Editor’s Note: The Middle East makes strange bedfellows, and one of the oddest pairings is the de facto alliance between Iran and the United States in Iraq. Across the border in Syria, Iran and the United States support opposing armies, but both countries are helping the Iraqi government confront the jihadist fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Iran’s help, however, is likely to be far more substantial, and thus far more important. Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, assesses the purposes and types of Iranian military support and its implications for Iraq and the United States.
Iran, like the United States, is confronting a Middle East that is on fire—but for Iran, the fire is on its doorstep. Syria’s civil war gave new life to the jihadist group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), now simply called the Islamic State, which has emerged from the conflict rich in spoils, arms, and recruits. The former Al Qaeda affiliate’s swift movement into Iraq, which culminated in the seizing of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, as well as a number of other northwestern villages and towns, has plunged Iraq into civil war. Iraq’s embattled prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, has turned to his major allies—the United States, Russia, and Iran—for help. All have offered military aid of some sort, but it is Iran that will be the most deeply involved.
Iran considers Baghdad a close friend and has offered to help in any way it can. On June 14, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani unequivocally stated, “If the Iraqi government asks us for help, we may provide any assistance the Iraqi nation would like us to provide in the fight against terrorism.” Iran’s interests in Iraq are many and are fueled by intersecting strategic, religious, and personal impulses, but its immediate concerns and goals are more limited. Above all, Iran wants to maintain the stability of its neighbor and second closest ally after Syria. It wants to preserve its influence in Iraq and its close ties with the leadership in Baghdad, which means keeping Maliki in place and preventing outside pressure (such as from the United States and Saudi Arabia) from replacing him with someone less inclined toward Iran. More practically, it seeks to protect Iranians and Iranian interests in Iraq, particularly Iranian pilgrims, government investments, and businesses in the Shia south. Iran is also concerned with defending Shia holy sites––especially the shrines in Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra—from destruction by ISIS militants, which is how Iran’s activities in Iraq are described in the Iranian press. Iran is equally concerned with maintaining border security and preventing ISIS from gaining footholds along the border that could place the group within striking distance of Iranian cities.
Iran will be working discreetly at both the political and military levels to achieve these objectives. Politically, Iran’s foremost task will be mustering support for Maliki among allied Iraqi politicians and Shia militant groups. Iran does not have a monopoly of influence in Iraq—many Iraqi politicians, clergy, and tribal leaders resent Iran’s sway in their country—but it does maintain close ties with individuals and groups (such as the Badr Organization and Kitaib Hezbollah) that can, through various means, affect what happens on the ground and shape decision-making in Baghdad. In the short term, this effort will be aimed at buffering Maliki from U.S. attempts to push him out of office. Iran could live without Maliki, and might have alternative candidates in mind if the push to oust Maliki gains steam, but for now, Iran sees Maliki as a guarantor of the status quo and has put its chips on him remaining in office.
Iran’s political efforts in Iraq will lay the groundwork for its military assistance. This support will involve six main areas: command and control (C2); logistics and planning; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); training and organizing; materiel; and limited combat operations. Iran’s effort is being led by the special operations forces branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), known as the Quds Force, and its commander, Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. The Quds Force has close ties to Iran’s supreme leader and operates as an official arm of the Iranian regime in areas such as intelligence and military support in foreign countries. Through this work it has developed strong links with segments of Iraq’s military, security forces, and armed Shia militias. It has coordinated with these elements in Iraqi operations in the past, and has led the integration of Shia militias into the Syrian conflict, where Iraqi fighters from groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, and Kitaib Hezbollah were used to guard the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab near Damascus. Suleimani will utilize this network, as well as his extensive connections within Iraq’s security and political establishments, to distribute Iran’s military aid and oversee all operations in Iraq.
The Iraqi government’s military and security forces suffer from inept leadership, deficient logistics, and poor morale. These factors contributed to the near disintegration of Iraqi forces at the Syrian border and in Mosul, paving the way for ISIS’s near-effortless victories. Iran’s effort in refining C2 operations in Syria appear to have helped solidify Asad’s forces in that conflict, and it is likely that Iran intends to affect the fight against ISIS in Iraq through similar C2—as well as logistical—assistance.
The United States will likely be involved in Iraq in comparable ways, but because both countries refuse to coordinate with each other, we can expect a clear separation between these efforts. The divide will probably be simple: the United States will advise Iraq’s national forces and senior commanders, picking up where U.S. forces left off in 2011, while Iran will primarily work with auxiliary security forces and Shia militias. Geographical separation of any combat operations that arise from these efforts is also likely. For instance, Iranian advisors are reportedly positioned in Samarra to help defend the Shia shrine there, an initiative of prime importance to the Iranians and Iraqis, but one unlikely to also include U.S. advisors.
Iran appears to have begun ISR operations in Iraq. According to anonymous U.S. sources, Iranian surveillance drones are being flown out of Rasheed airbase in Baghdad. An Iranian signals intelligence unit is also based there, working to intercept electronic communications sent between ISIS commanders. Further reports suggest reconnaissance drones are being flown out of Samarra as well. Iran’s first reported military death, that of an IRGC air force colonel, occurred last week in that city when an ISIS mortar shell struck his command post. The IRGC colonel, who has been heralded as a martyr in the Iranian press, was reportedly involved in Samarra-based drone operations. (A second fatality from the Samarra attack was announced in an Iranian hardline blog but has yet to be confirmed in official Iranian media.) In addition to this, one would expect that all of the ISR and electronic warfare tools Iran has brought to bear in Syria will also find a place in Iraq. It is unclear if this will affect Iran’s level of support in Syria, but so far there are no indications that it will.
Iraq has served as a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to Syria since at least 2012. It is now poised to be a recipient of such transfers. What Iraq needs and what Iran has to give are not quite clear, but there have already been reports of large deliveries of military hardware and weapons. It is likely that the vast majority of what Iran provides will go to its clients in the Shia militias and auxiliary armed forces. The swell of new civilian volunteers—many of whom are being organized into Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and other militias—are also poorly equipped and poorly armed, making them another possible destination for Iranian aid. Numerous pictures of Iraqi militias supplied with mortars, rockets, and firearms of possible Iranian origin have been recently posted on social media sites, suggesting they mark the early signs of Iranian assistance. Iran, of course, denies any such assistance.
The most visible sign of Iranian materiel support has been the “return” of two Su-25 and one Su-25UB combat aircraft to Iraq. These Soviet-era jets are designed for close air support for ground force operations and are part of the IRGC’s air fleet. They were originally sold to Iraq by the Soviet Union, but were flown to Iran by Iraqi pilots during the 1991 Gulf War and subsequently confiscated by Iran as reparations for Iraq’s invasion of it 11 years earlier. Iraq has claimed that these planes have been returned by Iran out of goodwill, but it is doubtful that Iran—which cannot buy combat aircraft due to sanctions—would completely relinquish possession of them. It is also uncertain that Iraqi pilots have retained the knowledge to operate these aircraft. For this reason, IRGC pilots will likely be involved in training their Iraqi counterparts—which would take an unknown amount of time—and might even be the sole operators of the planes. A report in The New York Times citing an American official claimed that at least one of the Su-25s has already flown in operations over Ramadi, Fallujah, and the Baiji refinery and was piloted by an Iranian. If true, this would be the clearest evidence of Iranian involvement in combat operations in Iraq thus far. It also suggests that the United States has a clear view of Iran’s military involvement.
One of Iran’s hallmark achievements in Syria has been the organization and training of pro-Asad militias, which helped shore up Syrian forces after the massive defections of Sunnis from their ranks. Iran will replay that role in Iraq. As IRGC Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri told Iran’s Al Alam news, Iran will provide Iraq “with our successful experiments in popular all-around defense, the same winning strategy used in Syria to put the terrorists on the defensive...This same strategy is now taking shape in Iraq—mobilizing masses of all ethnic groups.” Iran trained and organized Shia militants in Iraq during the U.S. occupation and has continued to work with those clients since then. Battle-hardened Shia Iraqi militants have been gradually returning from Syria over the last several months in response to ISIS’s growing presence in Iraq’s Anbar province. These militants will likely take a leading role in the defense of Iraq’s shrines and be involved in clearing hostile forces (and likely any civilians suspected of having ties to hostile forces) out of smaller towns, villages, and urban areas nominally under Baghdad’s control. Through Quds Force commanders, Iran will help coordinate militia operations, oversee C2, outfit units, and train new volunteers. Operatives from Lebanese Hezbollah assisted Quds Force in training Iraqi militants in the past, and one would expect a similar dynamic this time around.
What remains to be seen is how the influx of Shia civilian volunteers, responding to the call to action by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will be integrated. Reports have indicated that they are bound for paramilitary forces, such as the militias and the Mahdi Army; but if this mobilization continues to build, Iran might try to steer it in another direction. Iran’s Basij popular militia seems to have been the prototype for the pro-Asad groups Iran helped establish in Syria, and it would not be surprising to see a comparable scenario unfold in Iraq. The formation of a substantial all-volunteer paramilitary, with strong local leadership, neighborhood-based units, and an ideologically pro-Iran, Shia-centric focus—attributes of the Basij organization—would be a natural progression of Iraq’s popular mobilization, and one Iran would likely be keen to produce if it could. But like Syria’s shabiha (a shadowy pro-Asad militia) and National Defense Force, which have acted along sectarian lines and have been blamed for brutal violence against civilians, the inclusion of militias and popular forces in Iraq promises to harden the sectarian dimensions of the conflict.
In addition to their various advisory roles, it is likely that Iranian military elements will engage in limited combat operations. Iranian-piloted Su-25 missions are probably the first evidence of this. Quds Force and other specialized IRGC units will likely be forward deployed with Shia militias and other Iraqi military detachments, and could thus also see combat. If their role in Syria is any guide, the participation of Quds Force and IRGC personnel in Iraq will be unpublicized and denied in official statements. As such, the presence of Iranian forces in Iraq will be limited, more likely to be in the hundreds than the thousands, and designated to mostly advisory and training capacities. At present, reports suggest that in addition to an unknown number of Quds Force advisors, at least two IRGC battalions have been sent to Baghdad and the shrine cities from Iran. Iran’s combat role could grow if ISIS is able to penetrate Samarra or the Shia south, or if it reaches the border with Iran. Indeed, Iran has already pledged that it would directly engage ISIS if its forces reached within 60 miles of the Iranian border.
Iraqi government forces, including the Shia militias, have a demographic advantage over ISIS and its supporters. For this reason, there is little need for Iran to expand its assistance by bringing in large numbers of its own forces. However, because the fight against ISIS is considered legitimate by the United States and most of the international community—a sharp contrast to Syria, where Iran is supporting the side that is fighting against those the United States and much of the international community consider to be the “legitimate” fighters—Iran could conceivably get away with supporting Iraq in more robust ways. I do not believe that Iran currently wants or would be willing to assist Iraq through a large-scale military intervention, but such an expansion is at least more politically and diplomatically viable than in Syria, and given that border security and the protection of Shia shrines are such acute issues for Iran, certain escalations in the conflict could make a future intervention plausible.
Iran’s involvement in Iraq carries risks. For one, the fight on the ground is both political and sectarian. Like its support for Asad, Iran’s efforts in Iraq will fan the flames of sectarian hatred in the Middle East. ISIS has gone full-tilt in its designs to purge the Shia from Syria and Iraq. The attitudes of Sunni civilians, already alienated by the sectarian chauvinism and abuse of Maliki’s government, will only be hardened by the conflict. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states see the war through a similar lens, and will find it difficult to actively counter ISIS if they believe it would be to the benefit of Iran and its Shia allies. Passions have equally risen among the Shia, unleashing an odium and suspicion of Sunnis that will not easily dissipate. And all this comes at a time when Iran has been trying to reconnect with the international community, reengage with Western governments, restore its image, and repair its broken economy.
Even if Iran were to help the Iraqi government win the fight against ISIS (and its supporters among the former Baathists) through violence, the outcome will not be a clear-cut victory. The conflict has already pushed Kurdish leaders to openly talk about secession from Iraq, a move Iran fears. Tehran has been fighting an on-and-off insurgency in the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan for decades, and the creation of a neighboring independent Kurdish state could fuel more violence and energize separatist ambitions. Iran can also not afford, over the long term, to be seen as an anti-Sunni presence in the region. Such a perception would make it impossible for Iran to normalize relations with its Arab rivals in the Persian Gulf. It could also inspire increased outside support for Sunni militant groups operating within Iran’s borders, particularly in the Kurdish and Baluch regions, sparking more terrorist attacks. In sum, what has taken root in Iraq is the metastasizing malignancy of sectarianism. Iran—and the region—will enjoy no peace so long as it and its Arab neighbors continue to ignore the sectarian implications of their strategic aspirations and policies.
This puts the United States in a difficult position. The Obama administration is pressing hard to find an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. In a different world, this might mean that the United States and Iran were on the fast track to being friends; in the world we live in, Middle East politics will keep them apart. The United States and Iran remain divided on a number of issues in the region. They are on opposite sides in Syria and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both want to crush ISIS in Iraq, but their goals in that country are not the same. The United States wants Maliki to step aside and has called for more inclusion in the Iraqi government. Iran is allied with Maliki and sees no reason to dilute Shia dominance in Iraqi politics. The United States does not want Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, nor does it want to see the Shia militias (which battled U.S. forces during the occupation) expand their role in the country. Similarly, Iran does not want to see a return of U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran would probably welcome certain forms of limited U.S. military assistance—such as selling arms to Baghdad or providing air support to Iraqi ground forces—but for the most part, Iran would like to handle this on its own. This leaves little room for positive interaction between Washington and Tehran. There are many reasons why Iranian and U.S. interests could dovetail in Iraq—shared antagonism for jihadists, strong interest in retaining the integrity of the Iraqi state, a desire to maintain stability—but for the reasons outlined above, that is unlikely to happen.
Afshon Ostovar is a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at CNA, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization. He is the author of On Shifting Sands: Iranian Strategy in a Changing Middle East and is currently writing a book on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.