The release Friday of five Iranians held by the U.S. military in Iraq for two and a half years highlights the long-simmering conflict between the U.S. and Iraqi views of Iranian policy in Iraq and of the role of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) there.
For the Barack Obama administration, as for the George W. Bush administration before it, the Iranian detainees had become symbols of what Washington steadfastly insisted was an Iranian effort to use the IRGC to destabilise the Iraqi regime.
But high-ranking Shi’a and Kurdish officials of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had never shared the U.S. view of the IRGC or of the Iranian role. They have acted on the premise that Iran is interested in ensuring that a friendly Shiite regime would remain in power.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly expressed concern that the five Iranian detainees being released were "associated with" the Quds Force of the Iranian and could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq.
The idea that the Quds Force was fighting a "proxy war" against U.S. and Iraqi troops was the justification for the George W. Bush administration’s decision in late 2006 to target any Iranian found in Iraq who could plausibly be linked to the IRGC.
Three of the five Iranian detainees, who had been grabbed in a January 2007 raid, were working in an Iranian liaison office that had been operating in the Kurdistan capital of Erbil. The U.S. military, hinting that it actually had little information about the Iranians seized, said they were "suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition forces".
Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari tried to get the U.S. officials to understand that the Iranians seized in Erbil were not part of a "clandestine network" but were working on visas and other paperwork for travel by Iraqis to Iran. Zebari explained that they were working for the IRGC because that institution has the responsibility for controlling Iran’s borders.
After Mahmoud Farhadi was kidnapped by the U.S. military from a hotel in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya in September 2007, a U.S. military spokesman made the spectacular claim that Farhadi was an IRGC commander responsible for all Iranian operations inside Iraq.
Kurdish officials acknowledged Farhadi’s IRGC affiliation, but the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, publicly confirmed that Farhadi was a civilian official of the neighbouring Iranian province of Kermanshah on a "commercial mission with the knowledge of the federal government in Baghdad and the government of Kurdistan".
Although Farhadi had indeed been a military commander at one time, the Kurds pointed out that he was now carrying out only civilian functions.
Iraqi officials also rejected the idea that the IRGC’s Quds Force itself was hostile to the Iraqi regime. They had personal relationships with the Quds Force commander Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and they acknowledged that he had ties with all the Shi’a factions in Iraq.
They knew that Iran had trained officers of Shi’a nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and provided some financial support to Sadr. But they also believed that the purpose of that relationship was to exert influence on Sadr in the interest of peace and stability.
After Sadr declared a unilateral ceasefire in late August 2007, the Maliki regime, including Kurdish foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, argued publicly and privately to Bush administration officials that Iran had used its influence on Sadr to get him to agree to such a ceasefire. They used the argument to urge the Bush administration to release the Iranian detainees.
Even the Bush administration itself was divided sharply over the Iraqi government argument that Iranian influence on Sadr was benign. The State Department was inclined to accept the Iraqi argument, and privately urged the release of the five in fall 2007.
In December 2007 the State Department’s coordinator on Iraq, David Satterfield, went so far as to agree publicly that the Sadr ceasefire "had to be attributed to an Iranian policy decision".
But Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, strongly resisted that conclusion, insisting that it was U.S. military operations against Sadr’s Mahdi Army that had brought about the ceasefire. The internal debate was resolved in favour of Petraeus, and the five Iranian detainees were not released.
A series of events in 2008, however, showed that the Iraqi regime was much more comfortable relying on personal relationships with of the Quds Force than on U.S. military might to deal with the problem of the Mahdi Army.
First, Maliki refused in March to allow U.S. ground forces to participate in an operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra. Then, only a few days into the battle, the government turned to the Iranian Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, to lean on Sadr and broker a ceasefire in Basrah only a few days into a major battle there.
Iraqi President Talabani met with Suleimani Mar. 28-29, 2008 at an Iran-Iraq border crossing and asked him to stop the fighting in Basra. Suleimani intervened to bring about a ceasefire within 24 hours, according to a report by McClatchy Newspapers Apr. 28, 2008.
And in a second meeting a few days later, revealed by Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor May 14, 2008, Suleimani called Sadr the biggest threat to peace in Iraq. The Quds Force commander vowed support for the Maliki regime and referred to "common goals with the United States".
In a gesture to Washington, Suleimani asked Talabani to tell Petraeus that his portfolio included not only Iraq but Gaza and Lebanon, and that he was willing to send a team to Baghdad to "discuss any issue" with the U.S.
Petraeus refused to talk with Suleimani, according to Peterson’s account, supposedly on the ground that his offer was part of an Iranian bid to become an "indispensable power broker" in Iraq and thus establish Iranian influence there.
But Petraeus understood that Suleimani had indeed achieved just such a position of power in Iraq as arbiter of conflict among Shi’a factions. "The level of their participation, centrality of their role, should give everyone pause," Petraeus told journalist and author Linda Robinson. "The degree to which they have their hands on so many lines was revealed very starkly during this episode".
In late April, Petraeus tried to get the Maliki regime to endorse a document that detailed Iranian efforts to "foment instability" in Iraq. But instead an Iraqi government delegation returned from Iran in early May saying they had seen evidence disproving the U.S. charges.
Then, Maliki again used Gen. Suleimani to reach an agreement with Sadr which ended a major military campaign in Sadr City just as the United States was about to launch a big ground operation there but also allowed government troops to patrol in the former Mahdi Army stronghold.
Within weeks, the power of the Mahdi Army had already begun to wane visibly. Militia members in Sadr City were no longer showing up to collect paychecks and the Iraqi army had taken over the Mahdi Army headquarters in one neighbourhood.
The Maliki regime saw that Suleimani had made good on his word. Prime Minister Maliki then began calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2010. He had opted to depend on Iranian influence rather than U.S. protection.
Nevertheless, the U.S. military has continued to maintain the pretense that it is pushing back Iranian influence in Iraq. The successor to Petraeus, Gen. Ray Odierno, continues to denounce Iran periodically for aiding Shi’a insurgents.
*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.