Members of Iran’s intelligence agency worked to co-opt Sunni fighters in the battle against ISIS, and rued lack of cooperation with the US, according to reports.
A trove of classified documents 700 pages long reveals the inner workings of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and its dealings in neighbouring Iraq, where its agents worked to expand Tehran’s influence.
The leaks published by the Intercept and the New York Times shine a light on how the Iranians managed to take advantage of the chaos sparked by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq to become the dominant power there.
Tensions between the seemingly more pragmatic MOIS approach and the harder line taken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are also laid bare in the documents.
Iran and Iraq fought a bitter war between 1980 and 1988 that led to a million deaths. When the US invaded, it was to topple the regime of the man responsible for starting that conflict - Saddam Hussein.
Despite their own bitter rivalry with Washington, Iran moved to establish itself as the dominant power in Iraq, where their co-religionist Shia Muslims made up around 60 percent of the population.
Iran already had substantial ties with the dissidents within the community, who had fled Saddam Hussein’s persecution and sought refuge in Iran.
But more important than demographics was the destruction of the governing apparatus by the US occupying authority.
Under the guise of de-Baathification, institutions such as the Iraqi Army ceased to exist overnight - leaving little effective force to bring order to a country shattered by war and sanctions.
In this vacuum, Iran stepped in by cultivating ties with Shia politicians, training their militias to protect Shias from the threat of terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, and through direct financial aid.
Politicians over whom the Iranians held sway included current Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.
Fight against Daesh
The leaks also reveal a high level of pragmatism on the part of MOIS to advance Iran’s footprint in Iraq and also in the fight against the Daesh terror group.
Officers belonging to the organisation struck up ties with Sunni Arab groups who were disgruntled with Daesh rule during their short reign over Iraqi territory, as they did with groups associated with Iraq’s Kurdish regional government.
Such ties were, however, in many cases short-lived, as the dominance of the IRGC in Iraq meant more sectarian-natured Shia militias got the lion’s share of Iranian support.
Members of MOIS are reported to have voiced their complaints about the IRGC’s detrimental impact on their own efforts.
In one excerpt, intelligence officers warn that the behaviour of the IRGC and their proxy militias risked harming perceptions of Iran within Iraq, and could contribute to all-out sectarian war.
“We must think about limiting violence against innocent Sunnis in Iraq and limiting Mr. Soleimani’s measures, or else violence and strife between Shiites and Sunnis will continue,” the report read.
“Currently, any actions taken against Sunnis will be blamed on Iran, whether Iran had a direct or indirect role in it, or none at all.”
Despite these internal disputes, the Iranians were able to outmaneuver the Americans to become the most influential player in Iraq.
The leaks suggest they did this through a mixture of existing contacts, sectarian affiliation, and better organisation.