Mohammad Jafari isn't built like your typical diplomat. Stocky and square-jawed, with a thatch of close-cropped black hair, Jafari looks far more like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards general he once was, and he still carries the honorific title "commander." But that's precisely the issue: which role is Jafari playing now? It was Jafari whom U.S. Special Forces were after last January when they raided an Iranian outpost in Irbil, Iraq, according to a high-level Iraqi official who asked for anonymity in order to speak more freely. The raid netted five junior Iranian functionaries whom the Americans contended were members of the Quds Force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards that is allegedly aiding in attacks on U.S. troops. Jafari escaped in a car.
A few months after his dusty two-hour dash to the border, Jafari had a very different encounter with the Americans. In Sharm al-Sheikh, the posh Egyptian Red Sea resort that hosted a major regional conference on Iraq in May, he sat across the table from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as part of the Iranian delegation. The Sharm gathering led to historic talks in Baghdad between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi—which Jafari says, quite diplomatically, "we're very serious about." "These talks should have taken place a year ago," Jafari told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview from his headquarters in Tehran. "America still has time in Iraq even though it's lost four years of opportunities. We are truly ready to offer to help establish security."
Jafari is a vivid example of the double game Iran seems to be playing in Iraq. On the one hand, U.S. military officials accuse Tehran of being complicit in deadly attacks on American troops in Iraq. On the other hand, Jafari and other senior Iranian officials insist, with some reason, that they have been the strongest supporters of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite, who also happens to be Washington's biggest hope for stabilizing the country. "So far have you heard of one Iranian who carried out a suicide mission in Iraq?" says Jafari, ignoring charges that Iran has trained and supplied Shiite death squads.
As George W. Bush faces mounting pressure to withdraw from Iraq, it will be more crucial than ever to clarify what Iraq's powerful neighbor wants out of Baghdad. Jafari, who became deputy national-security adviser last year and is a hard-liner associated with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says Iran will cooperate if there is a U.S. pullout in 2008. He and other senior Iranian officials are sending strong signals they would like to be part of a regional compact to oversee security—one of the recommendations of Iraq Study Group last fall. But at the same time Jafari openly declares that Iran intends to have a big say in shaping the new Shiite-dominated government. "Needless to say, Iran can never allow the enemies of Iran to return and take power again," Jafari says. In the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, "300,000 of our people were martyred by Saddam." It is, in part, the perception of Tehran's strong influence in Iraq that has kept Iraqi Sunnis from reconciling with Maliki.
The Irbil raid, which took place in the middle of the night back in January, illustrates how murky that influence is. U.S. officials claim that the five Iranians arrested are Quds Force members without diplomatic status. But Jafari, recounting his version of the incident for the first time, claims that U.S. troops didn't understand the nature of the Iranian outpost they had targeted. "The Iraqi president [Jalal Talabani] invited us to go there to hold talks with them, so it's very surprising the American forces did this," Jafari said. "The people they arrested had been in Irbil for 15 years. The Iranian building was a very official building."
His account is backed by Iraqi officials who contend the Americans are now too embarrassed to admit their error. The Iranians were not ordinary diplomats, but they were part of a defense-and-security alliance with Tehran that the Kurds themselves—America's closest friends in Iraq—have welcomed since Saddam's time. The high-level Iraqi official said the raid was an ill-conceived attempt to act on President Bush's orders late last year to "interdict Iranian agents in Iraq." He says: "We don't want to embarrass the Americans. But it was a botched attempt. And they went after these innocent guys. As simple as that. And now they're stuck. And we've kept quiet." (U.S. officials in Baghdad deny this, saying one of those detained had explosive residue on his hands.)
As for his own escape, Jafari shrugs it off with a military man's sang-froid. Although his trip had been advertised on local TV, U.S. troops didn't seem to know that he had come by road, not by air, and that he was staying at the nearby guest house of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. "They had gone to Irbil airport [to pursue me] but I came by car," he says. "We heard about [the raid] while we were still at the guest house. We left at daylight. I returned to Iran the way I normally do. We even stopped for breakfast."
Even Iraqi officials who side with Jafari's account admit, anonymously, that Iran is likely equipping and training anti-American Shiite militias while professing its innocence. Only weeks after the first round of U.S.-Iran talks, which Crocker praised as productive, U.S. Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner accused Iran of involvement in a January attack that led to the deaths of five U.S. soldiers in Karbala. Citing documents, Bergner charged that the Quds Force jointly operated camps near Tehran with Hizbullah, where they trained Iraqi militants. Bergner also said that U.S.-led forces had captured a senior Hizbullah militant, Ali Musa Daqduq, who had confessed to taking part in the program. (Jafari, asked about this latest accusation, says Tehran has no connection to Daqduq and runs no such camps. "If these documents are correct, why didn't the Americans show them to us through official channels?" he says.) Some U.S. intel analysts believe the Karbala attack may have been retaliation for the Irbil raid, which had taken place the week before.
Jafari and other senior officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK, including Ali Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council, flatly deny that Iran is involved in supplying Shiite insurgents with deadly explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs. Still, Jafari does not reject outright the suggestion that Iran might have designed such weapons. Asked to comment on the U.S. allegation that some EFPs found in Iraq were built to a design used by Iran-supplied Hizbullah in Lebanon, Jafari says: "We don't know whether that's the truth. We don't know that what's been used in Iraq is the same thing Hizbullah used."
The detention of the Irbil five has yet to be resolved, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told NEWSWEEK in an interview last week. Even so, Zebari said another round of U.S.-Iran talks will likely happen. And despite Tehran's anger over the Irbil raid, Jafari says he's focused on being a diplomat these days. But Jafari is, after all, also known as a "commander," and Iran's double game in Iraq could turn nastier at any time. "If we wanted to basically go against the Americans, we know how to do it," Jafari says. If America departs Iraq, the trick will be to get Iran to help rather than hinder that process.