How US Withdrawal from the Middle East Accidentally Helps Advance Iran’s Regional Playbook

The Leaked Iran Cables Reveal How Tehran Expanded its Influence in Iraq on the back of CIA intelligence. Could the Same Happen in Syria?

Protests in Iraq have exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran’s influence in the country, with protesters targeting Shia political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran. Iran's growing influence in Iraq is most visible in the allegiances of Iraq's prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, and the frustrations of protesters flooding the streets of cities throughout Iraq and since October defacing photos of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, burning Iranian flags, and even firebombing the Iranian Consulate. While it is widely known that Iran plays a big role in Iraq’s domestic politics, the extent of its interference, and how it has developed over years at the expense of vital American intelligence has been made evident in black and white in the first-ever leak of its magnitude from one of the most closed societies in the world. Over 700 pages of verified reports written by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security sent anonymously to The Intercept have revealed a detailed portrait of the massive scale of the Islamic Republic’s influence in neighbouring Iraq and how aggressively it has woven itself into every aspect of the country’s political, economic and religious life, particularly since the 2003 US invasion.


The cables detail how Iran has co-opted much if its government’s cabinet, infiltrating its military leadership, and even tapping into a network of sources once run by the CIA. The cables also reveal that spies who once worked for the United States defected and divulged information to Iran in exchange for safety, money, and gifts.  The documents read much like a spy novel: “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.”

The report by The Intercept and The New York Times named former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi as an official who was willing to have a “special relationship” with Iranian intelligence and detailed a January 2015 meeting with an operative. “No Iraqi politician can become prime minister without Iran’s blessing, and Abdul Mahdi, when he secured the premiership in 2018, was seen as a compromise candidate acceptable to both Iran and the United States,” reported The Intercept.
Former PM Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, spent more than two decades in exile in Syria and Iran. He was a favorite of Tehran’s and served as premier between 2006 and 2014. His replacement, the British-educated Haidar al-Abadi, was seen as more friendly to the West and less sectarian. This did not worry the Iranians, because several ministers in Abadi’s government enjoyed close ties with Tehran.

In one case detailed by both news agencies, cables revealed that one of the Iranian intelligence officials was a top political adviser to Salim al-Jabouri, the former speaker of the Iraqi parliament. That asset, referred to as "Source 134832," according to the documents, claimed to "carefully follow" Jabouri's contact with Americans. Jabouri held the role of Iraqi parliament speaker until 2018.

The reports also show that representatives of Iran’s Quds Force and the Muslim Brotherhood considered forming an alliance against Saudi Arabia in 2014 and held a secret summit at a Turkish hotel in April 2014 to seek common ground. Representatives of the Brotherhood suggested the two should join forces against the Saudis and that the place to do that was in Yemen, where a war between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-back Yemeni government was about to escalate.

An Iraqi protester holds up an Iranian flag as another sets it on fire for him, next to a portrait depicting Iran's former and current Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei, during demonstrations against the government and the lack of basic services in Basra on September 7, 2018. (Getty)

The cables, which document a period mainly in 2014-2015 when Iran, Iraq and the United States were at the height of the war against ISIS in Iraq after it seized large swathes of Iraq and neighboUring Syria, show heavy interference by Tehran to keep Baghdad a pliant client state. But it shows that Iran’s aggressive interference started very quickly after the US troop withdrawal in 2011.

After US forces pulled out, covert operators left hastily, abandoning their sources and leaving them vulnerable to Iranian pressure. These sources, as the joint report pointed out, were left poor, terrified, and desperate. According to The Intercept: "The CIA had tossed many of its long-time secret agents out on the street, leaving them jobless and destitute in a country still shattered from the invasion ... Short of money, many began to offer their services to Tehran."
Iranian intelligence officials reportedly made a concerted effort to recruit former CIA operatives following the US’s withdrawal in 2011, The Intercept and the New York Times reported. Iran immediately added CIA informants to its payroll. The report said one source was willing to tell Iranian intelligence "everything" including "the locations of CIA safe houses; the names of hotels where CIA operatives met with agents; details of his weapons and surveillance training; the names of other Iraqis working as spies for the Americans."

The report also said that Iran started to recruit spies from inside the US State Department. The State Department official is not named in the cable, but the person is described as someone who would be able to provide “intelligence insights into the US government’s plans in Iraq, whether it is for dealing with ISIS or any other covert operations.”


The hasty, chaotic pullout of US troops from northeastern Syria last month left allies, lawmakers and defense officials shocked.  Fearing for its survival in the face of an invasion from Turkey, which considers it an enemy, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led forces who spearheaded the fight against ISIS, quickly struck a deal with the Iran- and Russia-backed Bashar al-Assad regime. During the war against ISIS, Special Operations forces, the U.S. military’s most elite units, among the 1,000 American personnel in the country worked closely with Kurdish counterterrorism units while regular Kurdish fighters carried out most of the ground operations against ISIS.

Given the SDF’s exposure to the inner workings of the US Special Forces, the US withdrawal and the SDF’s subsequent deal with Assad has unnerved some experts who believe that it has paved the way for several dangerous scenarios for the US, including concerns that US intelligence developed and shared with the SDF could be lost forever or fall America’s foremost adversaries, Iran and Russia. And now that what we now know about Iran's steady and aggressive penetration into Iraq on the back of CIA intelligence, the question arises of whether the same thing could happen with US intelligence assets in Syria.

The Intercept’s Senior National Security Correspondent James Risen says that is a strong message in these documents for America’s Middle East policy. “The US invasion of Iraq is a 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 and what we do in the Middle East. It is a warning against further aggression in the region,” he said.

Eric L. Robinson, a former intelligence official with the National Counterterrorism Center who focused on counter-ISIS measures, tweeted last month that the drawdown was a counterintelligence "nightmare," as the SDF would be forced to give up tactics, techniques, procedures, names, and locations. "What a coup for the Russian intelligence services — 5 years of history regarding the elite forces of NATO etc," he said.

“It’s going to turn out that, all of a sudden, the ways that elite American counterterrorism forces operate are known to the opposition,” Robinson told The Atlantic.

Brian Katz, a former CIA official who recently took a post as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Atlantic that “Understanding how the U.S. military, Special Operations, and intelligence community operates is going to be very valuable for Russia and Iran—if not in Syria now, then wherever we’ll be competing and fighting in the coming years. They’ll have a playbook for how we operate.”

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