U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has accused Iran of "mucking around" in Iraq's parliamentary elections, in which Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is seeking another term in office in May.
"Iran is following Russia's example of mucking around in Iraq's elections," Mattis told reporters as he returned to Washington on March 15 from a trip to the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Mattis was referring to allegations that Russia has interfered in elections in the United States, France, Mexico, and elsewhere.
"We have worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence -- using money -- the Iraqi elections. That money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes," Mattis said. "It's not an insignificant amount of money, we believe. And we think it's highly unhelpful."
There was no immediate comment from Iran, which has in the past denied interfering in Iraq. Tehran has close ties with Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and it has strong historical and cultural ties with Iraq's majority Shi'ite population.
Iran has also backed Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary groups that played a role in ousting the Islamic State extremist group from its strongholds in northern Iraq last year.
Mattis declined to say whether he believes Iran is seeking to undermine Abadi, a Shi'a who has sought to build and maintain bridges with Iraq's large Sunni and Kurdish minorities as urged by the United States to prevent the country from splintering along ethnic and religious lines.
Mattis said his trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East reinforced his concerns about Iran's activities in the region. He cited Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his eight-year civil war against Sunni rebels, its support for Shi'ite Huthi rebels in Yemen, and its alleged aid for insurgents in western Afghanistan.
'Weapons Testing Ground'
Mattis said Iran is providing advanced arms to the Huthis, enabling them to wage a civil war against the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, and he said Tehran's involvement threatens to turn the war into a broader regional conflict.
The Huthis several times last year fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia that a United Nations expert panel determined were manufactured in Iran. Iran denies the allegations.
Mattis said Iran is using Yemen as a testing ground for its weapons. "It's where you find their radars, their ballistic missiles, their antiship cruise missiles. We found their mines, their explosive boats all being tested," he said.
Mattis said Iran is using the strait between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, off the coast of southern Yemen, as a "proving ground" for such advanced Iranian weaponry.
Still, Mattis conceded an improvement in relations with Iran in one area. He said confrontations between U.S. and Iranian vessels operating in the Persian Gulf have dropped significantly in recent months.
Mattis's staff said Iran's naval vessels have halted what once were fairly routine, aggressive maneuvers near U.S. ships since August.
"They don't seem to be engaging in the same provocative behavior" in the Gulf, Mattis said. "It's like an outlier, and I don't know why."
Mattis said the drop-off in naval confrontations was the only exception to what he said was a pattern of aggressive behavior by Iran.
"It was just brought home to me again that they are not changing their behavior, they are continuing to be a destabilizing influence," he said.
With reporting by AP and Reuters