Iran: Upside to a ‘Bad Actor’

Against a backdrop of congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the two top U.S. officials in Baghdad, the Bush administration has stepped up its claims of Iranian interference in Iraq, suggesting that with Qaeda forces in Iraq now cornered, Iran has become the predominant troublemaker for U.S. troops. "If Iran makes the wrong choice," President George W. Bush said in an April 10 speech, "America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners."

In fact, though, Iran's activity in Iraq—and in Afghanistan—is quite nuanced, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the relevant intelligence assessments. These officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that while Iran certainly has been a "bad actor" in Iraq, not all of Tehran's actions are negative. For instance, according to the officials, Iran used its ties with the rival Shia factions jockeying for power in Iraq to help broker the recent Basra ceasefire between the (Iranian-backed) Iraqi government's forces and (Iranian-supplied) "special groups" of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. One said the Iranians are playing a kind of poker, "placing their bets on all Shia positions at the table." Former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, now with Washington's Saban Center, said Iran was "incredibly helpful to us" in resolving the Basra flare-up. In parts of Afghanistan, one of the U.S. officials said, Tehran has occasionally played a benign—even constructive—role, competing with NATO forces to provide local warlords with money for economic and humanitarian projects while seeking little in return.

The degree of Iran's negative meddling in Iraq remains unclear. Last month, NEWSWEEK has learned, the U.S. military in Baghdad canceled a media briefing to provide evidence of Iranian interference. Prepared under Pentagon and White House supervision, the presentation by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner was going to allege that Iran has smuggled improvised roadside bombs into Iraq; that Shia insurgents who plant the devices have been trained by the Quds Force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and that most of the munitions recently unleashed on Baghdad's Green Zone are believed to have come from Iran. Washington called off the presentation because of fighting in southern Iraq; it has been rescheduled for this week.