Things have escalated severely in Iraq. Despite the full court-press by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS/DAASH/now simply IS) south towards the capital, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, according to the BBC, “has rejected calls for a national salvation government to help counter the offensive by jihadist-led Sunni rebels.” Thus far, ISIS has scored impressive gains in Iraq, which include the takeover of an oil refinery at Bayji, the biggest in the country. Then came news that two border checkpoints were snatched up by ISIS.
Slowly, the United States has upped its support. President Barack Obama already declared that America will be sending “up to 300 military advisers” to Baghdad, as reported by CNN. This news followed reports that three American naval vessels, the USS George HW Bush, the USS Philippine Sea, and the USS Truxtun, are headed to the Persian Gulf. To date, roughly 90 of the aforementioned advisers have touched down in Iraq, according to the American Foreign Press Service. What’s more, Secretary Kerry recently wrapped up a visit to Iraq where he said, “Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq’s leaders have to beat that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands.”
That “threat” however, is codified slightly differently by Iraq’s neighbor, Iran.
The newest developments in Iraq have produced a splattering of opinions by Iran’s political and military leadership about everything ranging from US intervention to ISIS and its origins. Iranian officials and commentators have been producing their own analysis about Iraq’s crisis and what it means for the region.
In reference to the resurgent theme of possible Iranian collaboration with the US, Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, the Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, recently put a nail in that coffin. On June 18, Fars News Agency reported that he said, “There is no need for the presence of Iranian forces in Iraq, and the collaboration of Iran and America will never happen and makes no sense at all.” To add fuel to the fire, on June 22, Kayhan quoted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei as saying: “We strongly oppose the intervention of Americans or others in Iraq’s domestic affairs and do not approve of it since we are sure the government and nation of Iraq and the religious sources of emulation [Marja’iyat] of this nation have the capability to end this sedition [Fitnah] and God-willing [Inshallah], they will finish it.”
Critiquing ISIS on the other hand, Firoozabadi got creative, injecting sectarian historical narratives at a time that requires the calm and strategic hands of ecumenicalism. He likened the group’s outlook to “the ignorance of the Bani’ Umayya,” a historical reference that derides the Arab Bani’ Umayya tribe, which constituted a caliphate housed in Damascus known in history textbooks as the Umayyad Dynasty (roughly 661-750 AD). In Shiite history, a prominent branch of the Umayyad family helped fan the Islamic Civil War against Ali ibn Abu Talib (the last “rightly guided” Caliph/first Imam of Sh’ism) and slaughtered the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn bin Ali (the third Imam of Shiism) in Karbala, Iraq.
Many in the West may have glossed over these points, but in their essence, they help propel today’s sectarian conflict.
Moreover, despite what we know today about the origins and evolution of ISIS/IS in Iraq, Firoozabadi does not see its rise as such. According to Fars, he exclaimed that, “DAASH is an Israel[i] and America[n] movement for the creation of a secure border for the Zionists against the forces of resistance in the region ….” Unfortunately, this view has not been confined to Firoozabadi alone. Iran’s former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani recently asserted that ISIS was foreign-sponsored, noting that “the unwavering support of hidden hands to this group by some regional countries and [countries] out of the region ….” Even Iran’s Supreme Leader chimed in, saying: “That which has occurred in Iraq is not a Sunni-Shi’ite war, but rather with the dominant system’s [Nezam-e Solteh (another name for the US)] use of the residues of Saddam’s regime as the main axes and fanatic Takfiri elements as infantry, it attempts to upset the stability and tranquility of Iraq and threaten the country’s territorial integrity.”
On June 25, in what can only be ascribed to the Islamic Republic’s attempt to impose its definition of unity upon Iraq, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the Deputy Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), touted that “Shi’ites and Sunni’s of Iraq will be transformed into a great power against America and arrogance.” He further proclaimed that “the people of Iraq have reached the point that they must rely on their inner power and America is not a good base of support for them.” Unity in Iraq remains a key theme for Iran. The Iraqi-born Iranian politician Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, who currently serves as the Guardian Council’s Vice-Chairman, added to that sentiment by saying: “[T]he division of Iraq is not acceptable to the government[s] of Iraq and Iran and only benefits America. The people of Iraq must preserve their unity.”
But Iran is not only speaking about events in Iraq; it appears to be taking action. The New York Times ran a piece on June 25 describing everything from Iranian surveillance drones to the Islamic Republic’s vast provision of “military equipment and supplies” to Iraq. On June 24, ABC News reported that the Air Force of Iran’s oldest state ally in the region, the Syrian Arab Republic, allegedly bombarded parts of Anbar province.
Just prior to these developments, one analyst did note a paradox of strategic import. On June 18, Sa’adollah Zaraei claimed: “If the Americans remain in a state of silence, and don’t come to the aid of the government of Iraq, the small veins of the relationship between Baghdad and Washington will tear, and the relationship between Tehran and Baghdad will become stronger, hence, America is trapped is a great historical contradiction.”
There is a kernel of truth to that statement. The American public in general is seeking to turn away from the endless conflicts in the Middle East, and specifically the turmoil in Iraq. But to US adversaries like Iran, the future of Iraq is seen as increasingly tied to Iran’s ability to change outcomes, establish narratives, and perhaps even attempt to project power.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.