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on geopolitics

Feb 18, 2004 | 19:35 GMT

11 mins read

Ahmad Chalabi and His Iranian Connection

The United States is in the process of reviewing the intelligence that led it to conclude that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and which formed the public justification for war. A great deal of the discussion has concerned the sources of this intelligence. Some have pointed out that the main channel for intelligence on the subject involved sources developed through the Iraqi National Congress, a group opposed to Saddam Hussein, whose leader was Ahmad Chalabi — also a key official in the U.S.-organized Iraqi Governing Council. Chalabi, like any anti-Hussein leader, clearly would have had a vested interest in providing the United States with information that would lead it to invade Iraq and open the door for a new regime — particularly a regime in which Shia would play a leading role. It ought not to have been a surprise that intelligence coming from the INC and Chalabi would tend to entice the United States to war. U.S. intelligence might have been more cautious with the INC, but if that is all there is to this story, then it is fairly straightforward. However, there would appear to us to be something more here. In particular, there is a complexity that is usually omitted: namely, the relationship between Chalabi and leading figures in Iran. Prior to the war, Chalabi, an Iraqi Shiite who lived in the West for decades, made several trips to Tehran to confer with Iranian officials on a number of issues. He has continued to travel to Iran since the end of the war. Not to put too fine a point on it, Chalabi has had and continues to have excellent relations with Iran, as well as with leading Shia in Iraq. As our readers will recall, we have argued since early fall that the guerrilla war in Iraq could be managed only if the Iraqi Shia were prepared to collaborate with the United States. We made two additional points: first, that the strings of the Iraqi Shia trail back to Iran, and any deal with the Shia would have to include a deal with Iran; and second, that any deal ultimately would hinge on a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq and the inclusion of Iraq in an Iranian sphere of influence. It has always been our view that the unanticipated rise of the guerrilla movement in Iraq forced this alliance upon the United States. If we step back now, a different potential explanation emerges. First, Chalabi was extremely close to the Iranians prior to the war. Second, he provided much of Washington's prewar intelligence on Iraq. Third, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. Fourth, the Iranians, along with the Iraqi Shia, are the main beneficiaries of the U.S. invasion. In that case, who Chalabi was and whose interests he actually was serving become the central questions. Chalabi had a long, public and logical relationship with the Iranians. The Iranians were enemies of Saddam Hussein; so was Chalabi. It made perfect sense that they would collaborate. Let's begin with the failure of Petra Bank, which Chalabi opened in Amman, Jordan, in 1978 and which collapsed in 1989, when the Jordanian government seized it for bank fraud. That story is well known. Somewhat less known is an alternative explanation for the Petra Bank collapse. Sources in Jordan and Israel long have argued that the bank collapsed because Chalabi was collaborating with the Iranians in financing the Iranian war effort and trying to undermine Iraq's war financing. When the Iran-Iraq war ended in defeat for Tehran, Iraq placed enormous pressure on Jordan to shut down the bank, which was managing the flow of money through Chalabi-controlled banks in Lebanon. It is interesting to note that Chalabi escaped from Jordan in a car driven by Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan — hardly the kind of treatment your average wanted criminal would receive — and that King Hussein met with Chalabi several times for years after the bank collapsed and the Iraqi Shiite leader was convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to prison, although he served no time. The claim that Chalabi was working for the Iranians in the Petra Bank scandal is plausible, but hardly provable. What is certain is that Chalabi spent a great deal of time in Iran before and after Sept. 11, and before and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. For example, in March 2001, Chalabi traveled to Tehran to meet with senior leaders. He set up an office for the INC in the capital that was to be paid for with U.S. aid — and that required a special waiver from Washington because of U.S. sanctions. At a press briefing on March 19, 2001, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was specifically asked whether Chalabi's trip to Iran bothered the United States. Boucher did not answer the question, but it is clear that Washington knew about Chalabi's contacts with Iran and was not bothered by them. Chalabi's relationship with Iran proved useful to the United States in the run-up to the war. For example, Chalabi arranged for a U.S.-financed transmitter to be installed on Iranian territory, broadcasting into Iraq. In August 2002, Chalabi met with senior Iranian officials in Tehran, then flew to Washington for separate consultations. According to the INC, Chalabi spoke to U.S. officials in Washington from Tehran while he was meeting not only with Iranian officials, but also with Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the country's main Shiite opposition group. Again in December 2002, as the war heated up, Chalabi flew to Tehran and, according to IRNA (quoting Radio Free Iraq, which was based in Prague and run by the United States) said, "The secretary of Iraq's National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi, is mediating between Iran and America." During that meeting, Chalabi was quoted as saying, "Our alliance with Iran is not temporary." Again in January 2003, before a planned meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in London, Chalabi visited Tehran to meet with al-Hakim. As the invasion of Iraq moved to its conclusion, U.S. aircraft flew Chalabi from northern Iraq to the city of An Nasiriyah on April 6. It was a symbolic gesture, intended to demonstrate that the INC was part of the fighting coalition. The problem was that Chalabi had trouble rounding up enough troops. The troops he used were drawn from the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia. Most recently, after attacks in Al Fallujah on Feb. 14, claims circulated that the attack was carried out by speakers of Farsi, and that they were members of the still-functional Badr Brigade. This might not be true, but the fact is that the Badr Brigade continues to operate, constituting an important and shadowy Shiite militia, and Chalabi was close enough to them in April 2003 that they fleshed out his fighting force. The relationship with Iran continued after the end of the conventional war. On the evening of Dec. 1, 2003, Chalabi met with the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rohani. At that meeting, Rohani laid out the argument for Iraqi national elections that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had begun pressing the previous summer. Chalabi responded, "The role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in supporting and guiding the opposition in their struggles against Saddam's regime in the past, and its assistance toward the establishment of security and stability in Iraq at present, are regarded highly by the people of Iraq." In a later interview with the Iranian Student News Agency, Chalabi said, "Our cooperation with Iran is very good. One can argue that Iran has cooperated with us more than any other neighbor." Many people in the Bush administration championed Chalabi — people well beyond the neoconservatives in the Defense Department normally cited as his bedrock of support. One of his strongest backers had been Vice President Dick Cheney. U.S. intelligence became increasingly aware of the relationship between Chalabi and the Iranians — and discovered that he had equally good relations with hard-liners and moderates. U.S. intelligence also was tracking his relationship to the Badr Brigade. According to Newsweek and other press reports, Cheney became extremely uneasy about Chalabi's relationships, particularly after the CIA briefed him on Chalabi's relations in Iran. There was a sense that those relationships might be more substantial than mere opportunism and mediation. During the meetings in December with Rohani, Chalabi said Iraq was ready to import Iranian oil, pipelines, construction material, food and pharmaceuticals. Rumors in both countries indicate that this trade is already under way outside normal channels, which, of course, have not yet been established. Which companies will be used to manage these transactions is not clear to us. That Chalabi had close relations with Iran is not in itself startling. He is a Shiite who was deeply opposed to Saddam Hussein; he took friends where he could get them. It is somewhat more surprising that his extensive dealings with Iran were not regarded as a hindrance to a U.S. relationship with him prior to the war. He was in rather deep with the Iranians. After the war ended and the guerrilla campaign began, Chalabi was clearly useful in negotiating Iraqi Shiite cooperation with Tehran. The postwar relationship was visible and reasonable. Here is where the problem begins. Most reports say U.S. intelligence on Iraqi WMD came through the INC, which means that it came from Chalabi. Chalabi simply might have been trying to get the Americans to invade Iraq, feeding them whatever it took to get them there. The problem with that theory, from our point of view, is that the administration intended to invade Iraq, regardless. Choosing WMD was a persuasive, public justification — and a good one, given the proof Washington had at hand. Or more precisely, it was a good justification based on the proof that Chalabi provided. U.S. intelligence about Iraq was terrible. It was wrong about WMD; it underestimated the extent to which the Shia in the south had been organized by Iranian intelligence prior to the war; it was wrong about how the war would end — predicting unrest, but not predicting a systematic guerrilla war. An enormous amount of this intelligence — and certainly critical parts of it — came to the United States by way of the INC or by channels the INC or its members were involved in cultivating. All of it was wrong. It was not only wrong, it created an irresistible process. The WMD issue has delegitimized the war in the eyes of a substantial number of Americans. The failure to understand the dynamic of the Shiite community led to miscalculations about the nature of postwar Iraqi politics. The miscalculation about the guerrilla war created a U.S. dependence upon the Shia that is still unfolding. It is al-Sistani, in consultation with U.N. negotiators, who is setting the terms of the transfer of power. The U.S. position in Iraq is securely on Shiite terms, and that means it is on Iranian terms. This is not an argument against the invasion from a strategic point of view, nor an argument that it was a failure. In the real world, things are rarely so clear-cut. But it does raise a vital question: Who exactly is Ahmad Chalabi? He has been caricatured as an American stooge and used as a tool by the Defense Department. As we consider the intelligence failures in Iraq, Chalabi's role in those failures and his relationship with senior Iranian officials of all factions, a question needs to be raised: Who was whose stooge? The review of U.S. intelligence on Iraq will have to study many things. Many of those things will have nothing to do with Chalabi. But some of the most important things will pivot around intelligence directly or indirectly provided by Chalabi and his network of sources inside and outside Iraq. Given the events that have transpired, it is not unreasonable to expect the intelligence review to undertake an intense analysis of Chalabi's role, beginning with this question: What exactly was Chalabi's relationship with Iran from the 1980s onward?

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