Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday accused Iran of funneling money into Iraq to sway the outcome of its elections in May, calling it part of a broader pattern of destabilizing Iranian actions across the Middle East.
Mr. Mattis declined to say what outcome Iran was aiming for in Iraq, but he said it was sending “not an insignificant amount of money” to the country to sway votes. He mentioned no dollar amounts.
Iran is widely seen as gaining more influence in Iraq during its period of instability after much of northern and western Iraq was taken over by Islamic State militants in 2014. The militants have since been largely defeated, but Iraq’s political stability still hangs in the balance.
“We have worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence — using money — the Iraqi elections,” Mr. Mattis told reporters flying with him to Washington from the Persian Gulf island state of Bahrain, where he discussed Iran and other issues with senior government officials.
“That money is being used,” he said, “to sway candidates, to sway votes — not an insignificant amount of money, we believe, and it’s highly unhelpful.”
“We know that they are doing what they can to impact the elections, and we don’t like it.”
Iran’s political influence in Iraq has grown since the United States invaded to remove President Saddam Hussein in 2003, marking the start of a prolonged period of sectarian division, extremist violence and political strife.
The United States still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq supporting its fight against remaining pockets of resistance by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups also have fought ISIS, sometimes in coordination with Baghdad and sometimes not.
Mr. Mattis sharply criticized what he called Iranian meddling elsewhere in the Middle East. He said Tehran was providing ammunition and explosives to fighters in Syria and supporting rebels in Yemen.
He said the strait between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, off the coast of southern Yemen, was being used as a “proving ground” for advanced Iranian weaponry. This includes anti-ship missiles, mines and ballistic missiles, he said.
On the other hand, Iran has stopped conducting what the United States called provocative and dangerous maneuvers against United States Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, Mr. Mattis said.
“It’s like an outlier, and I don’t know why,” he said. “They don’t seem to be engaging in the same provocative behavior” in the Persian Gulf as they were before last summer.
Cmdr. William Urban of the Navy said earlier Thursday that there had been no “unsafe and unprofessional” actions by Iranian naval forces in the Persian Gulf since August 2017. Commander Urban is a spokesman for United States Naval Forces Central Command in Manama, Bahrain.
Before that, Iranian vessels had periodically made high-speed approaches to American ships that were considered dangerous provocations.
“It seems like they’ve absolutely made a conscious decision to give us more space,” Commander Urban said. “That is definitely a change in their behavior.”