At the end of February 2009 the BBC is going to air a program “Iran and the West: Nuclear confrontation.” In the show they interview Sir John Sawers, the British ambassador to the U.N. He claims that Iran sent messages to England that they would help improve security and political stability in Basra in return for allowing Tehran to work on its nuclear program. At the time the Iranians were deeply involved in supporting a variety of Shiite militias in the city that were attacking British troops.
Beginning in late 2003 Iran began negotiating with Britain, France, and Germany over its nuclear program. The talks did not go well with Iran refusing to back off. At one point, the Iranians did offer a deal. According to Ambassador Sawers, the Iranians left several messages for the three European countries that involved Basra. Tehran said they would stop attacks on British troops in the city as well as halt undermining the Iraqi political system in return for Britain, France, and Germany accepting Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians were intent on continuing work on their project. Sawers said the British did not accept the offer.
The Iranians started exerting influence over Basra immediately after the U.S. invasion. In March 2003 Iran’s leaders President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei decided that they would deploy the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Badr Brigade to several Iraqi cities after the U.S. attack including Basra. At the time the militia was a formal part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, and received up to $20 million a year in funding from them. The Qods Force also used front groups like the Iranian Red Crescent to infiltrate Basra.
Eventually Tehran began supporting a wide variety of Shiite militias in Basra to carry out attacks on the British. In 2005 they were supplying Iraqi militias with the Explosively Formed Projectile (EFPs) roadside bombs that were used against the English forces. Iran also offered $300 a month to anyone that would carry out attacks on the British. In October 2005 the British said that they captured a Mahdi Army commander who admitted to using EFPs, and blamed Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah for supplying them. Basra also became a major transit point for the Qods Force to ship weapons to militias they supported throughout southern Iraq. By mid-2007 the U.S. and British claimed that these supplies had increased with larger caliber rockets being provided to militias. Earlier in March 2007 breakaway militia commander Qais Khazali, his brother Laith, and Hezbollah commander Ali Mussa Daqduq were arrested in Basra. Qais Khazali had once been one of the leaders of the Sadrist movement, helping keep it alive during the Saddam era. In 2004 however he broke away to form his own group, and was eventually named the leader of what became known as the Special Groups by Iran. Daqduq was sent to Iraq to coordinate Hezbollah’s work with the Qods Force.
While the British were focused upon Iran’s military policy in Basra, Tehran also began increasing economic ties. In July 2005 the two countries signed an export deal to ship 150,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day to Iran for refining. Basra also imported electricity from Iran. Iranian products flooded the Basra market. England’s Guardian reported that Iran was using friendly militias to intimidate local merchants to buy Iranian goods. A free trade zone between Basra and Iran also facilitated this trade. Iran became so influential that many stores in Barsa had signs in Persian, and Iranian money was accepted.
Iran was willing to give up their support for the Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, Special Groups, and the Thar Allah militias in return for England’s acquiescence in Tehran’s pursuit of its nuclear program. When Britain turned them down was not mentioned in the press reports, but Iran’s strong military influence was finally curtailed when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched his offensive in Basra in March 2008. During the fighting General Petraeus claimed that Iranians were helping the Sadrists with tactical operations. Tehran’s goal has always been political influence within Iraq however, so they helped negotiate the cease-fire to end the conflict. In the aftermath several Mahdi Army commanders were captured that detailed the training Iran offered to militiamen. New Iranian weapons with 2008 production dates were also found in the city, and a Hezbollah operative was captured there. Iran was dealt a setback in Basra, but its economic power remains, and it showed its political importance when it helped end the fighting.
Ambassador Sawers’ revelation shows the role Iraq plays in Iran’s foreign policy. Before Saddam Hussein was Iran’s greatest rival and threat. After the U.S. invasion, Iraq became a great opportunity for Tehran. They could increase their political, economic and cultural influence in Iraq, while using it as a tool in its dealing with the West. Supporting Shiite militias was not only a way to exert power in Iraq, but also a means to hold down American troops as Iran feared that the Bush administration might attack them. The offer to England also showed that Iran’s military policy was always subject to its political needs. Whether Iran will continue to play such a role in the future is a big question as Iraqi nationalism is now re-emerging.
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