC units, including also the Quds Force (responsible, inter alia, for clandestine operations outside Iran), intelligence units and an IT security unit, are directly subordinate to the supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i.


In the absence of a clear division of powers and duplication in certain areas of responsibility, rivalry between the various units on resources, operations and prestige has developed over the years. Fars News Agency also highlighted the difficulty of coordinating and sharing information and cooperation between no fewer than 16 separate government units dealing with intelligence matters (many of which were established in the last two decades), and the fact that the responsible minister does not actually have full control of them (Payvand, October 30, 2014).


The rivalry between the agencies has surfaced several times in the past decade (FP, Aug. 9, 2019). In 2009, representatives of IRGC harshly accused the Ministry of Intelligence and Security for not doing its job properly, and therefore, they claimed, the demonstrations after the elections that year escalated into violent riots (FAS, Dec. 2012). Conversely, Member of Parliament Ali Motahhari, who consistently criticizes the duplication of authority in the intelligence community, was mentioned saying in August 2009 that when crisis management is left in the hands of those who are more familiar with truncheons than with reasoning and logic [inexplicitly referring to head of the IRGC intelligence unit] the result should not come as a surprise (IranWire, Oct.17, 2014).


Motahhari expressed himself no less forcibly during a heated debate in 2017 in which he opposed the approval of Mahmoud Alawi’s appointment for a second term as Minister of Intelligence and Security in President Hassan Rouhani’s government. Motahhari, who was Deputy Speaker of the Parliament at the time, argued that his opposition was not personal but based on a systemic flaw, stating that Alawi had been unsuccessful at curbing the expansion of the powers and intelligence activities of IRGC, at the expense of the office he was elected to head. Therefore, he was unworthy of the job. In response, Alawi claimed that the transfer of powers was at the instruction of the Supreme Spiritual Leader, leaving no room for refusal (RadioFarda, Aug. 17, 2017).


The intelligence agencies’ struggle for prestige made more headlines that year. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security resented the fact that IRGC intelligence units took credit for the Ministry’s achievements and operations, such as the capture of the Sunni-Baluchi leader of Jundallah, Abdolmalek Rigi in 2010, and the efforts that led to the release of frozen Iranian assets worth $1.7 billion, which the US transferred to Iran in 2016 (Tabnak, Feb.26, 2017). Disputes between the intelligence agencies have sparked additional public confrontations over the past two years, most notably in the case of Abdolrasoul Dorri-Esfahani, an Iranian-Canadian accountant who was a member of Iran’s team in the negotiations with world powers on its nuclear program. Based on findings of the IRRC intelligence unit Esfahani was jailed for espionage, yet senior intelligence officials maintained he was innocent (The Guardian, Sep.9, 2018).


Unlike Esfahani, in the case of Maziar Ibrahimi, who was jailed for suspicion of cooperation with Israel and involvement in the assassination of four Iranian nuclear scientists in 2012-2010, intervention by IRGC intelligence helped prove his innocence, leading to his subsequent release. IRGC revealed that investigators from the Intelligence Ministry, eager to register another achievement, had abducted him (Iranintl, Aug. 9, 2019). Despite the reasonable impression that the array of intelligence agencies in Iran is unwieldy and cumbersome, the fragmentation and duplication of powers between the multiple, seemingly independent organizations actually contribute to them balancing and restraining each other.


The leak of Iranian intelligence-related documents revealed in the US media does not offer any shocking news about Iran’s involvement in Iraq, but it does add an air of mystery and intrigue to the covert channels that the Islamic Republic uses to secure its influence. The activity of Iranian agents and informants in Iraq has been known to US-led coalition of western forces since their presence in the region, and Washington has repeatedly called for Tehran to cease and, at the very least, reduce these operations (CFR, 2005). Earlier accounts about the topic, originating from the Iranian opposition in exile which tends to disseminate inaccurate, exaggerated data for propaganda purposes, claimed in 2007 that no fewer than 32,000 Iranian agents were employed in Iraq (EIFA, March 5, 2007). The so-called exposure of Iran's covert operations, the true scope and character of which remain unclear, are additional indications of the Islamic Republic's explicit efforts to increase its influence in Iraq for almost two decades. Other than large-scale allocation of resources by Iran in Iraq, the chairman of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization recently stated that one-quarter of all Iraq’s imports, totaling $10 billion, originate in Iran (Fars, Dec. 6, 2019). Taking these circumstances under account and considering the burden of international sanctions on its domestic economy, Iran will find it difficult to abandon its investments and involvement in Iraq. Moreover, the Iraqi economy also depends, at least for now, on Iranian support.


* Liora Hendelman-Baavur is the Director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University; editor of the anthology Iran Then and Now: Society, Religion & Politics (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2017) and author of Creating the Modern Iranian Woman: Popular Culture between Two Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 103 ● December 31,  2019 

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