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Part 5: Chalabi's Iran connection

Excerpts from NBC producer Aram Roston's book, "The Man Who Pushed America to War," detail Ahmad Chalabi's meetings with an Iranian general accused of plotting against U.S. troops in Iraq. Last of five parts.
Image: the cover of \"The Man Who Pushed America To War-The Extraordinary Life,Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi\"
In this photo released by Nation Books shows the cover of \"The Man Who Pushed America To War-The Extraordinary Life,Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi\". (AP Photo/Nation Books)Nation Books
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The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, which is tasked to propagate Iran’s Islamic Revolution, divided its operations in Iraq into three directorates after the U.S. invasion (of Iraq). The southernmost is referred to by the Quds Force as the “Ramadan,” or “Ramazan” (in Farsi), command, and the complex Iranian operations there are overseen by Gen. Ahmed Frouzanda (sometimes transliterated as “Frohazendah”). It is the most important region of Iraq, from Iran’s perspective, not just because of the shared border but because the area is home to Iran’s Shiite constituency. Ayatollah Khomeini had sought to make it his second Islamic Republic.

Frouzanda is one of Iran’s master operatives. U.S. military and counterterrorism officials treated him as a “high-value” intelligence target for years, even before the Iraqi invasion, and they try to track his whereabouts. They believe he cut his teeth working in Lebanese Hezbollah operations against the United States and Israel in the 1980s.

Chalabi had met him at least twice before the war, according to former INC official Nabeel Musawi. Frouzanda is said to be distinctive in appearance, getting portly in his fifties but with handsome features and a salt-and-pepper beard. He is, as Musawi points out, a “handsome” man. Musawi says he was at a lunch meeting with Frouzanda and Chalabi, where they discussed how to ensure that INC operations in southern Iraq went smoothly.

There can be no doubt about Frouzanda, according to American intelligence experts. “He is a murderer of Americans,” said a former CIA official familiar with Frouzanda’s file and with the hunt for him. “He is an intelligence officer of a hostile service which is directly involved with operations that kill Americans. He is a paramilitary officer with the Revolutionary Guard and a skilled one. He is an enemy of the United States.”

Once the United States invaded Iraq and Chalabi continued to accept DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) cash, according to U.S. intelligence sources, he did not cut himself off from Frouzanda or other members of Iranian intelligence. In the late winter and spring of 2004, the United States was battling Sunnis in the west of Iraq and Shiites in the south, and cracking down on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Chalabi had positioned himself ever more closely to the Shiite bloc.

It was then, sources say, that the CIA believed there was another meeting between Ahmad Chalabi and Frouzanda. The meeting, they believed, took place in northern Iraq, near the small border town of Penjwin, and was set up by Aras Habib Kareem, Chalabi’s enforcer and intelligence chief.

(Editor’s Note: In January 2008, the U.S. government issued an Executive Order designating Ahmed Foruzendeh (a different spelling of his name) and others as threatening the stability of Iraq. Among other things, the order said that Foruzandeh“leads terrorist operations against Coalition Forces and Iraqi Security Forces, and directs assassinations of Iraqi figures.”)

It was in this same time frame that the NSC intercepted communications indicating that Tehran had been warned its codes had been broken. It was a high-level breach of U.S. intelligence. Soon, the FBI began investigating. “It was an enormous investigation,” said a CIA official on the ground at the time. FBI agents from their counterintelligence squads, as well as their national security division, began trying to uncover the source of the breach. They quickly pulled the DIA agents in from their assignments over at the Iraqi National Congress headquarters to interrogate them. DIA agents were sent home to the States in shame for questioning.

FBI interview never happened
After the case went public, an FBI official involved in it said the agents quickly tried to set up an interview with Ahmad Chalabi. “We were not looking at him as a subject,” the agent emphasized. “Chalabi was looked at as a witness.” From an FBI perspective, even if Chalabi had revealed U.S. secrets, it is not at all clear that he would have been committing a criminal offense. More important to the bureau was how Chalabi would have learned of the information in the first place. That was the riddle, the FBI official said: could it have been espionage, or indiscretion, or even an accident — unintentionally disclosed by an American? Over the next few months, the FBI, according to the agent, hashed out an agreement with a member of Chalabi’s U.S.-based legal team. He agreed to do an interview, the agent said, but it never happened.

Certainly Chalabi continued to deal with Iran. Middle East intelligence sources maintain that Chalabi’s operation collecting Baathist files and documents after the U.S. invasion was useful for the Iranians. One intelligence source alleged in an interview that “He gave intelligence documents to the Iranian MOIS” (Ministry of Intelligence and Security). But if he did, there is no law against this, especially if they were not actually U.S. documents.

Officials began to re-examine the relationship Chalabi’s INC had maintained with the Iranians all along. “The Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that a U.S.-funded arm of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress has been used for years by Iranian intelligence,” reported Newsday’s Knut Royce, “to pass disinformation to the United States and to collect highly sensitive American secrets, according to intelligence sources.”

After the war, some speculated that Chalabi may have been an Iranian intelligence “agent”  throughout the 1990s and may have lured America into war on behalf of his real spymasters in Tehran. Both the CIA and the DIA suspected the INC was penetrated by the Iranians all along. But this new allegation ratcheted up the concerns several notches, in calling Chalabi an active agent. It is also almost certainly a myth, though. Iran, no doubt, had the same difficulty that the United States had in controlling him.

A more precise analysis is put forward by former CIA officers who believe that Chalabi was probably an “agent of influence” for Iran. They doubt he was paid anything but believe there was a convergence of interests and a loyalty to the Shiite regime there. Whitley Bruner, who first contacted him all those years ago on behalf of the CIA, came around to that view after seeing how influential Iran was in the new Iraq. Bruner acknowledges that there are different ways to see it. “You can make a coherent case that he’s been an Iranian agent since the beginning. If you look at it from that prism, it makes sense,” he says. But Bruner actually discounts that “agent” theory in favor of the “agent of influence” interpretation. “It became a question to me: what were his long-term objectives, and where, other than himself, are there allegiances? I think when he thinks big, Iran plays a major role. I guess I come belatedly to the idea that there was a very close sense of identity with Chalabi in terms of Iran, and a very emotional tie. Whereas the Americans were always just a means to an end. We were much more of an instrument. The Iranian role was long-term.”

Robert Grenier, who also was part of the CIA’s Iraqi Operations Group in the early days and later during the U.S. invasion, says he doesn’t think Chalabi is anyone’s agent; he thinks Chalabi worked with Iranian intelligence only opportunistically. “Ahmad has always had the ability to manipulate people he needs to,” Grenier argues.

No one will know unless a mob of outraged Iranians revolts against the mullahs in Iran and the crowd opens up the files of the Revolutionary Guards, just as they once opened the files of the cruel SAVAK. Then, perhaps, they will pull out the Chalabi folder. But he is no Manchurian candidate of the Iranians in Iraq. The real question is not whether he was an Iranian agent but whether he was more loyal to Iran or the United States. Certainly in pure intelligence terms, weighing his behavior over the years, he was indisputably more helpful to Iranian intelligence than he was to the CIA, with whom he had such a troubled relationship.

(Editor’s Note: On March 14, NBC Nightly News ran a story about Ahmad Chalabi and referred to the meeting with Frouzanda, the wanted Iranian general. Asked for comment, Chalabi provided NBC News with this statement: “The U.S. did not publish the names of any wanted Iranian for activities in Iraq in 2004. So there is nothing to the false implication that I knew this individual was wanted by the U.S. authorities at that time. Moreover, all top Iraqi leaders who visit Tehran meet regularly with Iranian revolutionary guards, including this individual. To illustrate this: some of the Iraqi leaders who met with President Bush as recently as 2007 have met with the man named in your question, and did so before and after their meetings with President Bush. Moreover, the U.S. itself has met with many individuals it has decried as having done something wrong. The object of any meetings I attend is to promote the stability that my country needs, and speaking to people from various points of view sometimes moves the process in a favorable direction.” Click here to watch the Nightly News piece.)