Iran’s vast web of influence in Iraq revealed by leaked intelligence

THE IRAQI HAD A LOT TO PROVE TO HIS IRANIAN spies. The Iraqi had been surreptitiously spying for Iran for years, giving crucial intelligence on American operations in Iraq. When the US removed most of its soldiers from Iraq and curtailed its presence in the country in 2011, he had little new intelligence to share with his Iranian handlers. With the Americans mostly gone, the Iranians let the Iraqi free.

He had a career in Iraq’s security agency by 2015, but he needed money, so he returned to Iran to apply for his previous job as a double agent.

He was working with a fresh intelligence officer because it had been so long since he had last spied for the Iranians that he was dealing with a new intelligence officer who only learned what he’d done by looking through old files Now, the Iraqi is only a spy “candidate,” similar to a job application.

His new handler needed to be persuaded that he was worth the effort. So, during a covert encounter, an Iranian intelligence official instructed an Iraqi to tell him all he knew about Iran that would be of interest to them.

There was one thing the Iraqi mentioned that drew the attention of the Iranian commander. According to the Iraqi, he had a friend who was interested in espionage for Iran as well. And the friend was stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where he worked for the US military. As a result, he could spy on Americans for Iran.

The Intercept received an archive of Iranian intelligence cables in an unprecedented leak, and this espionage narrative develops from it. Hundreds of top-secret Iranian intelligence papers illustrate the extent to which Iran exerted influence over Iraq and how its agents have infiltrated the country. In 2019, The Intercept released the first pieces based on the hacked papers, including a collaborative report with the New York Times.

The leaked files are from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and they mostly concern Iran’s intelligence operations in Iraq. Field reports and cables from the intelligence service’s operations in Iraq transmitted to MOIS headquarters in Tehran, dated from 2013 to 2015, stand out in the collection. This was the first time a huge trove of papers from Iran’s extremely secretive government has been accessed by a Western news agency.

The released data demonstrate how Iraq acts as a battlefield for American and Iranian spies, in addition to showing Iran’s influence in Iraq. Iran’s considerable political clout in Iraq implies that Iran’s two main intelligence agencies — the MOIS and the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — have for years been allowed to operate freely throughout Iraq, building up a massive network of covert sources.

Because of Iran’s extensive penetration in the nation, Iraq became a hotbed for Iranian intelligence personnel looking to recruit spies to spy on the US, especially while the US military presence in Iraq was at its peak. The Americans and the Iranians have returned to the shadows for their covert intelligence warfare now that the US presence has been diminished. However, Iraq remains a vital battleground in their espionage warfare, and Iran continues to reap the benefits of its long-standing clout in the country.

For years, they’ve been allowed to operate freely throughout Iraq, building up a massive network of covert sources.

Because of Iran’s extensive penetration in the nation, Iraq became a hotbed for Iranian intelligence personnel looking to recruit spies to spy on the US, especially while the US military presence in Iraq was at its peak. The Americans and the Iranians have returned to the shadows for their covert intelligence warfare now that the US presence has been diminished. However, Iraq remains a key frontline in their espionage war, and Iran continues to reap the benefits of its long-standing presence in the country.

THE IRAQI was given an assignment by an Iranian intelligence official after he said that he had a colleague who worked at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. 

The Iraqi was urged to meet his friend on his next trip to Turkey by the Iranian officer. By enlisting the help of his buddy, he might demonstrate his worth to the Iranians.

The Iraqi informed his Iranian handler about his meeting with a pal in Turkey during their next meeting.

According to one of the cables the Iraqi informed the Iranian commander, ““In last month’s visit as promised, I visited him and talked with him about his cooperation with Iran.” “It’s highly likely that he’ll co-operate with Iran.”

Since the American troops tightly supervise the elements operating inside Incirlik Air Base, leaving the base and roaming about would be impossible for his friend to connect with the Iranians on a regular basis.

That, though, would not be an issue for long. His companion had just returned from a two-month training course in the United States and would be working at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq when he returned. “It will be simple to reach him at that moment,” the Iraqi assured the MOIS officer.

The Iraqi’s handler, an Iranian officer with the internal code number #3141153, was impressed by the Iraqi’s efforts, according to the report.

In his report, the officer wrote of the Iraqi, “Initial stages of the file on his cooperation completed, and he is ready to receive the cooperation code” “Based on the honourable General’s Director 364 instruction,” 

The released MOIS communications do not reveal whether the Iraqi’s acquaintance ever spied for Iran from US military sites in Iraq or Turkey.

A Pentagon spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

THE CASE OF THE Iraqi and his comrade at Incirlik was far from the first occasion that Iranian intelligence operatives attempted to spy on the US from Iraq, according to the released papers.

The Intercept and the New York Times collaborated on a piece in 2019 about a stolen Iranian cable that revealed the MOIS had recruited — or was seeking to recruit — a spy inside the US State Department. The person was not named, but was characterised as having worked for the State Department on Iraq-related matters. Only a fragment of an undated internal Iranian report on the matter was obtained by The Intercept website.

According to the MOIS cable, “Considering his responsibilities in the U.S. State Department and record and knowledge, he has good access” to sensitive material.

According to the MOIS cable, “Considering his responsibilities in the U.S. State Department and record and knowledge, he has good access” to sensitive material.

In 2020, the FBI made an arrest in Iraq in connection with another Iran-related spy investigation. Mariam Thompson, a Minnesotan who worked as a translator for the US military in Iraq, was accused of giving information to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed organisation, that identified US undercover agents. A court filing in her case earlier this month revealed that she intends to plead guilty.

Because analogue tactics rely more on labour than cutting-edge technology, Iranian intelligence may be able to circumvent American surveillance.

“I left the base by foot an hour before holding the meeting, and after twenty minutes walking on foot and carrying out the necessary checks, took two taxis through the neighboring streets to the site of the meeting and then once more, while checking on foot for ten minutes, returned to the site and, after the meeting I again took two taxis and returned to the base,” a MOIS officer wrote in one report about a meeting with an Iraqi informant.

“After leaving place of residence and taking a walk, got into the car and drove to the bazaar,” a MOIS officer wrote in a report about another meeting with a source in Erbil, Kurdistan.

“While driving a distance, went back to the desired site Majidi Mall. I got into source’s car near Fawq Market and went for a distance from the place. Meeting held in one of the city’s suburbs, inside the car. We then got out of the car. … Source’s behavior and state were normal. … Aforementioned wanted an increase of his wages, giving as the reason financial difficulties and his parent’s illness.”

THE IRANIANS ARE ALSO CREATIVE IN THE WAY THEY USE RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS AND EVENTS IN IRAN FOR INTELLIGENCE. Many of its Iraqi spies are Shia Muslims, as are many Iranians, and personal trips to Shia religious places in Iraq provide the MOIS with excellent cover for their espionage contacts.

Many of its Iraqi spies are Shia Muslims, as are many Iranians, and personal trips to Shia religious places in Iraq provide the MOIS with excellent cover for their espionage contacts.

“A meeting was held with [a source code-named 118511001] , in the Shrine of Aba Abdullah al-Husayn (Peace Be Upon Him). At the beginning of the meeting, he described the situation in the fields of Najaf and Karbala during the past few days, with attention to the pre-determined fronts. Then, after going to Imam Husayn’s shrine, he visited and inspected some centers and gathering places of the Shirazi sect. … Later, after he left the pure shrine, we went together to the area around it and visited the scholarly seminaries. … He then invited me to have lunch and the conversation continued for hours.”

Another MOIS official set up a meeting with an exiled Bahraini dissident visiting Karbala from London at a political picture show.

The officer added that after the meeting, the dissident was called and informed that a memorial to Bahrain’s martyrs had been built up. He said that on that Saturday night, he and several MOIS officials had paid a combined visit to a picture exhibition of atrocities perpetrated by the Bahraini regime.

It was determined to meet with the dissident the next day at a brief meeting. This gathering began with the noon call to prayer on Sunday, lasted after lunch and afternoon prayers, and ended an hour later.

To avoid betrayal of their espionage activities in Iraq, the Iranians were more ready to trust informants who were Iraqi Shias with links to Iran through family. According to a MOIS report about an Iraqi intelligence officer who intended to spy for Iran, his father sought asylum in Iran in the 1970s and the possible agent “went to elementary school in Iran for three years.”

The Iraqi spies the Iranians appreciated the most were those who helped them acquire access to American personnel and facilities, such as the Iraqi with a colleague at Incirlik.

“Source went to the aforementioned base in Baghdad airport on the excuse of giving gifts to some of the [Iraqi] commanders,” including one commander who “is a corrupt bribe-taker and a CIA agent in the Iraqi Army,” one MOIS officer wrote in a report about his informant. “While giving gifts to several of the Americans present in that base, he took souvenir photographs. (These pictures will be sent by messenger.)”

While the Iranians working in Iraq depended mainly on shoe leather and personal and cultural contacts, the released cables reveal that they also used technological equipment on occasion to carry out their espionage operations. However, the Iranians, like other spies across the world, found their technology to be irritating at times. In one communication, a MOIS officer expressed his displeasure with their failure to undertake electronic monitoring on one of their Iraqi informants to ensure that he was providing them with reliable information. The informant had spotted their monitoring device, according to the MOIS officer, and the suspicious Iraqi had demanded that their meeting be rescheduled.

According to the cable the bugging device placed in source’s workplace, as well as the telephone bugging device, were exposed to him by other agents, and the meeting was held  outdoors, outside his work.

(this is from an original sourced report from the Intercept.org website)

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