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Secret cables expose Iran's influence-building in Iraq at U.S. expense

Protestor in Baghdad with sign showing big X across U.S. and Iranian flags
A protester in Baghdad rejects U.S. and Iranian influence. Photo: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images

Hundreds of secret Iranian intelligence cables obtained by the Intercept and shared with the New York Times "show how Iran, at nearly every turn, has outmaneuvered the United States in the contest for influence" in Iraq, per the Times.

Why it matters: Widespread protests in Iraq against corruption and poor government services have in some cases been spurred on by another grievance: Iranian influence over Iraqi politics. These documents, which date to 2014-2015, offer glimpses of how that influence was built and exercised — often at the expense of, and due to failures by, the U.S.

Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s embattled prime minister, is described as having a "special relationship" with Iran as of 2014, when he was oil minister.

  • The exact nature of that relationship is unclear. Mahdi was considered a compromise pick between the U.S. and Iran when he took office a year ago.

Haider al-Abadi, Mahdi’s predecessor, initially concerned the Iranians because of his links to the U.S. and the U.K.

  • Those concerns appeared to abate during an emergency meeting at the Iranian embassy. Officers discussed the deep links between several Iraqi Cabinet members and Tehran.

The big picture: Iran gained influence in the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, and in particular after the 2011 troop withdrawal when "the CIA had tossed many of its longtime secret agents out on the street."

  • One former CIA spy, known to the agency as Donnie Brasco, switched sides in 2014 and offered Iran everything from the locations of safe houses to the names and appearances of Iraqis spying for the U.S.
  • In another case, Iran offered a U.S. State Department employee money and gold to spy for Tehran. It’s unclear what became of that effort.
  • Meanwhile, an Iraqi intelligence officer offered an Iranian counterpart access to "secret targeting software" along with information about a "system for eavesdropping on mobile phones" — both provided to Iraq by the U.S.

The bottom line: "Today, Iran is struggling to maintain its hegemony in Iraq, just as the Americans did after the 2003 invasion. Iraqi officials, meanwhile, are increasingly worried that a provocation in Iraq on either side could set off a war between the two powerful countries vying for dominance in their homeland," per the Times.

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