Front line of the New Cold War

Sat, May 24, 2008, 01:00

The rivalry between the US and Iran extends throughout the Middle East, but is most palpable in Baghdad, where the two countries trade accusations and vie for influence over Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government. Washington's ambassador to Iraq tells The Irish Timesthat Iran is an insidious hand, encouraging violence and supplying arms; his Iranian counterpart claims there will be no peace in Iraq until the US occupation ends

FOR US AMBASSADOR Ryan Crocker, it's getting personal. When Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki took on a Shia Muslim militia in late March, "those militia responded very violently, both in Basra and here in Baghdad", according to Crocker.

"The international zone was under intensive rocket fire for days," he says. "We lost two American members of our staff, and dozens of Iraqis were killed . . . This was all coming from extremist elements of the Jaish al-Mahdi , which were armed and in many cases trained and financed by Iran."

One of the State Department's most senior diplomats, Crocker is uncharacteristically angry with Iran. "You can say we take it personally when you've got rockets banging off your roof. I literally did, in my house. We don't have much glass left in the upstairs windows."

Crocker and his wife, Christine, live in a stone villa in the Green Zone. The couple met in Baghdad in 1979, when both served in the US interest section of the Belgian embassy. In April 1983, they were in Beirut when a suicide bomber blew up the US embassy, killing 63 people. The bombing, which was linked to Hizbullah and Tehran, was retaliation for US support of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. A colleague recalls seeing the couple run towards each other when Crocker emerged bloodstained from the embassy ruins (Christine was outside when the bomb exploded, and feared he was dead). Crocker returned as ambassador to Beirut in 1990.

So it's not surprising that he views Iraq through a Lebanese prism. "Iran has pursued a policy of Lebanisation here," he says. "Its Iraq policy is formulated and executed primarily by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, commanded by Qassem Suleimani, and that is the same organisation that is responsible for Iran's policy in Lebanon, Gaza and now in Afghanistan.

"What they have done in Lebanon, and were seeking to do here, is support everybody. Support the central government, but support a number of other organisations that pressure the central government, to have multiple sources of influence and to keep the government weak and off-balance, as well as to try and put pressure on the multinational force."

Crocker says it's fortunate that the Mahdi army has "not turned out to be Hizbullah, in terms of leadership, capabilities, performance". He claims that Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shia cleric who founded the Mahdi army, has lived in the Iranian holy city of Qom since January 2007.

Crocker accuses Iran of creating "special groups" that fight alongside the Mahdi army. "We believe they are Iranian-controlled elements. The top officer in each group probably takes directions from the Quds Force ."

Although he does not know how many of the Quds Force are in Iraq, Crocker accuses his counterpart, ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi, of being "a Quds Force officer with the rank of brigadier general".

For all Crocker's prestige, the "street cred" of US diplomats has never recovered from former secretary of state Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations in February 2003, the month before the US invaded Iraq. Powell's allegations of an Iraqi programme of weapons of mass destruction were based on the testimony of one Iraqi defector, known as Curveball, whose information was fabricated.

"We have said very clearly to the Iranians that no Quds Force officer will be safe in Iraq, and we can find them and we will detain them," Crocker says.

He estimates that eight or nine Quds Force officers are currently in US custody. He says none have diplomatic immunity, and that all have acknowledged in captivity that they belong to the Quds Force. Qomi says the US holds five Iranian diplomats, an embassy employee and 15 pilgrims who were visiting holy shrines in Iraq.

In other circumstances, such events might be considered acts of war. They've occurred against a background of tension over Iran's nuclear programme. The region has polarised into US and Iranian camps. Israel, Sunni Arab Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Fouad Siniora's Lebanese government have lined up behind Washington. Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah are in Tehran's camp. Iraq sits on the fence, with both the US and Iran wooing the Maliki government.

So is there a New Cold War, comparable to that with the former Soviet Union, between the US and Iran?

"I don't think so," says Crocker, formulating his answer as a putdown to Tehran. "The Soviet Union was a formidable force at its height, with a massive nuclear arsenal. It had half of Europe locked up in its grasp. Iran simply does not carry anything remotely like that weight, not internationally, not even regionally."

Perhaps, but Hizbullah this week won a major political victory over the US-backed government in Beirut. Meanwhile, analysts believe a US strike against Iran would trigger attacks on US troops in Iraq, and on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza. It is a carefully constructed strategy of deterrence. Yet the Bush administration still toys with the idea. On April 25th, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said the Pentagon was planning for "potential military courses of action" against Iran. Mullen criticised what he called Iran's "increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq.

Crocker fears that the fragile gains of the past year will be lost if the US sets a timetable for pulling US troops out. The three leading US presidential candidates have done just that, with John McCain proposing the most distant deadline of January 2013. The question on all Iraqi minds is: what happens when the Americans leave?

"If you do it according to a timetable, I think you'll get an Iraqi reaction that says: 'It's time to start buying ammunition, digging the trenches and get ready' - and that can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Crocker. "If the sectarian violence resumes, it is likely to get a whole lot worse than it was in 2006, as bad as that was, because this time everybody knows the Americans are not going to step in. This will be a fight to the finish."

Crocker predicts that al-Qaeda and Iran, as well as other regional powers, will move in to fill the void left by the US.

"If you didn't like the first couple of reels of the Iraq movie since 2003, you'll really hate what comes next," he says. "The movie isn't going to stop. It's going to get a lot, lot worse . . . How are people going to feel, particularly back in the States, if you have a mass humanitarian disaster and, guess what, you caused it?"

In late 2002, Crocker co-authored a secret memo for then secretary of state Colin Powell. It predicted that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would incite sectarian strife, that the Sunnis would fight to keep power and that neighbouring countries would intervene. It also foresaw the need to entirely rebuild Iraq's political and economic system.

A speaker of Farsi and Arabic - one US newspaper called him a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia - Crocker has spent most of his 35-year career in the Middle East. It's been an exercise in damage limitation.

"I give my best professional advice to policymakers. They set the policy, I don't," he says. "And when policy is set, then I do my level best to implement it."

A good soldier? I ask him.

"A good soldier," he replies.

AMBASSADOR HASSAN KAZEMI QOMI receives me in a reception room with gilt brocade chairs and little tables upon which cold pear juice, tea, coffee and fruit are served. The etiquette, like Ambassador Qomi's carefully constructed answers, is eastern.

The Iranian ambassador whom Ryan Crocker accuses of being a brigadier general in the Quds Force wears a grey suit over a blue and white striped shirt. Though his wife is in Tehran with their son and daughter, she visits him often in the small, graceful palace, surrounded by grape arbours, outside the Green Zone, about a kilometre and a half from the US embassy as the rocket flies. It's a dodgy area, and both times I've visited there's been gunfire outside.

"The Cold War is about the occupation of Palestine," not Iraq, says Qomi. "Mr Bush supports Olmert for his own interest, after he leaves office. He is out of touch with American public opinion. We don't see Iraq as a place to challenge America. But America wants to use Iraq to provoke us."

Qomi rejects comparisons of the Mahdi army with groups in Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied territories. "Hizbullah and Hamas are symbols of their nations," he says. "Hamas is the democratically elected official government. Hizbullah has also been elected by the people. It is a resistance force against an enemy that occupies their country . . . The Islamic Republic of Iran gives moral support to every legal resistance movement. But the Islamic Republic is not in a position to fight or threaten other countries."

Despite the courteous reception, Qomi seems slightly annoyed when I keep raising US accusations. What about the 240mm rockets that the Mahdi army are allegedly firing, and which are manufactured only in Iran?

"Ask to see them," Qomi insists. "If they had any proof whatsoever, believe me, they would show it on television."

Gunmen fired 25 bullets at an Iranian diplomatic convoy in Kadhimiya, eastern Baghdad, on May 15th. "Four of our diplomats and our employees were wounded," Qomi says. "Two so seriously they had to be transferred to Iran. It's not the first time, and we know it's not the last."

He strongly implies that the US was behind it. "The people who make propaganda against us are responsible for this attack. Last year, they captured our diplomat in Baghdad and tortured him. All this is done by those who want to harm the good relations between Iran and Iraq."

As for the "special groups" under Iranian supervision, "the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not to create groups, Iran supports the elected government of Iraq", Qomi repeats over and over again. "They say Iran helps the Jaish al-Mahdi with weapons and training and finance. We don't need to respond to these accusations. In his latest statement, President Talabani said, 'Iran supports us'."

Qomi never makes an outright denial of support for the Mahdi army. Iranians are past masters at taqiya, a religious doctrine of deniability. But he says Tehran tells all armed groups that "weapons must be in the hands of the government". He accuses the US of "misusing" the showdown between Maliki and the Mahdi army "to kill people with aerial bombardment".

Is it true that Muqtada al-Sadr, the militia's leader, now lives in Qom, Iran? Qomi laughs and calls it a hostile question. "Muqtada Sadr is a member of the Iraqi clergy," he notes. Shia religious leaders from both countries go back and forth between Qom and Najaf.

During Saddam Hussein's rule, the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Dawa - the two main parties in the Iraqi government - lived in Tehran.

Even President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was briefly exiled there.

The US cannot untie the resulting bonds. President George W Bush has sneaked into Iraq several times since the invasion, but it was Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, on March 1st, made the first state visit to post-Saddam Iraq. Ahmadinejad was feted by the government, with the exception of Sunni officials, and made an ironic comment that it was "ridiculous for those who have sent 160,000 soldiers to Iraq to falsely accuse us of intervening in this country".

In Washington last month, Senator Barbara Boxer challenged Ambassador Crocker: "Why is it, after all we have given - 4,024 American lives gone, more than half a trillion dollars spent - all this for the Iraqi people, but it's the Iranian president who is greeted with kisses and flowers?"

Iran's ties with Iraq are founded "on culture, history and religion", says Qomi. "This relationship is so intricate that no one can break it." But, he insists, "the Islamic Republic of Iran does not want to conquer any other country. We want to play a constructive role here. We want peace, security, stability and good government for Iraq."

Ambassador Crocker would certainly agree. But then Qomi adds, slipping from Farsi into English to be sure I understand him: "And the withdrawal of occupation forces."

The only solution to the violence in Iraq is to end the occupation, Qomi insists. "The government of Iraq must be responsible for security matters; the sovereignty of Iraq must be complete," he says. "The US has had five years to help the government of Iraq build a good army, and they haven't done it. If there are terrorist groups, it's because a foreign army is occupying the country."

Qomi's father owned a bookshop in the Tehran bazaar. He was a 19-year-old economics student when the revolution started. "I was a basij in the Revolutionary Guards," he says. "But I have been a diplomat in the foreign ministry for eight years. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, being a Revolutionary Guard is a source of pride. This accusation that the ambassador is a general in the Quds Force is untrue. They say this with hostile intent."

The US reportedly attempted to expel Qomi from Iraq in 2004. "They didn't say it directly to me," he says. "But it is good you should know we don't take orders from anyone." He repeats three times: "We don't take orders from anyone."

Qomi does not share Crocker's predictions of disaster after the US pulls out. "When the Americans go, people will celebrate," he says. "The government will assume its responsibilities and security will be ensured. This is what people in Iraq want. The threat of civil war is propaganda for the American occupation."

Iran's nuclear power programme is for development, Qomi says. He claims his country is within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and no, he's not worried about US threats to attack "our brave, civilised nation". But many believe President Bush is determined to move on Iran before he leaves office next January. "Mr Bush is finished," Qomi says, slowing enunciating each syllable in English.

The Democratic contender, Barack Obama, advocates an immediate withdrawal of US troops, and a "diplomatic surge" to include dialogue with Iran. So is the Islamic Republic rooting for Obama? Qomi is too shrewd a diplomat to curse Obama with Iranian support.

"We don't meddle in the internal affairs of other nations," he says with a sarcastic smile.

"It is the right of the American nation to elect who they want. But we hope they won't make a mistake, like the last time."