Delivering the official sermon at Tehran's Friday prayers, the Expediency Council chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the no. 2 man in the Islamic republic, declared, "The U.S. is bogged down in an Iraq quagmire. It has to pull out immediately."
On April 8, 2004, the press office of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps warned, "A fate more horrifying than Vietnam awaits America in the morass of Iraq." Unfortunately, Iran knows.
While smooth-talking Iranian diplomats charm Senator Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, the former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and Condoleezza Rice's former National Security Council Middle East adviser, Flynt Leverett, the Islamic republic's security forces simultaneously fund and direct militias to harass Iraqi democrats and kill American soldiers.
Violence erupted on April 4, 2004, led by the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Ostensibly sparked by a temporary ban on his al-Hawzah newspaper (which, among other acts of incitement, has published lists of Iraqis to kill), the decision to turn to violence apparently was made long before and hundreds of miles away in Tehran.
Rather than represent Iraqis, Mr. al-Sadr has sought to ingratiate himself as a chief proxy of the Iranian security forces. Fiercely ambitious but with little aptitude for religious study, Mr. al-Sadr failed to gain the respect of his peers, despite being the son of a revered ayatollah, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999.
Following the fall of Saddam's regime, Mr. al-Sadr sought to cash in on his family name. However, any inroads he had made with the mainstream Shia hierarchy evaporated after he instigated the April 10, 2003 murder of a prominent cleric, Majid al-Khoie, in one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines. In Sadr City, a sprawling slum on the eastern edge of the city, Mr. al-Sadr's support has fragmented over the past several months as he faces competition from other Shia political and religious figures.
Mr. al-Sadr's constituency alone cannot fund his activities. His few religious endowments produce little income. Western news outlets, eager to portray him as "David" to the American "Goliath," repeat the mantra that Mr. Al-Sadr's supporters are, in the words of National Public Radio, "amongst the poor and dispossessed Shiite men."
Despite allegedly representing the most impoverished fringe of Iraqi society, Mr. al-Sadr nevertheless manages to finance transport and meals for those making the weekly six-hour roundtrip between Baghdad and Kufa to hear him read sermons.
Much of Mr. al-Sadr's financial support is channeled through Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, a resident of the Iranian holy city of Qom. Mr. al-Haeri enjoys the close confidence of Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, Iran's supreme leader, who maintains slush funds for which he is accountable to neither parliament nor president.
According to an April 8, 2004, report in the Italian daily La Stampa, the Italian military intelligence agency Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare has concluded that Iran's supreme leader sent Muhammad Husayn al-Haeri to Iraq to coordinate efforts to force a coalition withdrawal.
According to Sismi, the Qods Force, an elite unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps dedicated to exporting the revolution, has spent $70 million a month to support Mr. al-Sadr and a number of front groups. On April 3, the day before violence erupted, London based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat interviewed one of Iran's top operatives in Iraq who, according to the Italian daily La Republica, is now in British custody.
This operative has testified that Iran had rented 2,700 apartments for Qods Force agents serving in Najaf and Karbala and also ran a network of 300 agents posing as Iranian television and print journalists who helped organize Mr. al-Sadr's operations in southern Iraq. The Islamic Republic, however, does not limit its support to one figure, but rather underwrites Mr. al-Sadr as bad cop to the "more moderate" Ibrahim Ja'afari and Abdulaziz Hakim, both of whom also advocate an Iranian-style theocracy.
Iran's charge d'affaires in Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, maintains close relations with Mr. Sadr. On April 6, the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat reported that Mr. Qomi was not a member of Iran's diplomatic corps, but rather a Qods Force officer. Mr. Qomi previously worked as Iran's consul-general in Herat, Afghanistan, and in Lebanon, where he served as a liaison with Hezbollah.
Mr. Qomi's tenure in Herat coincided with an influx of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members into the province, as well as the rise of the Iranian-funded warlord Ismail Khan. Today, Herat remains part of Afghanistan in name only, and is in effect an extension of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to al-Hayat, Iraqi Kurdish forces have captured documents detailing Iranian subsidies to Mr. al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi militia.
Ignoring challenges may be diplomatically convenient, but the costs are high. Foggy Bottom has for too long sought engagement with the clerical regime in Iran. Even if evidence existed that dialogue has led to meaningful reform, the involvement of the Qods Force in Iraq shows that our track-two partners in dialogue are either insincere or cannot deliver. Iran's clerical regime poses an ideological challenge inimical to the religious freedom, gender equality, and liberty Iraqis desire.
Iran is neither a democracy nor a partner in Iraq. Wishful thinking kills Americans. The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to sponsor terrorism and just last week declared its intent to construct a nuclear reactor capable of weapons-grade plutonium production. It is time for the White House to deal with reality.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.