A deliberately gory June 2014 report on the Shi’a Ahl al-Bayt website, no doubt intended to arouse emotions, shows a photo of the bloodied face of Alireza Moshajari. It describes him as the first of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to have become a “martyr” in defense of the sacred shrine of Karbala against the then Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now the Islamic State. Karbala, one of the most important Shi’a holy sites, is the battlefield where Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, fought and died a martyr’s death (Ahl al-Bayat, June 16, 2014). The site also shows other photos of Moshajari posing for a camera in a western Iranian province, apparently preparing to depart for Iraq.
A month later, in July 2014, reports of the death of another member of the IRGC, Kamal Shirkhani in Samarra, further indicated an Iranian troop presence deep inside in Iraq (Basijpress, July 8, 2014). More significant, however, was the December 2014 news of the death of Iranian Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, while he was on an “advisory” mission in Iraq (Mehr News, December 29, 2014; Fars News, December 29, 2014). He was the highest-ranking Iranian officer to be killed in Iraq since the 1980-1988 war. Taqavi had reportedly been assassinated by the Islamic State in Samarra (Fars News, January 5).
While Iran has continuously and publicly denied having a formal troop presence in Iraq, with IRGC officials saying that Iran has no need to have an army in its neighboring country, the evidence suggests a growing trend of Iranian military activities in certain regions of Iraq deemed critical to Tehran and are related to Iran’s efforts to contain the Islamic State (Fars News, September 22, 2014). However, this trend, which apparently has been growing since summer 2014, is less about expanding Iran’s power and is more a defensive strategic attempt to prevent the Islamic State from undermining two of Iran’s two core interests in Iraq: the security of its borders and the protection of Shi’a shrines there. Unlike Iran’s strategy in Syria, which is primarily about preserving the Assad regime even at the expense of fostering sectarianism, Tehran is keen to prevent its Shi’a-dominated neighbor from developing a sectarian mindset that could potentially have wider negative implications for Iran in the region.
Iran’s Islamic State Problem
As a militant organization emerging from the Syrian civil war, but whose core originates in the earlier anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq, the Islamic State has not only forcefully established a military presence in regions of Iraq and Syria, but has done so as an intensely sectarian force. Driven by its view that Shi’as are infidels, the Islamic State’s military expansion in Syria, which spilled over into Iraq in summer 2014, has exacerbated tit-for-tat sectarian conflicts in both countries which have increasingly worried the Islamic Republic, the world’s largest Shi’a state.
Iran’s concern over the Islamic State is fourfold:
- Firstly, the military onslaught by the forces of the self-declared Sunni caliphate has, at times, posed an immediate threat to Iran’s west central provinces bordering Iraq, such as Ilam and Kermanshah. Though Iranian officials publically claim that the Islamic State does not have the capacity to attack Iran, there has been clear concern about the militants’ takeover of relatively nearby Iraqi cities such as Hawija and Mosul (Tabnak, July 2, 2014). The Islamic State’s further rapid take-over of Khanaqin, eastern Diyala and areas near the Iranian border in early summer 2014 underlined the threat to Iran’s borders (Shafaq, October 8, 2014). Such developments have triggered an outbreak of conspiracy theories in Iran. For instance, one cleric argued that the Islamic State originally wanted to attack Iran instead of Syria, as part of a larger Western conspiracy against the Islamic Republic (Sepaheqom, December 31, 2014). Such conspiratorial views echo a belief by many Iranian officials that the Islamic State is a U.S. creation and that its aim is to sow discord and conflict in a region where Iran claims dominance.
- The second Iranian concern is also connected with border security, this time in the form of Iranian fears of a refugee crisis arising from Islamic State attacks (Khabar Online, June 15, 2014). The refugee wave from Islamic State-affected areas of Iraq, similar to that which Iran saw from Afghanistan in the 1980s, is seen by Iran as posing significant security threat to the region and an economic burden to its economy, which is already struggling under U.S.-led sanctions (al-Arabiya, October 28, 2014).
- Iran’s third concern is over growing sympathies among Iran’s Sunni minority for Sunni sectarian groups such as the Islamic State. Fears of Islamic State influence in southeastern regions and northwestern Kurdistan, which have large Sunni populations, continue to pose a major problem for the Islamic Republic (Terrorism Monitor, December 13, 2013). In particular, there are fears that political-military movements such as Ahle Sunnat-e Iran (a.k.a. Jaysh al-Adl, Army of Justice), an offshoot of the Jundallah (Soldiers of God) militant group, may be inspired by the Islamic State or even that such groups may collaborate with the group to conduct insurgency operations inside Iran (Mehr News, August 15, 2014).
- The fourth reason for Iran’s concern is the religious dimension, perhaps the most significant to many Iranian government and military operatives. Iraq is home to a number of key Shi’a shrines, and Samarra – home to one of the most important such shrines – is on the frontline of the ongoing struggle against the Islamic State. Located 80 miles away from Baghdad and a short distance south of Tikrit, a Sunni Iraqi stronghold where there is some sympathy for the Islamic State, Samarra is where Iranian forces have mostly concentrated, due to the religious importance of the shrine and its vulnerability to Sunni militants. Apparently working under the assumption that United States’s objectives against the Islamic State are only to protect the Kurds, a primary mission of Iranian forces is to protect Samarra’s al-Askar shrine, whose dome had been previously destroyed by Salafist militants in February 2006.
It is, therefore, no coincidence that most announcements of Iranian deaths in Iraq have related to Samarra and that such announcements also deliberately emphasize the religious angle. For example, public announcements of the death of Mehdi Noruzi, a member of Iran’s Basij militia who was apparently nicknamed “Lion of Samarra” and was killed by the Islamic State in that city, highlighted the religious dimension of the conflict in order to arouse religious fervor and, hence, public support (Fars News, January 12; al-Arabiya, January 12). A further example is that all the 29 Iranian deaths reported in December 2014 most likely took place in and around Samarra, as with the death of an Iranian military pilot, Colonel Shoja’at Alamdari Mourjani, who likely died on the ground in the vicinity of the city (al-Jazeera, July 5, 2014). Underlining the importance of Samarra and other shrines to Iran, a June 2014 statement by Qom-based Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi called for jihad against the takfiri (apostate) Islamic State in defense of Iraq and Shi’a shrines. This was partly meant as a religious decree intended to swiftly mobilize support for countering the Islamic State onslaught. His fatwa can also be seen as a move, most likely backed by Tehran, intended to help the government recruit volunteers to fight in Iraq.
While the U.S.-led air-campaign has curtailed the Islamic State’s progress since August, Iranian forces on the ground have also played a critical role in limiting its advance into northeast and southcentral Iraq. Iran’s support for Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, as well as for Iraq’s army and militia forces, has also played a key role.
As illustrated by the recent death of Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, the Iranian military mission includes high-ranking members, including General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s special operations Quds Force. Iranian military activities in Iraq appear to largely concentrate along the Iraq-Iran border and in key Shi’a shrine cities, most importantly Samarra, for the reasons stated above. Meanwhile, ten divisions of Iran’s regular army are reportedly stationed along the Iraqi borders, ready for military confrontation (Gulf News, June 26, 2014).
In the conflict against the Islamic State, the Quds Force paramilitary operatives play an integral role, notably in training and commanding Iraqi forces, especially Sadrist and other militia groups such as Kataib al-Imam Ali (al-Arabiya, January 9). Typically, this has involved recruiting and training Shi’a Iraqi volunteers in camps in various Iraqi provinces, including Baghdad (ABNA 24, June 16, 2014). Quds officers have also reportedly been directly active in key hubs of the conflict, such as the siege of Amerli in northern Iraq, where Kurdish and Shi’a militia forces eventually defeated the Islamic State, with the input of Soleimani, in September 2014 (al-Jazeera, September 1, 2014; Gulf News, October 6, 2014).
The Lebanese Hezbollah group also plays a role in both training volunteers and conducting military operations in key battles against the Islamic State, as in the October 2014 attack on Islamic State positions in Jurf al-Sakhr, southwest of Baghdad, which reportedly involved 7,000 Iraqi troops, including militiamen (Al-Monitor, November 6, 2014; al-Arabiya, November 5, 2014). Meanwhile, the role of established Shi’a Iraqi militias such as the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Amiri, appears to be to support Iran’s training of volunteers, though the Badr force has also participated directly in joint military operations against the Islamic State (Al-Monitor, November 28, 2014). In an unprecedented way, therefore, Iran is currently uniting Shi’a militias to fight a common, perhaps existential enemy of Shi’as: Sunni radicalism.
Iranian deployment of ground troops, however, has been only one part of its broader military operation in Iraq. Alongside military operations, Iran has also shared intelligence with Kurdish and Iraqi forces, and allegedly installed intelligence units at various airfields to intercept the Islamic State communications (al-Jazeera, January 3). There are also reports of Iran sending domestically-built Adabil drones to Iraq to help the government against the Islamic State, highlighting Iran’s growing unmanned aerial surveillance capability (Gulf News, June 26, 2014). Such intelligence sharing and military coordination against the Islamic State is likely to be most significant in eastern Iraq, in areas closest to Iran (al-Jazeera, December 3, 2014; al-Arabiya, January 16). Thanks to agreements signed between Iran and Iraq in late November 2013, the dispatch of weapons to Iraq has likely considerably increased since summer 2014 (al-Jazeera, February 24, 2014; Press TV, June 26, 2014).
A Strategic Outline: National and Regional Impact
In an October 12 interview, Brigadier Yadollah Javani, the head of the IRGC’s political bureau argued that the Islamic State had failed to capture Baghdad because of Iran’s military support for the Iraqi government (Iranian Students News Agency, October 12, 2014). This may be true on a tactical level, but in a longer-term strategic sense Tehran’s effort in Iraq may yet lead to unintended consequences that could yet threaten its wider interests in the region.
The most significant impact of Iran’s interference in Iraq is likely to be sectarian. Iran, of course, is aware of the potentially radicalizing impact of its operations among Sunnis and the main reason it keep its military operations low profile is to avoid inflaming such sectarian tensions (al-Jazeera, July 5, 2014). However, Tehran’s efforts have not been entirely effective. Anti-Iranian views in the (Sunni) Arab media are widespread, and these primarily describe Iran’s intervention in Iraq as part of a sinister, broader strategy (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 13). Meanwhile, in Iraq itself, despite Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to bring Sunni Arabs into the government, not only in the provinces but also in Baghdad, the outcome of this process remains to be seen. For the most part, Sunni Arabs still feel marginalized and the potential for them to support the Islamic State remains high (al-Jazeera, January 3). Iran is likely to fear that such Sunni resentment may further encourage Saudi Arabia to involve itself in Iraq as a way to curtail Iran’s growing influence there.
Often overlooked, there is also the intra-Shi’a impact of Iran’s involvement, which Tehran appears understandably keen to downplay. Various Shi’a groups and figures continue to compete for influence in southern Iraq, with the interests of non-Iranian Shi’as being best represented by Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani, the highest-ranking cleric in the Shi’a world and weary of repeated Iranian involvement in Iraq since 2003, has distanced himself from Soleimani and Iran’s military presence in Iraq. In fact, Sistani’s representative has argued that the cleric’s important summer 2014 fatwa calling for volunteers to resist the Islamic State was meant for Iraqis and not for Iranian Shi’as (Al-Monitor, December 2, 2014). How Sistani will respond to a continued Iranian presence in Iraq and in key shrine cities, especially after the Islamic State threat eventually wanes, remains to be seen. While it is likely that Sistani will continue to encourage some pragmatic cooperation with Tehran against the Islamic State, he will not accept a prolonged Iranian military presence in Iraq. This underlines that while the long-term implications of Iranian intervention in Iraq are unclear, for now at least Iran’s military intervention in Iraq has effectively united Shi’as against the Islamic State.
Nima Adelkhah is an independent analyst based in New York. His current research agenda includes the Middle East, military strategy and technology, and nuclear proliferation among other defense and security issues.