Losing an Empire the Hard Way: What the Leaked Iranian Intel Means for US Spy Networks

Published November 20th, 2019 - 08:25 GMT
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(AFP/FILE)

 

A bombshell Iranian intelligence leak provided jointly to The New York Times and The Intercept illustrates how Iran was able to become a dominant player in Iraq. 

Around 700 pages, the leak reveals that Iranian intelligence were able to penetrate and influence Iraqi parliamentary politics as well as turn powerful figures into assets working on behalf of the Iranian regime.

Though it is unclear exactly who the whistleblower is, the source released the information to the press in order to “let the world know what Iran is doing in my country, Iraq.” Iran, which neighbors Iraq, has steadily expanded its influence over Iraq since the U.S.’ invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. 

 

The growing power of Iran has caused widespread backlash from Iraqis, particularly in the capital Baghdad and the port city of Basra, where powerful Iranian economic and political interests increasingly dominate public life. In Sept 2018, Basrawi residents burned down the locate Iranian consulate. Then, in Nov 2019, the Iranian consulate in Karbala was set ablaze. The intelligence leaks can be seen as a part of this growing backlash against Iranian encroachment in Iraq’s post-2003 drive for self-determination.

But on a regional level, the leaks reveal something about the U.S.’ disorderly retrenchment from the Middle East. As the U.S. hastily retreated from its role as Iraq’s primary political power broker, unemployed Iraqi assets to the U.S. effectively found themselves with powerful insider knowledge on the U.S.’ maneuverings. 

According to the leaks, Iran found many of them and paid them to switch loyalties, giving Iran unprecedented access into the way the U.S. exercised power.

As the current U.S. Administration prepares for its withdrawal from Syria, the same windows of opportunity may be opened, allowing regional competitors like Syria and Turkey to exploit the chaotic retreat. 

In the wake of further U.S. withdrawals from the region, organized spy networks may align themselves to the highest bidder, exposing sensitive U.S. intelligence in the process.

 

What the Leaked Intel Reveals


Iranian IRGC forces (AFP/FILE)

The leaks document the way Iran expanded its influence in Iraq roughly between 2014 and 2015, relying on a combination of Iranian intelligence agents and members of the secretive Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Together, both operations were able to penetrate into Iraq’s domestic political scene.

Salim al-Jabouri, Iraq’s speaker of parliament from 2014 until 2018, had a top political adviser who was an Iranian intelligence asset. “[I] am present in his office on a daily basis and carefully follow his contacts with the Americans,” the source told his Iranian intelligence contact.


The leak also reveals that Nechervan Barzani, the former prime minister of Kurdistan, met with top American and British officials in Dec 2014 before immediately reporting the details of the meeting to an Iranian official.

 

The information included the locations of CIA safe houses, the exact hotels CIA operatives met with local agents, the ways in which the U.S. trained him, and the names of other Iraqi spies working on behalf of the US.

 

The breadth of Iranian assets in Iraq allowed Iran to preempt moves by the U.S. In one case, Iran was made aware that the U.S. was plotting a move to gain access to an oil field in western Iraq. “It is recommended that the aforementioned information be used in exchange with the Russians and Syria,” the leaked report says. 

Around the same time, IRGC forces were organizing disparate Iraqi Shia militia fighters into a unified command structure called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) in the fight against ISIS. The PMU became critical to ousting ISIS fighters. Despite cries from the U.S. that the Iranian elements of the PMU violated Iraq’s sovereignty, Iraq quickly moved to officially integrate the PMU into its military, which in turn provided Iran a foothold into Iraq’s organized forces. 

Given the level of access Iranian officials reportedly had into Iraqi political affairs, Iranian assets would have likely been involved in the effort to integrate Iranian-led PMU forces. The leaks document a relatively short time window, but there is no reason to believe Iran’s clandestine influence in Iraq would have diminished.


Losing Your Empire the Hard Way


U.S. troops stationed in Iraq (AFP/FILE)

The leak exposes reports detailing how Iran took advantage of a political vacuum left by the U.S.’ unstructured retreat from its once-dominant position in Iraqi political life.

According to the report, “The CIA had tossed many of its longtime secret agents out on the street, leaving them jobless and destitute in a country still shattered from the invasion — and fearful that they could be killed for their links with the United States, possibly by Iran.” 

Iran quickly found many of these agents and offered to provide them safety and a stable salary if they switched loyalties, which many reportedly did.

One such asset, officially named Source 134992 but known by the CIA as “Donnie Brasco” reportedly accepted Iran’s offer of protection and divulged everything he knew about the U.S.’ operations in Iraq. The information included the locations of CIA safe houses, the exact hotels CIA operatives met with local agents, the ways in which the U.S. trained him, and the names of other Iraqi spies working on behalf of the US. He also said the U.S. paid him $3,000 a month, gave him a $20,000 bonus and provided him with a car.

“I will turn over to you all the documents and videos that I have from my training course,” the source said. “And pictures and identifying features of my fellow trainees and my subordinates.”

This kind of information likely enabled Iran to identify vast swathes of the U.S.’ spy network. From there, it would be relatively simple to replace the U.S. as the orchestrator and organizer of the network. For spies willing to cooperate with Iran, the only real change would be who they were meeting with to report their information.

 

"All of the Iraqi Army’s intelligence — consider it yours,"

 

An Iraqi official also reportedly met with Iranians in late 2014 with a message from Iraq's then-commander of military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Hatem al-Maksusi. "All of the Iraqi Army’s intelligence — consider it yours," the message read. The official then offered to provide Iran with secret targeting software provided by the U.S. as well as advanced surveillance tech operated from the offices of the prime minister and military intelligence. 

“I will put at your disposal whatever intelligence about it you want," the official said.

Exposing its spy network to Iran is an unintended consequence of the U.S.’ disorderly retreat from Iraq

More broadly, despite spending almost $2 trillion, losing nearly 5,000 soldiers, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and persisting through increasing domestic backlash for the war effort, the U.S. appears to have lost the war in Iraq. 

The emerging victor is Iran. Even the U.S. Army acknowledged that reality in a report detailing the accomplishments of the U.S. in its invasion of Iraq. After listing the myriad failures of the U.S.’ military occupation, the report concluded “An emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”

But inside this loss and the leaks lies a warning: if the U.S. conducts a similarly chaotic retreat from Syria, which by all means appears to be happening, its spy/influence network there may be co-opted by Iran, Turkey and Assad.

 

“An emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”

 

Already, the opportunity to exploit an American-manufactured political vacuum has been taken. 

Once the U.S. began to pull its troops back from northern areas of Syria that border Turkey, the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), appealed to the Syrian regime in a last-ditch effort to prevent a Turkish takeover.

The regime answered the SDF’s call and has since established a heavy presence in areas formerly occupied by U.S. troops. The obvious long-term consequence is that exposed Kurdish and Arab assets abandoned by the U.S. are now likely more willing to provide their information to the Syrian regime. From there, it’s only a short trip for that information to be handed to Iranian officials, including IRGC agents stationed inside Syria.

Likewise, for former U.S. assets now living in Turkish-occupied territory, they may divulge information to Turkey to guarantee themselves a measure of safety. 

The task of downsizing an empire is one already fraught with the perils of political vacuums. But retreating without covering the networks it leaves behind provides regional powers like Iran exactly the opportunity it needs to solidify its place.

Iran’s ability to keep that place ultimately depends on how it copes with the growing anti-Iranian Iraqi public as well as its own brewing social-economic crisis that has sparked demonstrations and increasingly violent crackdowns. 

 


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