As the assault of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Iraq increasingly enhances the prospect of Iraq’s disintegration, Iran has responded aggressively by adopting a policy of direct engagement with its neighbor (Press TV [Tehran], June 12; Fars News [Tehran], June 12). For Iranians, the breakdown of security caused by “Takfiri terrorists,” or those who have rejected the true religion of Islam, is more than an occasion to reach for power over a neighboring state they were once at war with, but also a way to prevent a spill-over of sectarianism and separatism resulting from the possible partitioning of Iraq. The risk for Iran is the breakup of Iraq into provinces that would not only destabilize regional security, but also weaken Iran’s influence in the absence of a Shi’a-dominated centralized government.
The unfolding crisis in Iraq is also perceived by Iran as a sectarian threat. The deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Hossein Salami, has argued that the activities of ISIS Iraq “are the fallout from the interference of hegemonic powers and their allies in the region” (Press TV [Tehran], June 13). The aim of the enemy, he explains, is to widen the gap between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq to start “a world war among Islamic sects” (Fars News [Tehran], June 25). While the West sees the security threat in Iraq as a setback for democracy, largely a result of the Shi’a-dominated administration of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iran sees the ISIS menace as an existential threat to Shi’a identity and an extension of a proxy war launched by the Sunni Gulf states, a conflict which continues with the civil war in Syria.
At center stage in the conflict is the IRGC and its presence in Iraq. Given the weakness of the Iraqi army, the Iranian paramilitary force is likely to play an integral role in countering ISIS while actively distancing itself from the public perception that it is acting independently of Baghdad to bring security to Iraq. What lies at stake for Iran is to maintain stability in Iraq while making sure the IRGC is not seen as an occupying force in a country undergoing sectarian strife. Yet any military intervention carries certain risks and the IRGC’s greatest challenge in Iraq will be to support the Iraqi army to fight Sunni militia without undermining its independence.
IRGC in Iraq
Since the end of Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the IRGC has become not only a powerful military organization, but also a political force in Iran and the region (see Terrorism Monitor, May 28, 2009). As the custodian of the Islamic revolution that established the Islamic Republic in 1979, the IRGC has built a vast network of economic, political and security operatives, the most important of which control Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
Since its inception, a number of internal and regional changes have bolstered the role of the paramilitary IRGC as a military-political actor. While the Iran-Iraq War provided the IRGC with military experience, the training of a new Shi’a militia force, Hezbollah, in reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 enabled the IRGC to operate beyond Iranian borders. A special unit, the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, emerged to play an important role in the IRGC’s regional operations in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Bosnia, with a recent active presence in Syria in support of the Assad regime.
The security crisis in Iraq after the fall of the Ba’athist regime gave considerable leverage to the IRGC with its economic and military capital. The 2006 bombing of the Askari mosque in Samara, one of the holiest places in Shi’a Islam, was a watershed moment. It gave Iran the ability to claim protector-status to Iraq’s holy shrines while Iran’s investment in rebuilding shrines offered a way to expand soft power in Shi’a Iraq. Post-Ba’athist intra-Shi’a conflict also gave Iran leverage to intervene as a broker with the aim of playing matchmaker between key players, in particular the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the elected prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. The role of the IRGC in this process has been essentially one of intelligence gathering, management of logistical conflicts and training of Shi’a militia into a more organized military force, similar to what Iran was able to help build in Lebanon.
Iran has relied on various proxies to extend its influence in Iraq since 2003. These proxies include economic and religious actors with the aim of investing heavily in southern Iraq, especially the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, as a way to create a civic network favorable to Iranian interests. But these proxies have also involved various militia groups, who maintain loose but effective relations with the Iranian paramilitary and the latest conflict has brought the IRGC closer to the Shi’a Iraqi militias.
The IRGC and ISIS
In light of Iraq’s strategic and religious importance for Iran, the IRGC’s involvement in the ongoing security crisis caused by the ISIS conquest of northern Iraq, the biggest security threat since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, would seem obvious. It is no surprise that IRGC brigadier general Massoud Jazayeri describes Iran’s reaction to the ISIS threat as “certain and serious” (al-Alam TV [Tehran], June 29; Press TV [Tehran], June 29). Iran, Jazayeri explains, has informed Iraqi officials “it is ready to provide them 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” (al-Alam TV [Tehran], June 29). Iran’s Syrian strategy has revolved around “popular defense and intelligence,” with popular defense referring primarily to the bolstering of militia groups to push back ISIS (al-Jazeera, June 29).
However, while Iran continues to provide intelligence, military training and logistical support to the Syrian government, the precise degree of IRGC influence in Iraq remains unknown. For Tehran, any information about Iranian military operations will be kept secret for logistical or intelligence purposes. There is also the fear that Iran’s military involvement, if perceived as being closely connected with the Iraqi government, could stir sectarian resentment among Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, in particular the Gulf states, which are wary of Iran’s reach for power (Fars News [Tehran], June 13).
Reports indicate that the IRGC has deployed divisions of the Quds forces to help the Iraqi Army capture Tikrit and also guard Baghdad and the holy cities (Arsh News [Tehran], June 15). In response, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Hussein Amir Abdollahian, has rejected reports that the IRGC has deployed troops in Iraq, emphasizing that Iran has not been involved in armed conflict in Iraq (Fars News [Tehran], June 13; Serat News [Tehran], June 13). Abdollahian’s claim may be true since Iran, like the United States, is wary of committing ground forces. Strategically speaking, Tehran would prefer to engage in combat through the Shi’a Iraqi militants, who are less costly to organize and deploy against the Sunni militias than Iranian combat units.
Led by Quds Force commander Qasim Sulaymani, the IRGC commands the military operations from Baghdad, but its operational reach most likely includes southern and central Iraq (Entekhab [Tehran], June 18). The Guard’s involvement possibly includes the deployment of military specialists such as the Quds elite forces and especially those IRGC units that specialize in the military training of militias for urban warfare. The strategy is primarily aimed at training Shi’a volunteer forces who can participate as building blocks of an unofficial military force supported and trained by Iran.
With the extremist Sunni threat as a rallying call, Iran will most likely seek to mobilize the Shi’a “Mahdi Army” militia and splinter groups like the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) to protect the holy cities and Shi’a interests in the country. Also helpful has been the ruling by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest and most revered cleric in Iraq, who has endorsed the formation of volunteer forces to fight against ISIS (al-Jazeera, June 13). The Mahdi Army in particular, under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr who has been residing in Iran since 2007 for religious training at the hawza (seminary) in Qom, may serve as Iran’s greatest asset as Iraq’s formidable Shi’a militia, with support among the impoverished Shi’a in Baghdad and southern Iraq (Fararu News [Tehran], June 29). With the Syrian conflict now overshadowed by the ISIS advance, numerous other Shi’a militant groups like the Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigade and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (Battalion of Sayyid’s Martyrs), now returning home from Syria, may be also work closely with the IRGC to defend the holy shrines in Iraq.
However, the task of protecting Iraq by pushing back ISIS in western Iraq will lie with the Iraqi Army. Reports that Iran has decided to return a handful of Su-25 fighter jets (useful for air support of ground operations) from the stock of Iraqi aircraft sent to Iran for safe-keeping in 1991 (but never returned) is an example of Tehran’s desire to strengthen the state army in Iraq (BBC, July 2; Military.com, July 3). Tehran has denied the transfer, but if the Russian-made jets have been returned to Iraq, it is likely that they are flown by Iranian pilots as Iraqi pilots have not flown the type in over two decades (Tehran Times, June 25; Arsh News [Tehran], June 15). An Iranian pilot named Alireza Moshajarai was declared to be the first IRGC casualty in Iraq in mid-June, though other Iranian sources claim Moshajarai was killed in a service accident in western Iran (Khabarfarsi.com, June 15; Dana.ir, June 15; RFE/RL, June 16; al-Jazeera, July 5).
In many ways, the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei favor a centralized government led by a Shi’a-dominated government since the army provides a sense of national unity for stability. The militias are therefore only intended for emergency situations that threaten Iranian national interests in Iraq or the region.
What Lies Ahead
Iran is in a peculiar position. By July 20, Tehran and the P5+1 Group aim to conclude negotiations over the country’s controversial nuclear program (Islamic Republic News Agency, July 1).  While Iran seeks to arrive at an agreement that would ensure its prestige as a nuclear power in the region, it will also try to project military power amidst the security breakdown in neighboring countries. A show of military strength can also help bolster support amongst that part of Iran’s population who favor Iranian involvement in Iraq despite the economic problems the country faces one year after the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency (Tehran Bureau, June 27).
In the case of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, Iran can now show its military strength not just through Shi’a proxies, but also through IRGC ground operations. Senior Revolutionary Guard commanders are aware of the risks involved in deploying combat troops on the ground and this has led them to rely on the elite Quds forces and intelligence operatives to lead military operations by the Iraqi Army. The Iranian government is also aware of the risks involved in deploying IRGC commanders in Baghdad, especially Sulaymani, who is despised by Sunni Arabs for his involvement in Syria), leading Iranian officials to deny reports of his presence in Iraq (Jame Jam News [Tehran], June 25). To have Iranian commanders in Baghdad could be counter-productive for Iran’s efforts to support an independent central government in Baghdad. In many ways, this can be described as a strategy of leading from behind, maintaining a low profile on the battlefield.
In the months ahead, Iraq faces major internal and external challenges. The ongoing conflict within the Iraqi parliament reveals the perils of weak governance. Meanwhile, the lack of a centralized state and the subsequent breakdown of security continue to suck in regional powers, anxious to influence a country divided by ethnic and sectarian divisions. While regional actors, especially Iran, will do their best to expand their influence in Iraq, Baghdad will have to confront its greatest security threat – the absence of an organized army. This is precisely what ISIS has realized is Iraq’s greatest weakness as they forge ahead in the months to come, possibly with support from some of the Gulf states.
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.
1. P5+1 refers to a group of six nations that have been involved in diplomatic efforts on the Iranian nuclear file. The nations include five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the “P5,” Russian, China, France, the UK and the United States) and Germany (the “+1”).