A story yesterday in Britain’s Sunday Times suggested that General David Petraeus “is expected to tell Congress [that] Iranian forces were involved in the recent battle for Basra” when he testifies before Congress this week.
Right, but the question Congress should ask is: On which side?
In the Weekly Standard last week, Fred and Kimberly Kagan, two of the architects of the surge, described the Basra battle as a security operation launched by “the legitimate Government of Iraq and its legally-constituted security forces [against] illegal, foreign-backed, insurgent and criminal militias serving leaders who openly call for the defeat and humiliation of the United States and its allies in Iraq and throughout the region.” By the latter, the Kagans presumably mean Muqtada al-Sadr, whom the Kagans consistently have sought to present as a tool of Iran. In doing this, the Kagans and other conservative pundits have seriously misunderstood and misrepresented the relationships between Iran and the various Shia factions in Iraq.
There is little actual doubt about who is Iran’s primary proxy in Iraq: The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI was founded in the early 1980s by exiled Iraqi clerical activists in Iran, with the blessing and support of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) created and trained SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Corps (now known as the Badr Organization), for the express purpose of eventually serving as an arm of Iran’s Quds Force in Iraq. SCIRI was among the Iraqi exile parties with whom the U.S. worked in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, but maintained close ties to Iran. ISCI continues to receive Iranian funds, and many members of the Badr militia reportedly still receive pensions from the IRGC. Thousands of these Iranian-trained and indoctrinated militiamen have been incorporated into the Iraqi police and army.
Sadr, on the other hand, is seen by the Iranians as an annoyance. This does not mean, however, that Iran has not sought to build ties to his movement. Though initially surprised by the strength of Sadr’s movement, (which they rightly regarded as a hindrance to their quick, easy, SCIRI-facilitated dominance of Iraq), Iran quickly grasped — unlike the U.S. — that Sadr’s political appeal was genuine, and has sought to manage it, rather than simply deny or suppress it, as the U.S. has done.
In reality, Iran maintains ties with all of the major Shia actors in Iraq, and, as the main beneficiary of the Iraq invasion, stands to gain however the current political struggle is resolved. Because of ISCI’s acceptance (for the moment) of U.S. goals in Iraq, credulous American analysts have ignored overwhelming evidence of ISCI’s continuing ties to Iran in order to portray them as friendly to U.S. interests. Senators should beware ideologically-motivated attempts to portray the current power struggle in Iraq as simply “the Iraqi government versus Iranian-supported bad guys.”