TIME: What is Iran’s Man in Iraq After?

In an exclusive interview, Tehran’s Hassan Kazemi Ghomi takes on Washington and counters U.S. claims that he and his country are subverting the Baghdad government.

What is Tehran's main man in Iraq up to? The U.S. military, which claims Iranian special forces and intelligence operatives have infiltrated Iraq, insinuates that Hassan Kazemi Ghomi, the charge d'affaires of the Iranian embassy, is intent on undermining Washington's mission in Baghdad. Indeed, U.S. military intelligence and the American-backed Iraqi National Intelligence Service told TIME that Ghomi is a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force, a special forces outfit much like the Green Berets, with specialized skills in working with local forces and militias. A senior U.S. military intelligence officer claims "Ghomi is Quds Force," and part of a "full-spectrum effort" by the Revolutionary Guards to garner influence in Iraq. But in an interview with TIME, Ghomi, who rarely talks with the Western press, denied he is playing a military role in Iraq. He says most of his generation of government officials served, as did he, in the Revolutionary Guards' Baseej (volunteer) units during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s but explains that "I stopped my military service years ago." (The Baseej continue to be a major pillar of support for Iran's hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.) The diplomat, however, suggested that Iran would prove a better partner and guarantor of Iraqi stability than the U.S.

Ghomi denied U.S. claims that his country's special forces were operating inside Iraq or that Iran's military was aiding the insurgency with ever more sophisticated weapons. He hinted at Iran's growing ambitions as a regional power with references to its ability to affect the security of the Persian Gulf, echoing the sentiments of top military commanders in Iran. At the same time, he outlined a number of conditions for the unprecedented talks proposed with his American counterpart. "We do not deny America has interests here [in Iraq] and we do not act as a barrier to those interests, but we do not take orders from the Americans," he told TIME, speaking from within his heavily-fortified embassy.

Ghomi is not likely to suffer any anxiety over U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's threat of "strong action" against Iran in the U.N. Security Council in response to the news that Tehran had finally enriched a small quantity of uranium. Ghomi made it clear his government does not take kindly to being told what to do. Just as no one should interfere the internal affairs of Iraq, he said, the U.S. should not contemplate interfering in Iran. "It's our position that we want to be a sovereign and independent country, but the Americans seem to think they know better than us, that they know our own mind and that we do not want nuclear weapons," he said.

Iranian policy, he says, is to stabilize the nascent government in Baghdad, not to disrupt it. "Security [in Iraq] is good for us because then there's no pretext for foreign troops to remain," he said. If Washington had proof that Iranian forces were operational in Iraq, then it should be produced, he insisted. Instead, he says, it is time for Tehran and Baghdad to establish a strong strategic relationship, replete with intelligence sharing and Iranian assistance in building up the Iraqi security forces, roles the U.S. currently holds a monopoly over. "What we actually want inside Iraq today is to contribute to the formation of the government" said the diplomat, staking out what until now has been the province of U.S. and British advisors.

Describing Iran as "a potential power in the region, and an essential element for security in the region," Ghomi says if America stopped treating Tehran as an enemy it could deliver results "in the sensitive geopolitical situation in the Middle East." He also laid out a number of conditions necessary for the proposed talks with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to proceed. Expecting the meeting to take place in Iraq, Ghomi says talks could not proceed without a representative of the Iraqi government present; he also said that an agenda had to be agreed on in advance and made public beforehand, "not kept behind closed doors." And he stressed that Iran would want the outcome of the discussions to be made public immediately afterwards. "We will definitely be reporting to the countries of the region about the result of these negotiations," he says.