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Islamic Iran settles its old scores in the new Iraq - By Dilan Soleimani

It was reported in the media that, Islamic Iran’s Expediency Council Chairman, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will start a tour of Iraq next week at the invitation of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Expediency Council chairman will visit Baghdad at the invitation of Jalal Talabani,” Iraqi ambassador to Tehran Mohammad Majid Al-Shaikh told the Mehr News Agency.  This trip will be the first visit of its kind to Iraq by Rafsanjani following the end of his term in 1997.

The new Iraq, liberated from Saddam’s rule in 2003, is one of the most famous fronts for the leaders of the Islamic Iran to advance the Iranian regime’s interest for many reasons.  The liberation of Iraq from the former arch-enemy Saddam Hussein was in fact a God-given gift to the leaders of Islamic Republic who had always felt threatened by the existence of powerful Sunni-led government in their next door.  There was lots of excitement among the clerics who viewed the removal of Saddam as a victory for their cause.

However, it was the post-invasion political was much more appealing to the Mullahs in Iran.  The Iranian-backed Shi’a groups who had opposed Saddam’s rule had been sheltered and equipped in Iran to prepare themselves - with the directions and assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – for the new changes brought about by the Americans.  Soon, the same people who had been Iran’s proxies for decades were the ones that rose to power in the newly liberated Iraq.

The clerical regime’s first official visit to Iraq visit was made by the former IRGC commander and current controversial President of the Islamic Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the invitation of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the March of 2008.  The Economist reported that Ahmadinejad’s trip to Iraq, the first after the revolution of 1979 “is almost certainly designed to show more than good neighbourliness.”   The regime’s officials want these trips to be a least a reminder to the neighbours that that Iran is a regional power to be reckoned with.

The shuttle diplomacy between Islamic Iran and the federal Iraq is the least expected from these two neighbouring countries with a bloody conflict; however, the political realities on the ground suggest that the clerical regime in Iran is pursuing a hidden agenda in establishing these ties that first and foremost is directly linked to rivalries between the Islamic Iran and the United States of America.  Iran under the Mullahs, according to many accounts is blamed for much of the shortcomings in the military and political stability of Iraq that the Iraqi leaders have chosen to overlook.  Even though many viewed the Iraqi invasion as a US initiative for a larger scale war with Iran, the Iranian Mullahs have succeeded in keeping the ball in US half, and Islamic Iran uses Iraq as a proxy war with US.  Iran’s other strategic goal in the new Iraq is to deal a heavy diplomatic blow to the opposition groups who had enjoyed logistical support in Iraq under Saddam Hussien against the Iranian regime.

Islamic Iran’s Terror Links

Ahmadinejad’s March 2008 trip to Iraq, though controversial in many respects, was still regarded as a customary and legitimate tour for a statesman, be it Ahmadinejad.  Unlike the loud drones in Washington and world capitals over Ahmadinejad’s trip to New York, the trip to Bagdad came as of a less surprise to many.  Even though there are credible allegations that he was among the jihadists who seized around seventy Americans in the American embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and held them for 444 days, the US could do little to stop an arch-enemy head of state to place a foot in its soil. Still, it is worth making those loud sounds to unveil the bloody past of those like Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani alike who gain legitimacy at international stage by clinging to power in Iran through terror and tyranny.

Aside from the allegations for his involvement in the 1979 hostage crisis, Ahmadinejad as a former IRGC commander, he was in charge of special operation abroad whose task was to eliminate hostile dissidents abroad.   On July 13, 1989, gunmen assassinated Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI), along with a PDKI representative in Europe and an Iraqi Kurdish mediator as the three met with an Iranian terrorist-diplomat delegation in a Vienna apartment.  Austrian authorities have classified documents suggesting that Islamist Iran's president may have played a key role in the slayings of the Iranian Kurdish leader and his two associates.  In Austria, Green Party leader Peter Pilz told the newspaper he wants a warrant issued for the arrest of Ahmadinejad, who he alleged "stands under strong suspicion of having been involved." Pilz accused the hard-liner of planning the murders of Kurdish resistance leader Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou and two of his colleagues.

Despite the fact that there is a case that still needs to be investigated in regards to Ahmadinejad’s direct involvement in the assassination of 1989 and there is not much that can be done while he is the president of the regime, this covert act of terror happened during Rafsanjani’s Presidency in 1989 who is not the President of the Mullahs any more, rather acts as one of the most influential power-brokers within the religious establishment.  What is more promising in regards to Rafsanjani’s fate internationally are two cases where he was found directly responsible for the terrorist acts in 1992 and 1994 during his Presidency, and there is even a warrant for his arrest in one case that should lay the grounds for Rafsanjani’s arrest.

A few months prior to the end of his term, a German court convicted two men of murder in the 1992 Mykonos restaurant assassinations of Sadigh Sharafkandi, an Iranian-Kurdish leader, as well as three of his associates, and convicted two others of being accessories to the crimes. Presiding Judge Frithjof Kubsch said the men had no personal motive but were following orders. Without naming names, Kubsch said the gangland-style murders had been ordered by Iran's Committee for Special Operations, to which Iran's President and spiritual leader belonged. Prosecutors had contended that Iran's powerful spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani had personally ordered the killings.

Also, On 25 October 2006, a team of Argentine prosecutors formally charged Iran and Shi'a militia Hezbollah with the 1994 AMIA Bombing in Buenos Aires, accusing the Iranian authorities of directing Hezbollah to carry out that attack and calling for the arrest of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and seven others.

In connection to this case, in August 2003 a British court ordered Iran's former ambassador to Argentina to remain in custody while he faces possible extradition for the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish centre that killed 85 and wounded some 200. Soleimanpour, then Iranian envoy to Argentina, was arrested in Britain on an international warrant issued by Argentina, and he was one of eight Iranians ordered, including then the President Hashemi Rafsanjani, arrested by an Argentinean judge.

Prosecutors say Hashemi-Rafsanjani and other senior officials commissioned the attack. They say that while it was carried out by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, the decision to target the Jewish center came from the "highest authorities" within the Iranian government.  Judge Canicoba Corral has also requested the arrest of a former minister of information, Ali Fallahian, and of foreign affairs, Ali-Akbar Velayati, as well as onetime commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Mohsen Rezai and other ex-officials.

In a report complied by the Prague based RFE/RL in 2006, following Argentina’s warrant for eight Iranian officials, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, Dr. Abdulkarim Lahiji deputy head of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights noted that the warrants will limit travel options open to Iranian officials.   "Since the issuing of the court order in the case known as 'Mykonos,' senior Iranian officials have not traveled to European countries, and, as far as I can remember, Rafsanjani has had several trips to Saudi Arabia and maybe to Syria," Lahidji said. "So merely the fact that the traveling [options] for the officials of a country are limited is like sanctions -- like the measures against senior Iranian officials that could be put in place regarding Iran's nuclear case."

Rafsanjani allowed his Ministry of Intelligence free rein for crackdowns on domestic political activists. During his term in office, many political dissidents were murdered by the state’s terror machine that was later referred to as “the chain killings”.  By the time Rafsanjani left office, EU states had withdrawn all their ambassadors from Iran due to evidence Tehran ordered the assassination of Iranian opposition figures in Germany; however, the European missions were soon reinstated following Khatami’s overwhelming victory in 1997.

Islamic Iran and the new Iraq

Clerical regime’s policy in Iraq is multi-layered.  First, they are terrified that 150000 American troops are stationed at their door step that could be mobilized at any moment to fight the mullahs.  Secondly, stability in Iraq means that America’s policy for forceful change towards democracy in the region can be successful and Iran’s brutal regime can be changed through violent means as well.  So the meddling in Iraq and the assistance that Islamic Iran has been providing the insurgency with both Shia’s and Sunni emanates from this fear.  Finally, witnessing the removal of Saddam and the mergence of pro-Iranian government in Iraq, the mullahs have stepped up their diplomatic gestures to show that Iran is the real ally and the real winner of this conflict.  In fact, much of their diplomatic manoeuvre in Iraq is to annoy the Americans and as well as the strong Iranian opposition who have fled Iran to live in Iraq, among them the People’s Mojahidin Organization (PMO) and Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, notably Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran or PDKI, a party that both Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani seem to have deep nuisance with.

Iran has repeatedly asked for the deportation and hand-over of opposition groups in Iraq, especially the PMO (with the terrorist label on PMO, the Iranian regime can justify its request much easier) and the Iraq government has conveyed mixed messages in regards to their future in Iraq.  Recently, a policy recommendation for the Iranian presidency by its Centre for Strategic Studies was leaked to public that proposes a bolder diplomacy to disarm all opposition groups in Iraq including the Iranian Kurdish opposition groups and relocating them further to the South in the non-Kurdish areas.  This is very alarming for the opposition groups in Iraq especially in the Kurdish North, and the recent shuttle diplomacy between Tehran and Bagdad might make this proposal a real deal.

The Iraqi Kurdish Connection

Islamic Iran’s clandestine actions initially in Iraqi Kurdistan from 1991 and then in Iraq after 2003 are quite evident.  IRGC has set up an assortment of offices in Iraqi Kurdistan and now in Iraq to act as trade missions, television stations, journalists and reporters.  They were able to hunt down more than 300 members of Iranian-Kurdish opposition figures in Iraqi Kurdistan most of them belonging to PDKI during the period of 1992 to 1997.  Their offices in Erbil and Suliemanieh acted as a command centre for these operations.  According to US officials, the raid on the Iranian liaison office in Erbil in the January of 2007, which was used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as local headquarters, was part of a new U.S. intelligence and military operation launched against Iran to confront and break up Tehran's networks inside Iraq. 

Following the raid and the arrest of five IRGC members, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government condemned the raid and in later remarks, Masoud Barzani, the region’s President stated that the American forces who captured five Iranians in the northern city of Irbil were really after commanders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards who were visiting Kurdish officials.  The Commander of IRGC who had fled the office a few hours prior to the raid was Mohammad Ja'fari Sahraroudi who was one of the representatives of the Iranian delegation in Austria in 1989 who were allegedly negotiating with the Iranian Kurdish leaders of PDKI, but ended up massacring them in the apartment where they held the meeting.  The Iranian terrorist-diplomats including Sahraroudi were able to return safely to Iran, with the help of the Austrian authorities, and he was promoted to brigadier-general and was later appointed to head an intelligence portfolio within the Qods Force. 

This dictatorial regime’s delegation that was headed by Ghassemlou’s executioner Mohammad Ja'fari Sahraroudi was also the guest of the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani and according to President Barzani’s remarks “There was an Iranian delegation, including Revolutionary Guards commanders, and they came as guests of the president. He was in Sulaimaniyah. They came to Sulaimaniyah and then I received a call from the president's office telling me that they wanted to meet me as well."

Kurds in either side of the border have had cozy and controversial relations with the central governments.  Kurds in Iraq have enjoyed relatively good relations with the Iranian regime, and this relationship stemmed merely from Iran’s hatred for Saddam’s regime rather than their love for the Iraqi Kurds.  Kurds in Iran and notably PDKI enjoyed similar relationships in nature with the Iraqi central government under Saddam Hussein, but such support and links were disrupted after the gulf war of 1991 and the subsequent creation of the autonomous Kurdistan regional government.

The political vacuum in Iraqi Kurdistan and especially the internal rifts and civil war between various factions had enabled the IRGC and its Quds force to well infiltrate the Iraqi Kurdish establishment especially that under the PUK which borders much of territories with Iran and in fact the only direct route for much supplies needed to counter the KDP sway.  The regime of Islamic Iran had stepped up its pressure on the Kurdish sides in Iraq to prevent any cross-border activities by the PDKI armed forces. Initially they were forced to move deeper into the Iraqi Kurdistan away from the Qandil Mountains where current PKK and its Iranian off-shoot party PJAK bases are located.  Then it came to monitoring of cross-border movements by the regional parties that resulted in the partial termination of peshmarga forces going back into Iranian Kurdistan in the mid 1990s, and the eventual shut down of radio broadcast which they were able to rebroadcast in Kirkuk under the Iraqi rule.

This carrot and stick approach of the Islamic Republic can be seen by the threat to cool ties and support unless Iraqi Kurds abandon any notion of support for the respective Iranian Kurdish nationalist movement, which they have, and keep tight control over their activities directly and indirectly.  The most striking stick approach took place in July 1996, when the Iranians sent 2-3,000 Iranian troops deep into PUK territory to pursue the peshmargas of PDKI at their headquarter in Koy Snajaq at the heart of the Iraqi Kurdistan.

It was then apparent who had the upper hand in this volatile region, and the IRGC agents continued to raid the bases of PDKI and assassinate its members throughout the Iraqi Kurdistan, and mainly in the PUK controlled areas.  Islamic Iran made sure that during the civil war PUK was in dire needs of IRGC weapons and materials and such assistance came at a heavy price for Iranian Kurds who had preferred the security and well-being of Iraqi Kurdistan over their aspiration to fight the Islamic government in Iran.

Today, the Islamic Iran uses Iraq as a base to fight two wars in two fronts: on one hand it fights to gain diplomatic upper-hand against the United States to establish ties with the new Iraqi central government and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government.  The openings of embassies and consulates in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan and sending high level officials is a good indication of such claims.  It also attempts to show that Iran is no enemy of the Kurds, and its leaders have had and will have good relations with the Iraqi Kurds while keeping tight control over its Kurdish population estimated to be three times the size of the population of the Iraqi Kurds.

Iran under the Mullahs also uses the new Iraq to fight its conventional war with its traditional internal and external enemies.  The clerics use their proxies and other terrorist groups in Iraq to dig a deeper hole for the US troops so they do not dare to think of a similar plan for Iran.  The old Iraq was a safe haven for Iranian dissident groups striving to bring about regime change in Iran; ironically, the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the newly liberated Iraq turned into hunting fields for IRGC agents and the right place to settle the old scores, and Rafsanjani’s planned trip to Iraq might just well serve this purpose.

Dilan Soleimani an associate at American Iranian Democracy Initiative contributed to this report.

He can be emailed at

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