What the Iran Cables Tell Us About the U.S.-Made Hellscape in Iraq
this is intercepted I'm Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of the intercept in New York City and this is a special episode of intercepted intercepted early Monday. Morning a few minutes past midnight. The intercept published a major series of investigative stories based stomachache of more than seven hundred pages of secret Iranian intelligence. Files they detail. YEARS OF PAINSTAKING WORK BY IRANIAN SPIES TO CO-OPT OPT Iraq's leaders pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq's political economic and religious religious life. The leak of these files is historic. They paint a picture of the actions of pretty rational nation. State actors intervention in the affairs of a neighbor whose government wants launched a devastating war with the backing of the world's preeminent superpower the United States the fighting begun by Iraq threatened to involve other Gulf states and even the Americans and the Russians who both have deep rooted interests in the region both countries could end adopt economically crippled and the world. Outside could face an island energy crisis is bigger than any of that has gone before in in the post nine eleven world the US overthrew the governments of two of Iran's most threatening neighbors Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan major combat operations in Iraq have ended in the battle of Iraq. The United States and our allies have prevailed. The tyrant has fallen and Iraq is free at the same time. Iran came dangerously close close to being in the crosshairs of American regime change. These stories must be viewed in that context in a moment. We're going to be digging. Taking deep into the revelations of this major new investigative series published by the intercept and including one story jointly reported with the New York Times News at this moment both Iran and Iraq are engulfed in massive protests. And before we get into the meat of the revelations of this new investigative series. It's important to step back and look at some of the bigger history for more than six decades. The United States has repeatedly intervened in the affairs of both of these major oil producing nations. It has fomented coups. In both countries provided weapons intelligence and encouragement for Saddam Hussein at his most brutal the United States armed both Iran and Iraq in an eight year war that killed more than a million people the US has unleashed devastating economic sanctions on both countries causing immeasurable suffering among the civilian populations of both Iran and Iraq. This he is in no position to point the finger at anyone else in the world for the suffering of his own people and once again today he is proved that he is responsible for the suffering of his own people. The rest of us are more than happy to let. It was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who put a fine point on the desired outcome of the US position during the Iran Iraq war when he quipped that it is quote a shame. There can only be one loser back in nineteen fifty three. The United States orchestrated the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected leader Muhammed most a deck a popular figure who ended the rule of the British back monarchy in Iran and promised to us that country's vast resources for the benefit of its people meanwhile in Tehran Iran itself all stood ready to welcome the return of the Shah after the dramatic development in events which I compelled him to flee and then led to a royalist coup data in which masonic it was arrested. It was this coup and the ensuing brutality of the Shah of Iran that ultimately paved the way for the Islamic Revolution of nineteen. Seventy nine nine and the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. Hundreds of Iranians finally overran the embassy compound seizing about ninety people. Mostly Americans the hostages men and women were blindfolded and heard it into the nineteen sixty three a decade after the overthrow of most deck in Iran the US aided the overthrow Throw of Iraq's popular leader General Abdul Karim Qasim streets of ancient Baghdad. Become the scene of a short but decisive revolution. That toppled the pro-communist the government of carrying John here on the right just as Iran. Qassams crime was his intent to nationalize Iraqi oil and create gate robust social programs. It was the overthrow of this Iraqi government that made the ascent of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. A reality indeed indeed the CIA provided lists of suspected communists for Saddam. And the Ba'ath Party to us as they murdered political opponents and installed their iron-fisted regime following following the Iran Iraq war of the nineteen eighties. The United States wage the nineteen ninety one Gulf War during which the American military machine mercilessly attacked the Iraqi military and civilian infrastructure in Iraq. At the end of that war president George H W Bush decided to keep Saddam Hussein in power our rather than march on Baghdad specifically because Saddam was a brutal and vicious dictator who had proven useful to the US agenda in the region particularly in the war against Iran as commander in chief. I can report to you. Our armed forces fought with honor and valor and as President I can report to the nation. Aggression is defeated. The war is over during the nineteen nineteen nineties. The Clinton administration presided over the most sweeping economic sanctions in modern history resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. If not more four Iraqi civilians we have heard that half a million children have died. I mean that's more children than died when in here Shema and and you know is the price worth it. I felt this is a very hard choice but the price we think the price is worth it. The bipartisan support for the two thousand three invasion of Iraq was justified through a campaign of lies and propaganda centering around weapons of mass destruction and and fictitious connections to al Qaeda. It transformed Iraq into a health scape and opened its gates wide to groups like Al Qaeda and eventually the lead the Islamic state the CIA and the US military began arming and training. Sectarian militias in Iraq engaged in the disastrous debaathification nation policy and then in two thousand eleven president Obama oversaw a made for television withdrawal of American forces. So today I can report that as promise. The rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year after nearly nine years. America's war in Iraq will be over in the aftermath of the US invasion and particularly after the two thousand eleven withdrawal Iran dramatically the increased its influence in Iraq and cultivated close relationships with powerful Iraqi politicians and institutions which brings us to the Iran cables. Abel's for this series. The intercept teamed up with The New York Times for one major story which has been simultaneously published in both publications. There's also several stories raised the intercepted alone. Those can be found at the intercept dot com. I'm joined now by two of the journalists who worked on this series. My colleague Murtaza Hussain as a reporter order at the intercept focusing on national security and pharmacy. He is an award winning Iranian American Journalist for the New York Times. She's also the author of waiting waiting for an ordinary day. A book about the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in two thousand and three Murtaza. Pharma's thanks to both of you for joining me. Thank you for having me resume Murtaza. Let's begin with you first of all for people that know nothing about this right now. What are these documents that we've published? I and what are they about. We received a trove of seven hundred pages of top secret IRANIAN CABLES FROM THE IRANIAN MINISTRY OF INTELLIGENCE DOCUMENT CEMENT Iran's activities in Iraq roughly from the period of late two thousand thirteen early. Two Thousand Fifteen and this of course is The time period of the emergence of Isis and the peak of Isis power in Iraq this show the inner workings of a very secretive security apparatus of Iranians every country in the world jealously guard is national security. Thirty secret split. Iran has been one of the most difficult to penetrate for journalists or researchers. And we're seeing for the first time how they operate from their own perspective. There's a way in which which reading through these documents. It becomes pretty clear that Iran is a very rational nation state actor in a lot of ways and that this is a country tree their neighbor Iraq that waged a brutal eight-year war with Iran. And that a lot of what you see in these documents is akin to what you see major powers in the world doing all the time particularly in nations that are in their backyard. What were the biggest takeaways for you as you wind through these documents and reported the story? I think that you're absolutely right that the Iranian regime republic has been very rational all and diligent about how it extend its power and influence in the region how it counters terrorist groups like Isis. How it builds militia forces is this across the region from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen and beyond and how it counters America's presence in the region? We have to remember that in two thousand and three when the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. President George Bush named Iran as part of an axis of evil and the Iranian regime. Very much believe that Tehran would be next on the list of regimes that the US wanted to topple states like these and their terrorist. Allies constitute an axis of the evil arming to threaten the peace of the world and for them. Gaining dominance over Iraq particularly military political and intelligence dominance over. What the Americans were doing discovering what how the Americans operated who they were close to the Iraqis and trying to outmaneuver them became not just part of wanting to know what was going on in their neighboring country but part of a survival strategy for these republic and we see this clearly early in these cables? I mean I've been documenting. Iran's rise in Iraq from the ground in Baghdad Baghdad bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and also as a reporter based in in Beirut and we all anecdotally new and we could see signs but this is an extraordinary amount of insight and detail into who had it went about this who they contacted how they cultivated sources how they recruited spies. It's very important document for anyone who's interested in not just Iran but the Middle East Murtaza talk about some of the relationships with Iraqi political figures and powerbrokers that Iran cultivated debated. And what the documents tell us about Iranian influence over very powerful Iraqi political figures. Well it's been no secret that Iran has close ties ties to Iraqi political figures. But we've never seen such intimate texture detail the relationships they have a for instance. The current Iraqi prime minister is described in the documents having a special relationship with the Iranians. There's a list of Iraqi ministers who it named who was a good relationship the Ryan not who can be relied on or not and the former the prime minister of hey there by the is described in a conversation with the Iranian intelligence case officer having a very frank and somewhat provocative conversation about the future of Iraq in discussing the future of different sectarian groups in Iraq the Sunnis and so forth. I think the shows that Iran to put it mildly as very privileged access to the Iraqi political and economic system. We see now that the work through personal relationships and their penetration of Iraqi Zaidi's addy's deep and it's far more profound I think than the US had even at the high of the occupation. They have long standing ties to Iraqi officials going back. Decades the people who spent the years of Saddam Hussein's rule in exile in Iran and now when the US came into poll Saddam Hussein. Those individuals went back to Iraq. And they now they form very reliable group of individuals within powerful positions of the Iraqi system who Iran can rely on. It's also interesting ause that you also. Oh have this assertion in these documents or what appears to be evidence that you had assets in Iraq Iraqi intelligence assets who were working with the Central Intelligence Elegance Agency who then essentially flip over and become assets of Iranian intelligence and one of the the revelations. The documents is that these individuals were expected to essentially do a debriefing of everything they know about the operations of the United States in the CIA. Eh came into Iraq the smash the system that existed the use a lot of violence and money to reorganize Iraqi society and then they ultimately left the mission of an Iraq that could finally govern insecure itself has become real. Iran cannot art. Leave Iraq per se. 'cause it's always going to be their neighbor geographically that's never gonNA change and when the United States disorganized Iraqi society Iran came back in and try to put the pieces back together in a way which was in their interests so the ad all these individuals who in some cases worked for Saddam then worked for the United States and then maybe were cut off from any source of income. They were vulnerable population of people for Iran to scoop up and make them their own assets and all the training and in some cases equipment that they receive from the Americans they then pass onto the new handlers which were Iran for NAS. There are two major Iranian intelligence entities entities whose operations are described in these documents. And I should say that these are files from one of those entities Ministry of Intelligence and security but on the other side side you also have the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps which you know as a frequent target of US attacks and belligerent rhetoric from people like Mike Pompeo and and others explain how those two entities operated in Iraq and whether it was at cross purposes or they were on the same name team. The Revolutionary Guards control Iran's foreign policy and military strategy when it comes to countries in the region that redeemed the national security interests that would include Iraq Lebanon and Syria when the US invasion happened and Iran wanted to move into Iraq. It dispatched both very expertise and experience teams of intelligence officers from the Ministry of Information as as well as the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. These agents were working in parallel to one another working toward the same goal as is making sure that Iran knew what was happening in Iraq and had this information dominance and insight into what the Americans were doing. And how the Iraqis were cooperating with them. These reports were then prepared and sent back to individual headquarters back. In Iran the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards intelligence wing would combined them and prepare a report for the Supreme National Security Council of Iran in the event that their decision had to be made or sensitive information. The Revolutionary Guards always has the last word we know that General Gossip Sulejmani. WHO's the commander of the books forces? The External Donald Brown of the guards is one of the most influential and powerful men in both Iraq and the rest of the region in Syria in Lebanon. He was often called on on to go help. Iraq do crisis management from how to maneuver in American occupation to how to overcome Soni insurgency had a defeat isis assists. And in fact right now Mr Sulejmani was called into Iraq. To help the Iraqi government manage the street protests that we see unfolding Murtaza on that issue of these two entities operating in Iraq. The same time. What can you tell us about their relationship with each other? And what the documents reveal feel about the perception of the mis of the operations of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Well Iran is a very opaque system. And there's a lot we don't know but generally speaking there is a perception that the MOS is a more professional pragmatic counterpart to the C.. which is more ideological and aggressive in his posture in the documentary? Actually see evidence of that in the sense that there are critiques from the Moya. Mis case officers against the against Qasem Soleimani in particular Taylor the blamed for involvement in ethnic cleansing in Iraq of Sunnis or treating Sunnis in general as the enemy and thereby thereby feeding sectarianism in Iraq and these critiques very much reinforced that idea that the morphe- pragmatic actor than the IRA G see. And in some cases they speculate or express concerns that cosme Sulejmani maybe promoting his own activities in Iraq to build a political career for himself in Iran or build a profile. Because he's sometimes nicknamed as a shadow commander but he became very much out in the open. During these conflicts with Isis. He was on social media pictures of circulating circulating from every battlefield and the clearly view these activities with wariness and in some sense alarm that the IGC's activities rather than stabilizing leising Iraq as they would like we're leading to more and more conflict in opening the door for the United States to come back to Iraq with greater legitimacy for Nas we should mention in both Iraq and Iran. At this moment you have very large protests and they've been sustained in Iraq now for some time but in Iran. It does seem I'm to be at a crossroads where it could dramatically escalate explain what the protests in Iran right now are about and how how they started and also we should note that just hours before the New York Times and the intercept published the first story in this series Iran. Shut down the country's Internet but walk us through how we got to this place. We're in right now for us on Friday a few minutes before midnight Iran time the government Vermont announced that it was going to ration gasoline prices the quota double of what the price was and then it would triple pull the price of gasoline after that quota was met this mentor triple increase of gasoline. That could lead to inflation that could lead to prices of all sorts of goods going up. The Iranian public reacted fiercely and violently toward this new policy. They immediately within hours took to the streets. Protesters blocked a major highway near Tate. On the American sanctions are meant to pressure the Iranian government into giving up its nuclear weapons program and they're hitting the average Iranian hard in the pocket book there's been riots and demonstrations according to the government in seventy percent of provinces in Iran were seeing massive protests in. Not just the big cities like Tehran Shiraz and behind on but also much smaller working class cities and very quickly just like their counterparts in Lebanon and Iraq. These protests in Iran went from being about the increase of gas prices to really targeting the entire system and the Islamic republic regime the been calling for I told a hominy I need to step down. They're chanting we. Don't want an Islamic republic anymore. They have torched banks and government buildings and one of Mr Hominy as offices setting ablaze his posters in different cities. So it's almost like a pent-up anger at the system and frustration and lack of hope that has suddenly exploded and the government of course reacted by completely near a complete shutdown of the Internet. Now in its second day and blocking Iranians from using phone apps like whatsapp that they were using to send videos than eyewitness accounts. These protests are continuing somehow. The Iranians are managing to circumvent convent the Internet's locking and get some of the videos out so we have a very limited window into what's happening in Iran and there with every day. These protests are. You're taking more of a tone of violent riots. I think there's a report of at least twelve people dead and hundreds injured and thousands arrested. Mas You know the departure of John Bolton I think gave some people who watch around closely and are concerned about the future of that country some bit of relief. Because you have this notoriously Tori asli hawkish person who is in bed with you know Iranian exile terrorist groups and and others who has openly said that he wants the Iranian regime overthrown overthrown. Those ideas still exist in the trump administration very much and we see it in. The statements of Mike Pompeo the only viable way forward is through comprehensive negotiations address the full range of threats in their entirety harass. Most recent action is yet another clear attempt at nuclear extortion. The will only deepen its political and economic isolation from the world how does the belligerent stance of the United States toward the government in Tehran. John Coincide with these protests. And what are the stakes here. Given that you have on the one hand people rising up and protesting in Iran and on the the other hand you have this incredibly powerful nation state the United States that has made clear that it wants to overthrow the government of that country will the IMF left released figures recently which showed that the Iranian economy is on track to contract nine point five percent in this year as of us. Actions that's a staggering figure apocalyptic apocalyptic levels of economic contraction and this explicit goal articulated by State Department officials of the sanctions is to create a crisis within Iran and the brunt of that falls upon ordinary people who have grievances with the system as it exists and of course when nothing is affordable when people losing zing jobs when inflation's at forty percent all the existing grievances are amplified and you've created a crisis situation in the country where people in the streets they're desperate. They've lost any sense of hope or faith in the system and they're turning against the pillars of the system now too which as I said they made anyways but now that there's nothing left to lose is come come to a crisis situation where it is resulting in violence and those people in the administration and in their orbits in DC. They have made no secret of the fact elected they would like to create a revolutionary situation. You're on the only question is what sort of suffering will Iranians undergo in that process. And what will come after for the collapse of the government when you're looking at a revolution which seems to have started out of desperation. A revolution of hunger and despair furnace. I know that you are not inside of the heads of the top officials at the I.. R. J. C. or in the inner circle of power in Iran. But what is your sense of. How the the Iranian state or its various power players are going to view this reporting by the intercept in the New York Times and the revelations in these cables I think the Iranian regime and government will feel very alarmed by the fact that the leak of this magnitude is in the hands ends of American media? It is unprecedented to have this kind of access to Iran's intelligence apparatus so that will alarm them they will also worry about what else is in the cables. That hasn't been reported or might come out but I think they might not mind the perception or the the evidence in these reports that they outmaneuvered the US and they gained intelligence thumb and center in Iraq. I think that part of their capability to gain in this kind of control over Iraq will probably please them. I think the Iraqi government mind not like this because it's coming under a lot of pressure from protesters has to resign because of its closeness to Iran and because of its perceived Ties to Iran. I think for the Iraqi government and for Iraqi officials this report might be embarrassing Mas on that point the center of these protests now is this notion of Iranian influence in the country tree. What is your sense of how these revelations are going to be interpreted in Iraq in the context of the protests but also in the context of of the bad actions of the United States over these many decades in the country? Will you've seen some scenes of protesters Iraq burning Iranian flags or chanting getting anti-iranian slogans or even some cases storming buildings associated with the Iranian government. I think that all this ties back to the core issue which is that. The sovereignty of Iraq as a nation state has been severely degraded if not completely degraded by the United States over the course of several decades culminating in the two thousand three invasion Iraq has not been able to control borders. The Iraqi government has not been able to meet the minimum standards of a state which is to have a monopoly on violence of what takes place net land and people still have a very strong idea for national identity. And they're trying to reassert that they're trying to get back. What has been lost to them? As a result of the militia's malicious actions of foreign powers foremost among the United States and now in a more subtle more calculated perhaps Iran but manipulating their political leaders behind the scenes. There's all part of a long standing attempt to reassert in Iraqi identity against great forces which have been arrayed against Donald Trump. Made a huge deal about the reported killing of al-Baghdadi the head of Isis and these documents actually go into some detail about how Iran was fighting Isis as a sort of ground force. But I wanted to begin on this issue with you first of all. How did Iran view view the ascent of Isis as the premier jihadist group in the world sort of surpassing the influence of Al Qaeda? What was the perception of Iran as all of this was formulating and these and this group was gaining a foothold in parts of Iraq and Syria the number one priority for Iran when Isis gained ground in Syria and Iraq was to mobilize forces that would defeat isis outside of Iran's border and before it could enter Iran and penetrate into Iran and stabilize the regime? They very much view Isis as a terrorist group that it came about as a result of the US invasion as a result of Sudanese feeling marginalized creating an insurgency and add add insurgency over time growing more and more radical and getting inspiration from al Qaeda to then morph into something called the Islamic State Murtaza. You wrote one of the major pieces that has been published now at the intercept on this series is Iran shadow war on Isis while. US US led forces drop bombs Iran waged its own covert campaign against the Islamic state. I think a lot of people have no idea that this took place or that. Iran was functioning in the role that it did in this battle against Isis which often was framed as the United States is fighting Isis. And they're working with the Peshmerga and they're working with other Iraqi forces but Iran in fact was effectively. Do the most substantial groundforce fighting isis for a period of time revealed holding these documents. Talk about what you found in that part of the investigation so the first place where Isis was defeated or checked by groundforce within a town called mock more in northern Kerak and they were defeated by Kurdish Peshmerga Force and that force actually was trained and received logistical support and ammunition in from Iran during their fight in Iran intervention. Yes Isis preceded the American division by a few days in fact Iran was very key in arming Kurdish forces in arming and supporting the Iraqi army. Shia militias all fighting isis while the United States played a critical role throughout the war in the air that arming of those groups has been somewhat known not the texture that we have now in these documents but even more so Iran was penetrating Isis Organization. It was penetrating the Sunni insurgency insurgency that for now referred to they were setting Isis enemies against them trying to break off members of the coalition to fight them. The documents show that Iran had penetrated traded the highest levels of Isis with spies actually their reports from the inner circle of meetings with body in the Isis leadership assets. Giving information information. Back to your on. There are people inside isis who were feeding positions of their troops to Iranian connected actors to try to get getaway to defect from Isis safely trim giving those positions ways there later bombed by the coalition so Iran was playing very very deep covert game against against Isis tearing apart the condition of inside. It's a part of the war we've never seen before. And we now see for the first time through their own top secret documents. Is there any indication that the United States tried to open intelligence channels with Iran knowing that they were on the ground engaged in this Both overt and covert campaign against Isis. We'll ironically given the crave Disputes exist between the United States in Iran in the Iranian cables. Moya's case officers lemon the lack of coordination coordination with the Americans. They're very wary of the American presence in Iraq. They're afraid they roll into something larger which could threaten their interests but they have a great desire to work with them to more effectively target Isis. And they're upset about the exclusion of Iran from discussions taking place between the United States Turkey and and regional Arab countries about how to fight Isis. The future for Iraq will be because as they see it. Those countries have all taken a very extreme presence. Hostile to Iran's is interest in Iraq did like to have a closer relationship to fight isis. We the United States which is somewhat of a Frenemy as described in the documents. But it's impossible due you to the general political isolation Iran that's existed furnace. Finally before we wrap up what is the big takeaway from all of this. I know that the reporting is going to continue. Can you and this is a large cache of documents and people are still reporting out stories on it but where we are. As of this moment what's the big takeaway for you from this reporting and the documents going forward and what we should be looking for in the months ahead I think the big takeaway is to see how Iran has been planning and and executing it strategies in Iraq and elsewhere in the region and to try to go moving forward. Find how the information that we we have the evidence we have from these files in Iraq applies to elsewhere where Iran has an active presence in Syria in Lebanon like in Yemen. What shows us In terms of more of a perspective on on the region power plays that are going on in this rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia in in the relationship that Iran has with the United States right now and is it moving toward confrontation or is it moving toward negotiations and defusing tensions boss final word for the big takeaway. I think the big takeaway for me is to see how and Dirani intelligence operates. We've never seen before. You know the way they. They had closed doors. They're professional pragmatic and ruthless organization. We see that in the documents the very fastest and protecting their interests in Iraq. These documents of course deal with certain period of time and in some sense the historical but I think that if it comes through a situation with the United States confronts Iran again in either by proxy in Iraq or elsewhere in the region we have a greater insight and how the Iranians may behave and what tactics they used to combat that I think another takeaway take away from this has to be from the point of view of the United States and other Western powers that have military superiority when they invade a country but when they get there and in the post invasion and post military phase they're out of depth and the lack of connection in an understanding of the cultures and the religion and the inner dynamics of a society leaves them where the US is right now in Iraq Iraq. I think that has to be a takeaway for people who are conducting. US foreign policy or military policy. Because if there is a war in the future with Iran or elsewhere swear they have to look at these cables and they have to look at the information here and see that there are forces on the ground there that they have have not predicted. That might actually beat them to this for now. Thank you very much for being with us. Thank you for having me Murtaza. Thank you as well. Thank you Murtaza. Hussain is a reporter are at the intercept focusing on national security and Arnaz Physi-. He is an award winning Iranian American Journalist for the New York Times. She's the author of waiting for an ordinary Mary. Day A book about the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. In two thousand and three you can read this entire series on the Iran cables at the intercept ZIP DOT com. The lead article in this series was simultaneously published at the New York Times and the intercept. And that does this special episode of intercepted. You can follow us on twitter at intercepted. We're also an instagram at intercepted. podcast if do you like what we do on this program. You can support our show going to intercept dot com slash join to become a sustaining member intercepted as a production of first look media and the intercept. Our lead producer is jacked as a thorough. Our producer is Laura Flynn at least swain as our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reid is editor in chief of the intercept up Rick Quan mixed the show transcription for this program is done by Nudie Marquez Martinez. Our music has always was composed by DJ spooky until next time. I'm Jeremy Scahill.