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Alireza Jafarzadeh Headshot

Will the U.S. Troop Withdrawal Leave the Door Wide Open for Iran?

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Last week, President Obama announced U.S. plans to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of the year. To no one's surprise, neighboring Iran applauded the decision. As early as 2007, the regime's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had predicted an Iranian power play, saying "Soon, we will see a huge power vacuum in the region. Of course, we are prepared to fill the gap."

On October 23, Ahmadinejad laid out Tehran's strategy to CNN: "The government of Iraq, the parliament, we have a very good relationship with all of them... And we have deepened our ties day by day." Clearly, Iran intends to take on the U.S.'s former role in Iraq.

And the person deepening those ties "day by day"? None other than Qods Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, the man responsible for all of the Iranian regime's covert activities in Iraq. He oversees Tehran's relations with its militant proxies there, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas in neighboring states. He reports directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and his budget (mostly in cash) comes directly from the Supreme Leader's office.

His is a top position, heading a priority policy. Qods Force meetings about meddling in Iraq, chaired by Soleimani, are held weekly in the compound of the Supreme Leader. Directly supervised by Khamenei, the meetings also involve other senior officials, including Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi.

A number of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) military garrisons in Iran have been allocated to the training of the Iraqi operatives of the Qods Force. In fact, since 2008, Tehran has enacted a surge in Qods activities in Iraq. Recruitment is controlled by IRGC Brigadier General Abdolreza Shahlaei, who in 2007 led the devastating assault on the U.S. military compound in Karbala in which five American soldiers were killed. Shahlaei also oversaw the foiled terror plot of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States in Washington earlier this month.

In July, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that weapons flowing from Iran into Iraq were becoming more lethal and sophisticated, as Washington and Baghdad negotiated over whether American troops would remain in the country beyond the end of the year. Mullen said the delivery of armor-piercing explosives and airborne homemade bombs to Shiite extremists had increased significantly in recent months, all with the full knowledge of top Iranian government officials.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that weapons supplied by Iran were behind a rash of attacks against American forces in Iraq, part of an escalating campaign of violence ahead of the planned U.S. troop withdrawal. He added, "We're seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they've really hurt us."

Secretary Panetta later said that U.S. will not "walk away" from the challenge of Iran's stepped-up arming of Iraqi insurgents who are targeting and killing American troops as they prepare to leave Iraq.

The increasingly violent influence of the Iranian regime is nothing new. The Iranian regime is responsible for over two thirds of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. So, what is the United States going to do about it? "No one should miscalculate America's resolve and commitment to helping support the Iraqi democracy," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on NBC's Meet the Press. "We have paid too high a price to give the Iraqis this chance."

She reiterated on Sunday October 23 that no one, in particular Iraq's neighbor Iran, should doubt the American commitment to Iraq.

The question is, how? How is the United States going to counter the Iranian threat in Iraq after it leaves, when it couldn't accomplish that objective when tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were in Iraq?

Nor is it clear how it plans to ensure the protection of the 3,400 unarmed Iranian dissidents residing in Camp Ashraf, Iraq. Without question, the safety and security of these men, women and children are the responsibility of the United States, which gave a written commitment to each and every one of them that it would protect them until their final disposition. This responsibility is only underscored by Tehran's insistence that Camp Ashraf residents, many of whom are former political prisoners who escaped the country, be killed and their refuge, Camp Ashraf, be destroyed.

A large group of Members of Congress, from both parties and both the House and Senate, want the full time presence of United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq in Camp Ashraf. They want the United States to use its leverage to convince the Security Council of the United Nations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to declare Ashraf a refugee camp. After they hoist the UNHCR flag there, they must begin in earnest to interview the residents, who are declared "asylum seekers," by the UNHCR and relocate all to Europe and the United States before Maliki can do Tehran's bidding and commit another massacre.

As for the larger question of how to counter the dreadful implications of Iran's growing sway in Iraq in general, the United States should not have allowed, in the first place, the Iranian regime the opportunity to sway the outcome of the previous elections. Tehran managed to get Nuri al-Maliki -- who lost the elections to the coalition led by the secular former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi -- to reemerge as the Prime Minister. As though that has not been enough, Maliki continues to be the acting Defense Minister, Interior Minister, and the Minister of State for National Security.

Unless Allawi and his coalition are allowed to play the meaningful role they were promised, Iraq will continue to be a government of "lie and deception," according to Allawi, and will further fall under the control of the clerical rulers of Iran. But one thing is clear -- America must act now.