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Cablegate: Iran's Efforts in Iraqi Electoral Politics

DE RUEHGB #2992/01 3171246
P 131246Z NOV 09




E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/13/2019


Classified By: Political M/C Gary A. Grappo for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (S) SUMMARY: Iran is a dominant player in Iraq's
electoral politics, and is using its close ties to Shia,
Kurdish, and select Sunni figures to shape the political
landscape in favor of a united Shia victory in the January
election. A pro-Iran, Shia-dominated, and preferably
Islamist government, led by a united Shia alliance remains
Iran's top priority. Toward that end, Iran is seeking to
increase pressure on Maliki to join forces with the other
prominent Shia coalition (Iraqi National Alliance) led by the
Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). END

2. (S) Iran is arguably the most influential regional power
seeking to shape and influence the outcome of Iraq's
election. This message offers an assessment of Iran's
efforts to shape Iraq's electoral politics in anticipation of
the national election in January.

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Iran's Policy Goals and Tools

3. (S) Iran's over-arching political objective for Iraq's
January election is the re-election of a Shia-dominated,
preferably Islamist, coalition led by Tehran's closest
allies, notably ISCI and the Sadrist Trend under the rubric
of the Iraqi National Alliance coalition (INA) (reftel).
Iraq, given its proximity to Iran and its shared Shia
heritage, represents a vital foreign policy priority for the
Iranian government's (IRIG) efforts to project its ideology
and influence in the region. An economically dependent and
politically subservient Iraq would foster greater strategic
depth for Tehran. Iranian president Ahmadinejad has referred
to Iraq in recent press statements as "a Shia base"
confronting the broader menace perpetrated by those opposed
to Iraq's identity and stability (i.e., Sunni states, the

4. (S) Iran's approach to its bilateral relationship with
Iraq ranges from political micro-management to broad
strategic guidance emanating directly from Supreme Leader
Khamenei in Tehran. The IRIG recognizes that influence in
Iraq requires operational (and at times ideological)
flexibility. As a result, it is not uncommon for the IRIG to
finance and support competing Shia, Kurdish, and to some
extent, Sunni entities, with the aim of developing the Iraqi
body politic's dependency on Tehran's largesse. While exact
figures are unknown, Tehran's financial assistance to Iraqi
surrogates is estimated at USD 100-200 million annually,
with USD 70 million going to ISCI/Badr coffers.

5. (S) Since at least 2003, Brigadier General Qasem
Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), has been the point main directing
the formulation and implementation of the IRIG's Iraq policy,
with authority second only to Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Through his IRGC-QF officers and Iraqi proxies in Iraq,
notably Iranian Ambassador and IRGC-QF associate Hassan
Kazemi-Qomi, Soleimani employs the full range of diplomatic,
security, intelligence, and economic tools to influence Iraqi
allies and detractors in order to shape a more pro-Iran
regime in Baghdad and the provinces.

6. (S) Soleimani enjoys long-standing close ties with
several prominent GOI officials, including President
Talabani, Vice-President Adel Abdal-Mahdi (ISCI), Prime
Minister Maliki (Da'wa), former PM Jaafari, and more
recently, Speaker Samarra'i (Septel reports Iranian Speaker
Qrecently, Speaker Samarra'i (Septel reports Iranian Speaker
Larijani's November 4-7 visit to Iraq at Samarra'i's
invitation.). Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad, Speaker
Larijani, and former president Rafsanjani consult regularly
with visiting GOI officials as part of the IRIG's broader
"strategic" council of advisers seeking to influence the GOI.

7. (S) Iran's tools of influence include financial support
to (and pressure on) a cross-spectrum of Iraqi parties and
officials; economic development assistance, notably to
religious organizations; lethal aid to select militant Shia
proxies; and sanctuary to Iraqi figures fearful of USG
targeting or those seeking to revitalize their
political/religious credentials, most notably Moqtada
al-Sadr. This leverage also extends, to a lesser extent, to
select Sunni actors, including such public figures as Iraqi
Speaker Samarra'i, whose September visit to Tehran included

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meetings with several senior IRIG officials.

Pre-Election Jockeying

8. (S) Predictably, Iran is actively lobbying and recruiting
Iraqis of various political stripes and affiliations,
including Sunnis, in the run-up to the election to ensure a
united Shia-led coalition government. Given the likelihood
of a Shia-led victory in the election, Iran appears more
concerned about the strength of a united Shia bloc in the
post-election phase of government formation. For Iran, a
"rebellious" Maliki pursuing a more nationalist vs. sectarian
agenda risks splitting the Shia vote, which in turn weakens
the Shia political bloc's negotiating strength during the
government formation period post-election. Iran's greatest
fear for the upcoming election is a fractured Shia coalition
that is unable to coalesce and thereby dominate the next
government. Iran's worst-case election scenario
(increasingly unrealistic) is a coup d'etat of former regime
elements hostile to Tehran.

9. (S) A weak Shia coalition before or after the election
would further undermine the INA and their pro-Iranian
entities, notably ISCI and the Sadrist Trend. The Kurds,
historically closer to ISCI, remain the important swing vote
and are unlikely to reveal their true coalition intentions
until after the election. As seasoned masters of the Iraqi
political chessboard, Kurdish leaders such as Talabani and
Barzani will likely exploit their political strength among
Shia/Sunni counterparts to protect and expand Kurdish
influence in a future government. Iran's historic ties to the
PUK, and to a lesser extent KDP officials, make the Kurds an
important element in ensuring a pro-Iranian Shia victory in
the election. INA officials are confident that the Kurds
will join their coalition, all but guaranteeing an election
victory. An unknown factor in national elections is the
Kurdish opposition party, Goran List, under the leadership of
former PUK Secretary General Nawshirwan Mustafa. Goran is
committed to unseating the PUK (and Talabani) in Suleymaniyah
province but needs financial backing to ensure its long-term
viability in the KRG and national politics. Iran could
conceivably alleviate Goran's financial woes, particularly
through its close ties with the Kurdish Jaff tribe, some of
whom are Goran members. However, doing so would undermine
the IRIG's valued relationship with Talabani, while also
proving exceedingly duplicitous, even by IRIG and KRG

10. (S) It is important to note that Iran's power in Iraq,
although extensive, is not without limitations. The IRIG's
greatest political roadblock remains the domineering
authority and religious credibility embodied in Grand
Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Despite his Iranian heritage, Sistani
is Iraq's most revered Shia religious (and political)
authority. A critic of Iran's "Velayet-e-Faqih" (rule of the
jurisprudent) system of theocratic governance, Sistani's
abstemious (aka Quietest school) approach to Shia politics
has kept him well above the political fray while at the same
time ensuring him significant impact on those rare occasions
when he pronounces on politics. For example, Sistani's
public support for an open list ballot was instrumental in
prompting ISCI, Sadrist Trend, Maliki's State of Law, and
other Shia parties to follow suit, despite Tehran's
preference for a closed list. Domestic political realities
will continue to force Shia political parties like ISCI, Dawa
Qwill continue to force Shia political parties like ISCI, Dawa
and Sadr Trend, with close historic ties to Iran, to balance
between support for a broader Iraqi-Shia agenda, as
championed by Sistani, and the alternative, championed by
Iran, that would subordinate Iraqi interests to Iran's
broader objectives (septel).

Soft vs. Hard Power

11. (S) Following the GOI's crackdown on Iranian-supported
Sadrist militias in Basrah during the "Charge of the Knights"
operation in March 2008, Iran has calibrated its operations
in Iraq to encompass more "soft power" (economic, religious,
educational) support and investment as part of a broader
"hearts and minds" campaign. (NOTE: Iranian lethal aid to
militant proxies continues; however, on a less visible scale.
END NOTE). With annual bilateral trade estimated at USD 4
billion (up 30 percent since 2008) and comprised mostly of
Iranian imports (approximately 48 percent of Iraq's imports
are Iranian goods), the IRIG continues to jockey for economic
domination in Iraq through targeted development assistance,
focused largely on refurbishment of Shia religious shrines,

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and trade deals and bilateral agreements aimed at fostering
greater Iraqi economic dependency on Iran. This measure has
been successful, largely because of Iran's geographic
proximity and access to Iraqi markets that are otherwise
financially or politically less appealing to other states,
notably the United States, Europe, and other industrialized
nations. Turkey, on the other hand, remains Iran's biggest
economic competitor, particularly in the Kurdistan Regional
Government (KRG).

Implications for U.S. Policy

12. (S) COMMENT: Concerns about long-term U.S. influence,
albeit tempered by the withdrawal deadline, continue to
inform IRIG decision-making to ensure its strategic foothold
in Iraq. Iran views Iraq as a natural (and more junior)
strategic partner. As a result, Iran will continue to flex
its muscles to ensure it's strategic outcomes are met. This
should not lead to alarmist tendencies or reactions on our
part. The next Iraqi government will continue to cultivate
close ties with Iran given long-standing historical realities
that precede Iraq's ties with the United States. On the
other hand, Iran's influence in Iraq should not be
overestimated. As the GOI continues to gain its footing,
points of divergence between Tehran and Baghdad become
increasingly evident on such sensitive bilateral issues as
water, hydrocarbons, maritime borders, and political parity.
Some prominent Iraqi leaders, including those with close ties
to Iran (i.e., Maliki, Ammar al-Hakim) are increasingly
sensitive to being labeled Iranian lackeys.

13. (S) COMMENT CONT'D: Our objective in Iraq should be
less about countering all-things Iranian, and more about
developing viable alternatives and approaches that gradually
alter the GOI's political, economic, and social worldview.
Development of viable international alternatives in Iraq is
one of the most effective measures of countering Iranian
ambitions and, ultimately, integrating Iraq as a constructive
member of the international community. Specifically, our
ongoing efforts to bolster the GOI through capacity-building
and assistance within the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA)
and to remove Iraq from Chapter VII remain our most valuable
tools in this regard. Given the value placed on the SFA by
the GOI and the Iraqi public, our ability to recognize,
enhance, and exploit the value of the partnership will
constitute an essential element of any effort to counter
"malign" Iranian influence.


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