Iran, already deeply mired in Syria’s civil war, now finds itself center stage in a fight against Sunni militants threatening to topple its most important regional partner in Iraq.
Iran is pledging to defend Shiite shrines in Iraq and help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defeat an al-Qaeda breakaway group that has routed his northern army. More than 130 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards entered Iraq’s eastern Diyala province, which borders the Islamic republic, the BBC reported last week.
The conflict will test Iran’s ability to prop up its two closest Arab allies to preserve the political influence built in the region over the past decade. The collapse of Maliki’s government, without a pro-Iranian alternative ready to take over, would cut Iran’s leverage in its power struggle with regional Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and in its efforts to overhaul ties with the U.S.
“The fragility of the situation in Iraq may bring a security challenge to the Iranian border and make Iran more vulnerable,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle East politics who focuses on Iran at Qatar University in Doha. “There may be ramifications for which Iran is not ready.”
Iraq’s government was dominated by minority Sunnis until the U.S. invasion of 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein and eventually installed Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
ISIL has rallied disaffected Iraqi Sunnis against the Maliki government, amid widening sectarian rifts. The militants, which are also fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad and other rebel groups, crushed the Iraqi army last week to capture Mosul, the country’s biggest northern city and engaged with government forces in the city of Baquba, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of Baghdad.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country is ready to help the Iraqi government and vowed to fight ISIL gunmen if they approach the Iranian border. There are signs that his nation is already doing so: Iran’s Nasim news agency published what it said were pictures of a funeral this week for an Iranian “volunteer fighter” killed by ISIL guerrillas.
Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ external Qods Force, was in Baghdad last week where he was seen visiting checkpoints on the capital’s outskirts, according to Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at London-based research center Chatham House.
Soleimani retains close ties with all Iraq’s Shiite leaders, said Ramzy Mardini, a Jordan-based non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council research group.
“When Soleimani demands a particular action to be taken, it’s difficult for Shiite parties to ignore those demands,” Mardini said by phone last week. Iran “has ways of punishing actors should they choose not to comply,” he said.
Soleimani’s force has been active in Syria, training Assad’s army as well as engaging in some of the fighting, according to videos posted on social media sites. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group, is also fighting alongside Assad forces.
The Islamic republic will find it difficult to provide enough support to turn the tide of the battle on two fronts, said Afshon Ostovar, a Iran expert at CNA Corp., based in Arlington, Virginia.
“With its support for Assad and Maliki, Iran has created a Frankenstein,” he said. “Iran does not have the manpower to solve the crisis in Iraq. As we see in Syria, they have helped Assad hold territory, but not regain much.”
The seizure of key northern Iraqi cities by ISIL last week comes after three years of growing discontent among Sunnis. For Iran’s leaders, it also represents a shock to their assumptions that the neighboring country was stabilizing under Shiite rule, said Zweiri of Qatar University.
In the Iranian view, “Iraq is the backyard of Iran,” he said. “They assumed that what had been done since 2003 was enough to secure this backyard.” In the light of the Sunni insurgency, “it doesn’t seem to be the case.”
As it alarms Iraq’s neighbors, the advance of ISIL fighters closer to Baghdad has softened some old rivalries.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News the U.S. was “open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran.” U.S. and Iranian officials spoke briefly on Iraq on the sidelines of talks in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program, according to a U.S. State Department official who commented on condition of anonymity.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said on June 17 that Britain will reopen its embassy in Tehran, closed after a raid by extremists in 2011, in a sign that the advance of the Sunni militants in Iraq is encouraging diplomacy with Iran.
The overlap of interests in Iraq won’t be enough to persuade some Iranians that the U.S. isn’t still their real enemy. The Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Javan newspaper carried articles blaming the American military, as well as Arab clerics, for being behind ISIL.
Ultimately, Iran’s involvement in Iraq can be with or without the U.S., said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
“Iran sees its security threatened by the tidal wave of Sunni extremists moving ever closer to the border,” he said. “If the Iraqi government were to crumble Iran would take it as a direct and immediate threat.”