The rise of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is both a threat and an opportunity for Iran, according to a new study by Alireza Nader at the Rand Corporation. On one hand, the conquest of nearly one-third of Iraqi territory and potential to take more of the country threatens Iranian interests. On the other hand, ISIS’s “ascent gives Tehran the chance to showcase its importance and influence in the Middle East,” according to Nader. Proving that it is a key player could increase Iran’s leverage in nuclear talks with the world’s six major powers.
As a result, Iran has opted to publicize its role in mobilizing Shiite militias to support Iraqi government forces in the fight against ISIS. The previously elusive General Qassem Soleiamni, chief of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, has even been extensively photographed at the front.
U.S. and Iranian military forces are actually fighting a common enemy in Iraq. On the surface, “U.S. air power seems to complement Iran’s on-the-ground presence,” Nader notes. “While the United States and Iran ultimately have divergent long-term goals for Iraq, and face disagreements on many other issues, limited tactical cooperation in weakening ISIL in Iraq may be possible,” he argues. Nader also warns that that while such cooperation could weaken the group, “it is unlikely to solve the region’s increasing insecurity, which is due in part to Iran’s sectarian politics.” The following are key excerpts from the report.
Iran, Political Kingmaker and Arbitrator
Iran’s policy of maintaining influence in Iraq is to form Shi’a-led centralized governments while making sure they do not become too powerful. Thus, Iranian influence is strong within the central government and among non-governmental actors that challenge central authority.
Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani often acts as a political arbitrator between Iraqi Shi’a parties. He heads all of Iran’s activities in Iraq, including overseeing Shi’a militias, disbursing funds to political leaders, and overseeing “soft power” activities (Brennan et al., 2013). With connections to Shi’a, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish leaders, Soleimani has been directly involved in nearly all major Iraqi government deliberations since the fall of Saddam.
Iran’s Support for Shi’a Non-Governmental Militias
While helping its allies get elected, Iran simultaneously funds, equips, and even creates militant groups that enable it to pressure political actors to pursue policies beneficial to the Islamic Republic. The more powerful non-state actors grow, the weaker the Iraqi central government becomes. But once a militant group gains enough power to field a viable political party—thus needing to moderate its positions to appeal to a broader constituency—Iran invariably creates a new militant group to replace it (Eisenstadt, Knights, and Ali, 2011).
Iraqi Shi’a militias are often reported to be engaged in extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, and torture of Sunni Iraqis. They may appear reliable for Iran’s fight against ISIL, but their sectarian nature and abuses against the Sunni are increasing ISIL’s ideological and political appeal among the Sunni. Iran faces a major quandary, as it is unlikely to fully defeat Sunni extremist groups in Iraq as long as it bases its influence on Shi’a militants. But the weakening of Shi’a militias is likely to result in a strengthened Iraqi central government that could pose a long-term challenge to Iranian influence.
The Rise of ISIL: Implications for Iran
Short-to Medium-Term Gains
There are a couple possible explanations for Iran’s increasingly public role in Iraq. First, the Iranian government is keen to prove its reliability to Iraq’s Shi’a-led government.
Second, Iran’s active and explicit involvement in Iraq is a boon for the Rouhani government’s efforts to decrease Iran’s isolation, enhance its regional influence, and strengthen its partnership with global powers.
Iran’s decisive role in Iraq can demonstrate to the rest of the Middle East that its power exceeds that of Sunni states, which are unable to save the Iraqi government from ISIL. This is particularly useful in swaying smaller Sunni states (Oman being a good example) that may be suspicious of Iran to see the Islamic Republic as a necessary balance against Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps more importantly, Iran’s fight against ISIL may provide it additional leverage in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. The U.S. government has stated that its negotiations with Iran are focused solely on latter’s nuclear program and are not dependent on regional issues. Such compartmentalization can theoretically prevent greater Iranian leverage on nuclear negotiations. Tehran is unable to ease the sanctions chokehold without addressing P5+1—especially American—concerns over its nuclear program.
But Iran’s regional influence is not as easily contained by sanctions; Tehran can act independently and counter to American and Western interests in the Middle East despite the ongoing negotiations. Iran’s ability to destabilize (or stabilize) the region could convince the United States and its P5+1 interlocutors to be more flexible on the nuclear issue. There are, however, no indications this has been the case, despite suspicions that Washington and Tehran may be eyeing cooperation in Iraq in the future (Solomon and Lee, 2014).
Is There Room for Cooperation Between the United States and Iran?
The rise of ISIL has led to a debate in the United States regarding the utility and dangers of working with Iran in Iraq. Some commentators and analysts argue that Washington and Tehran should work together against ISIL (see Pillar, 2014), while others believe that the Iranian government is a major source of problems in Iraq (see Haykel, 2014; and Pletka, 2015). A closer examination of the issue reveals that American and Iranian interests in Iraq are not completely aligned, especially due to the Iranian government’s distrust of the United States and its commitment to a rivalry between the two nations. However, the two countries can still work together in pushing back ISIL from Iraqi territory. While their visions for Iraq and the region diverge, the current objective of both the United States and Iran is to diminish ISIL. Greater U.S.-Iran coordination could assist in achieving this goal.
The Iranian government appears to be of two minds in considering cooperation with Washington in Iraq. Rouhani government officials have advocated working with the United States in Iraq, but Iran’s most powerful leaders have opposed the idea in public.
Click here for the full report.
Click here to read Alireza Nader’s chapter on the Revolutionary Guards.