Iranian perspectives on the crisis in Iraq

As the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS/DAASH) continues its operations, the Iraqi parliament has, according to the BBC, reportedly pushed back a vote “on a request to grant the prime minister emergency powers.”

Nuri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, has long looked past concepts such as “power sharing” as a solution to a volatile Iraq. But as was recently revealed by The New York Times, attacks during the month of May prompted him to request backup — from the United States.

There is, however, another country, one with a roughly 1,400 kilometer-long border with Iraq, that may be tempted to step in: Iran.

Should the US continue to turn a blind eye toward Iraq’s chaos, Iran may very well feel it can further tie Iraq and Maliki’s political future to the Islamic Republic. That would put the US on diminished footing vis-à-vis bargaining with Maliki to accept military assistance in favor of necessary political preconditions, such as those floated in The Wall Street Journal by the scholar Kenneth M. Pollack. Already, in Iran’s political parlance, Iraq has purportedly been referred to as “the Islamic government of Iraq” by former Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi.

In fact, Iran would most likely be happy to see America leave Iraq flailing in the wind. This neatly conforms to the Islamic Republic’s pre-existing narratives of American reliability. Moreover, it gives the likes of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Commander of the IRGC Quds-Force (IRGC-QF), the chance to strut his stuff. Depending on prospective levels of Iranian support to Iraq in this crisis, the maxim of Suleimani’s that was popularized in The New Yorker— “‘We’re not like the Americans. We don’t abandon our friends'” — may once again be proven correct. After all, a photo recently emerged on Farhang News showing him holding hands with Iraqi Parliamentarian Qassem al-Araji in Iraq.

The events in Iraq have further forced Iran’s political and military class out of the woodwork, commenting on the situation to their East. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif noted that “Iran … is ready to help the government and people of Iraq to combat terrorism,” according to Radio Farda. President Rouhani also touched on the developments in Iraq, but did so by advertising a “session of the Supreme National Security Council” dedicated to the “region,” as was reported by Mehr News Agency.

On the IRGC front, Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to the Guards, Hojjat-ol-Eslam Ali Saeedi, started pointing fingers for the violence. The countries that Saeedi held chiefly responsible, as reported by Tasnim News Agency were: America, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. He further stated that “[t]oday they feel that all their conspiracies in Syria have been defeated, [and] they have opened up another front by the name of Iraq ….” Picking up a similar theme, the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, was quoted by Mehr News Agency as saying, “Events that have taken place in various countries today, and as such in Iraq, are the results of military interventions by America and Western governments.”

But there may be another culprit, one that rings a historical bell for Iran. According to a recent report in The New York Times, “Baathist military commanders from the Hussein era” have linked up with the armed militias currently conquering Iraqi territory. Should this be true, Iran’s revolutionary leaders may feel their memory jogged by propaganda tactics used by the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, at the beginning of the bloody eight-year war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). Back then, Khomeini instructed the army and people of the “noble nation” of Iraq to rebel against Saddam, and reminded the populace in loaded religious language that “you know this war is between Islam and disbelief, the glorious Quran and atheism ….”

Following Khomeini’s example, Iran’s religious leaders have joined the fray, adding fuel to the sectarian fire. Some clerics took the stance of Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, who offered his best wishes but cautioned that “forces of resistance will extinguish this sedition with prudence and unity,” as reported by The Islamic Revolution Documentation Center. Furthermore, the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) ran a story reporting Prime Minister Maliki’s praise of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric (who, incidentally, is of Iranian origin, as his surname attests).

The strongest message came, however, from Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nuri Hamadani. In language that went beyond basic lexical devices, Hamadani portrayed the events taking place in Iraq as a celestial struggle between good and evil. He told the Iraqis that “it is incumbent upon Muslims to defend Islam with all [their] strength and capabilities, and be sure that the victory of Muslims is final in every stage, and the defeat of the opponents of Islam is certain,” Mehr News Agency reported. Hamadani concluded his message with an excerpt of Chapter 61, Verse 13 of the Holy Quran, which assures “victory from God and a near triumph …” [نصر من الله و فتح قریب].

That may well hold true, but whose side God is on in this battle shall continue to remain to be seen.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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  • ChangeIranNow says:

    The quickly deteriorating situation in Iraq is so similar to what is happening in Syria where a strongman leader in Maliki, who has chosen to govern solely from a Shiite power base closely aligned to Iran, has actively alienated large Sunni and Kurdish populations in Iraq which is sparking this uprising. And just as in Syria, terror groups such as Al-Qaeda have sought to take advantage of the situation by jumping in.
    Iran’s decision to send in troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is nothing more than a pre-emptive attempt to keep another regime upright that is falling to popular discontent and preserve the string of friendly governments it is seeking to boost in the region. Iran’s mullahs recognize correctly that their precarious hold on regional power under strict Shiite control is in danger of slipping and as such have to go all in to preserve it. It’s an old recipe for them they have already practiced in Syria for two years. The irony here is the perception that the West and Iran might both be on the same side of supporting Maliki which is a dangerous assumption to make.
    Just as backing other strongmen in the region has turned out poorly for the US, sticking by Maliki would also be a mistake. It should set off warning bells anytime the US and Iran find themselves on the same side of any issue.

  • T Cantwell says:

    I have to disagree. The actual Iranian perspective is that they must do three things in this order in Iraq. First, they must protect the two holiest sites in the Shia faith, Samarra and Karbala. Second, they must keep their lines of communication open in to Syria. Third, they must prop up their struggling client, the Maliki Government and by extension, the Shia population of Iraq. I predict that the Iranians will introduce whatever they need to introduce, from Qods Force advisors, to major conventional formations of the Revolutionary Guard to accomplish the first and second tasks. I’m not sure whether they will seek to open the axis thru Mosul or the more westerly axis thru Ramadi. With respect to their third goal, they now recognize that Maliki is not capable. He will shortly “retire”.

  • Eric says:

    I am watching and learning. I do not know enough to see where all this is going, but I am researching late into the evening.
    Thing that has my attention is this: Once the Qods force is engaged in combat operations in Iraq, how long will they remain, and how far will they go?
    What is to stop them from pursuing their enemy right across Iraq into Syria?
    Will there be activity in the far south, near Kuwait and Saudi Arabia? I see no reason given the strategic picture, but could Iran pass up the opportunity to provoke the Saudis in this way?
    And What is Israel going to do? Qods Force in Syria – again, how close to the Golan could they operate? And again, why would they pass that opportunity up, if it were right there?
    Iran sending troops into Iraq. Changes the status quo. A bit.

  • RIRedinPA says:

    In regards to those who will post with the knee jerk bashing of the administration but offer nothing more than “Obama sucks” vitriol what, exactly, do you expect him to do? Surely, it’s not to follow McCain’s advice, for if he did we’d have troops in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and who knows where else.
    The pragmatic leader on this was George Bush the first, who had the wisdom to see in the first Gulf War that removing Hussein from power would leave a vacuum that would either be filled by an Iranian or at the time Saudi backed despot and open the region to the sectarian strife we have witnessed for the last decade in Iraq. We never won in Iraq, we only made a bad situation worse, at the cost of 4500 lives and billions in treasure.
    Despite GOP huffing and puffing they know full well the public has no desire for American kids to bleed to protect Iraqi ones.
    I would think Iran loathes this situation now, for it could soon be their quagmire now. It further exposes their tinkering within Iraq, though for the most part it was a open secret but now, Maliki has called on them to protect Baghdad and the holy sites. In the hinterlands north of Baghdad right now one of the most effective forces are the Iranian trained Hezbollah militias Asaib and Kataeb, who prior where ‘in the shadows’ players but now are openly patrolling and in some cases already confronting ISIS.
    If Baghdad falls, so to does $5B worth of annual trade for Iran, if they lose the holy cities then they lose credence in being able to protect Shia through out the arc in the ME. Even if Baghdad does not fall, Iran will be needed to prop up the failed Maliki regime while Sunni militants explode themselves in market places throughout greater Baghdad.
    If Iran is able to push back ISIS forces then what? They can’t leave, not given the ineptitude of the Iraqi forces and a huge, hostile Sunni population in the western regions. Once Iran pulls out, the vacuum appears again and another ISIS forms.
    This, to me is why Tehran is willing to work with Washington. The more forces opposing ISIS, the easier it is for them to extricate themselves after ISIS is defeated. Ah, there’s America who views the world as their garden to tend, let them come up and help pull out these weeds and then stick around, to make sure no more grow.
    And this is why Obama I think is fine with the current situation, he’s holding a nice full house at the table. We’re done with Maliki and will no longer support his corrupt regime, all he had to do was be inclusive of the Sunni and though there probably would of been terrorist and militants the Western tribes would of cooperated in putting them down, they see themselves as Iraqi as well as Sunni, as Maliki sees himself as Shia as well as Iraqi. Now, let Iran be drawn in, let their forces wither through IED attacks and suicide bombings, let their treasury deplete fighting an al Queda off-shoot. Let their people grow weary of it as ours did.


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