Hundreds of leaked intelligence reports shed light on a shadow war for regional influence — and the battles within the Islamic Republic’s own spy divisions.
In mid-October, with unrest swirling in Baghdad, a familiar visitor slipped quietly into the Iraqi capital. The city had been under siege for weeks, as protesters marched in the streets, demanding an end to corruption and calling for the ouster of the prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. In particular, they denounced the outsize influence of their neighbor Iran in Iraqi politics, burning Iranian flags and attacking an Iranian consulate.
The visitor was there to restore order, but his presence highlighted the protesters’ biggest grievance: he was Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force, and he had come to persuade an ally in the Iraqi Parliament to help the prime minister hold onto his job.
It was not the first time General Suleimani had been dispatched to Baghdad to do damage control. Tehran’s efforts to prop up Mr. Mahdi are part of its long campaign to maintain Iraq as a pliable client state.
Now leaked Iranian documents offer a detailed portrait of just how aggressively Tehran has worked to embed itself into Iraqi affairs, and of the unique role of General Suleimani. The documents are contained in an archive of secret Iranian intelligence cables obtained by The Intercept and shared with The New York Times for this article, which is being published simultaneously by both news organizations.
The unprecedented leak exposes Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and religious life.
Many of the cables describe real-life espionage capers that feel torn from the pages of a spy thriller. Meetings are arranged in dark alleyways and shopping malls or under the cover of a hunting excursion or a birthday party. Informants lurk at the Baghdad airport, snapping pictures of American soldiers and keeping tabs on coalition military flights. Agents drive meandering routes to meetings to evade surveillance. Sources are plied with gifts of pistachios, cologne and saffron. Iraqi officials, if necessary, are offered bribes. The archive even contains expense reports from intelligence ministry officers in Iraq, including one totaling 87.5 euros spent on gifts for a Kurdish commander.
About the Iran Cables
This article was reported in partnership with The Intercept, a nonprofit investigative news organization.
[Read the key findings from this investigation.]
According to one of the leaked Iranian intelligence cables, Mr. Mahdi, who in exile worked closely with Iran while Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, had a “special relationship with the I.R.I.” — the Islamic Republic of Iran — when he was Iraq’s oil minister in 2014. The exact nature of that relationship is not detailed in the cable, and, as one former senior U.S. official cautioned, a “special relationship could mean a lot of things — it doesn’t mean he is an agent of the Iranian government.” But no Iraqi politician can become prime minister without Iran’s blessing, and Mr. Mahdi, when he secured the premiership in 2018, was seen as a compromise candidate acceptable to both Iran and the United States.
The leaked cables offer an extraordinary glimpse inside the secretive Iranian regime. They also detail the extent to which Iraq has fallen under Iranian influence since the American invasion in 2003, which transformed Iraq into a gateway for Iranian power, connecting the Islamic Republic’s geography of dominance from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.