Published June 13, 2004
The Bush administration's disenchantment with its onetime favorite Iraqi client, Ahmad Chalabi (search), has centered on the explosive allegation that he and his associates may have forwarded highly classified U.S. information to the Islamist government in Iran.
Specifically, Chalabi and his cohorts are accused of informing Tehran (search) that the United States had broken the communications code of Iran's intelligence service. If true, this could become the most prominent espionage episode since the Alger Hiss (search) case in the late 1940s, for it raises the question of which official in the U.S. government passed such sensitive information to Chalabi.
Clearly, the allegations are extremely serious and should be the subject of a thorough, independent investigation. But such an investigation also needs to look at another possibility. What if the Chalabi-Iran information pipeline flowed both ways?
It is well established that much of the information that Chalabi's organization, the Iraqi National Congress (search), supplied to the United States in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq was erroneous. The inaccurate intelligence was most evident with regard to the vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein's regime supposedly possessed, but it also involved assurances that U.S. forces would be welcomed as liberators and that the post-Saddam political transition would be rapid and easy.
The conventional wisdom is that Chalabi was the architect of that campaign of disinformation. But what if he was not the source but merely the channel for it? Is it possible that Iran used Chalabi and his organization to lure the United States into invading and occupying Iraq?
The troubling reality is that Tehran would have had multiple motives for such a strategy. First, Iranians regarded Saddam Hussein as more than just an adversary; they viewed him with the same kind of fear and loathing that Russians in the 1940s viewed Adolf Hitler. Saddam had invaded and ravaged their country in a war that lasted nearly a decade, and he had used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and possibly Iranian civilians. Washington did Iran a gigantic favor by eliminating a man that Iranians regarded as a demonic enemy.
Second, the invasion did Tehran a favor in another way. Iraq was the only credible strategic counterweight to Iran in the Persian Gulf region. Iran's military capabilities dwarf those of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and while Turkey is a potential strategic counterweight, Ankara has long been reluctant to play a major role in that region. A united Iraq was the principal obstacle to Iranian preeminence.
A U.S. occupation of Iraq (especially the disbanding of the Iraqi army, which Chalabi strongly advocated) significantly advanced Iran's interests. The possible destabilization of Iraq arising from the elimination of a strong central government in Baghdad -- and the possible emergence of a friendly, Shiite (search)-led successor government--was a potential bonus for Tehran.
Finally, the Islamist regime had an incentive to distract the United States. Washington was beginning to pay an extensive amount of attention to Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Tying down the U.S. military in a nation-building quagmire in Iraq might reduce the likelihood that Washington would be able to take preemptive action against Iran. Notably, the loose talk in some hawkish American circles about the Iraq war being merely the first stage of a campaign of forcible regime change throughout the Middle East has subsided greatly as the difficulties of the Iraq occupation have mounted.
True, an Iranian strategy to lure the United States into Iraq would have been a high-stakes gamble. After all, the conquest of Iraq meant that the United States would have a sizable military force in a neighboring country for an extended period of time. But governments have been known to adopt bold and risky strategies before, and Tehran may have done so in this case.
We will never know unless there is an independent investigation of all aspects of the Chalabi-Iran connection. Congress should insist on nothing less.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs.