Tehran already sent the head of its Quds force and Revolutionary Guards units to counter advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Two Guards’ units were sent last Wednesday to protect Baghdad and the holy Shi’ite cities of Karbala and Najaf, security forces told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
In much the same way it took advantage of violent, sectarian conflict in Lebanon and Syria, Iran is working in Iraq to increase its presence and influence.
Iran’s formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon is an example of how it infiltrates a country, utilizing the native Shi’ite population.
Shi’ites in Lebanon were a disadvantaged population when the Amal party dominated the masses, before the advent of Hezbollah. Amal is a relatively moderate movement, less focused on religious identity, more interested in the “integration of the Shia in Lebanese life. Hezbollah represents a radical outlook imported to Lebanon from Iran,” explained Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University in an article titled, “Hizballah in Lebanon: Between Tehran and Beirut, Between the Struggle with Israel, and the Struggle for Lebanon.”
Hezbollah was funded and armed by Iran to spread its ideology, and ended up taking control over Shi’ites in the country.
In Iraq and elsewhere, many of the traditional Shi’ite community support Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose pragmatism “enabled him to have strong relations with various Shi’ite groups, the Iraqi government, and the Islamic Republic ... [so he could] continue his business: being a marja [highest ranking Shia authority],” said Mehdi Khalaji in an article for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy entitled “Shiite Clergy’s Silence toward Syrian Crisis.”
These developments leave the Kurds hopeful; they see Baghdad as too weak to suppress their aspiration for independence, but it remains committed to defending against ISIS encroachment.
“Iran’s proxy groups have been working closely with Iraqi government forces for some time and will likely become more important to Baghdad in light of recent events,” Phillip Smyth, a researcher specializing in Shiite Islamist groups at University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, wrote in an article for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday.
As early as January, fighters from Shi’ite groups “announced that they had sent forces back to Iraq from Syria,” he said.
“Iran has been building Hezbollah-style organizations in the region since the 1980s,” Smyth, author of “Hezbollah Cavalcade” on the Jihadology.net website, told The Jerusalem Post.
Asked if there is a parallel with the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Smyth affirmed it, saying that in Iraq “the Badr Brigades formed during the Iran-Iraq War, which is now the Badr Organization.
This group is now in charge of security in the eastern Diyala Province,” he said.
“The multiplication of Hezbollah- style groups in Iraq has been a continuing strategy,” Smyth explained. During the Iraq War in 2003, Iran and Hezbollah helped create groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah which targeted US and Coalition forces.
“Later, these groups were used in Syria” and Iran went about creating new Hezbollah- style organizations like Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, which worked to bring Shi’ite fighters to Syria.
“Ideologically speaking, Iran has always sought to be the leading power and religious center for Shi’a and eventually for all of Islam,” explained Smyth, who added, “In Iraq, Iran was extremely active in pushing its narratives and recruitment efforts” and was “recruiting and training long before Sistani’s fatwa or Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s call for citizens to join militias.”
Comparing the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields, Smyth said it is important to keep in mind that a significant percentage of fighters sent to Syria came from Iraq. Furthermore, the battlefields have become generally unified, and the front is of extreme importance for the Iran-led Shi’ite axis.
Asked what an Iranian intervention could mean, Smyth responded, “Iran understands that when it is given lemons it can make lemonade.” The region is becoming more sectarian, more radical, and more violent, he asserted. He does not see the violence ending any time soon.
“Iranian intervention risks turning Iraq into Syria 2.0,” Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, told the Post.
“Iran will intervene, even if revolutionary guardsmen wear Iraqi uniforms as they do [it],” said Rubin, adding that Iraqis he spoke to in Iraq confirmed recent reports that Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is in Baghdad now.
“Make no mistake,” said Rubin, “the Iranians genuinely want to protect the Shi’ites and Iraq’s Shi’ite shrines in this moment of crisis, but remember, when people say Iran will only intervene to protect the Holy Shrines, there are shrines in Baghdad (Kadhimiya) and Samarra as well.”
“The problem is Iran won’t stop there. Shi’ism is Iran’s Achilles’ heel because Iran’s Supreme Leader considers himself the deputy of the Messiah on earth. As the Shi’ite world’s ultimate political and religious authority, he can’t tolerate being contradicted by other clerics,” explained Rubin. “So he also wants troops in Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad to control and repress clerical rivals.”
Iran’s desire to set up a Hezbollah for Iraq is nothing new, given groups like the Badr Corps and Jaysh al-Mahdi forces. “But Iraqi nationalism repeatedly has gotten in the way,” he said, though “unfortunately, Iran knows that they can impose through the barrel of a gun what they can’t win in hearts and minds.
With no will in the United States to stop them, the region has gotten much more dangerous.”
“First Beirut, then Damascus, now Baghdad, and next – even though it’s not Shi’ite – Amman,” Rubin said.
“Maliki has fallen back quite quickly on Iran, but that’s not a surprise” as he appears “to be relying on federal police, militias and Iranian units to defend Baghdad and [the eastern] Diyala [province] and then use reliable army units freed up to take offensive actions in Salah al-Din [province] and Nineveh,” Kirk Sowell, the Amman-based principal of Uticensis Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm, and Editor of the political risk newsletter, Inside Iraqi Politics, told the Post.
Asked about the durability of the Syria-Iraq border, Sowell responded that he does not see the border collapsing permanently.
But, he said, “It could be a very long time before Baghdad has anything like a real grip on all of Nineveh [province].”
He added that the Shia cannot just hunker down and defend against attacks. To be effective they must move on the offensive against the terrorists.
Sowell noted that the Nineveh area “is not a viable economic entity without the link to Baghdad, especially if it is attached to the jihadist mess in eastern Syria.”
“The tribal and commercial elites in Nineveh have an overwhelming interest in reconciliation as long as they can get Baghdad to make some concessions,” said Sowell.
“The latest developments have shown that Iran managed to be the great winner by increasing its influence in the three important countries of the Fertile Crescent: Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; by improving its image in the West and by opening new vistas of cooperation with the US,” Prof. Ofra Bengio, editor of the forthcoming book Kurdish Awakening: Nation-Building in a Fragmented Homeland, told the Post on Sunday.
“There is no doubt that the latest developments in Iraq and especially the Kurds’ taking control of Kirkuk have significantly boosted Kurdish standing and the urge to declare independence,” she said.
“For the Kurds who call Kirkuk their Jerusalem, keeping Kirkuk means moving forward an extra mile towards independence. Pressure on them to give up control of the oil rich region might come from three possible sources: ISIS, Baghdad and the US,” explained Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. “However each of the three is engaged now in more urgent issues, so the Kurds will use the vacuum to bolster their standing there.”
Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle East Forum, told the Post that “Tehran has been busy making Iraq a virtual satellite state since the US-led invasion in 2003, and especially since American forces left at the end of 2011.”
“The process is quite far along. One consequence of the takeover is discrimination against and persecution of Sunnis, prompting frequent revolts, especially in 2006 and now,” said Pipes.
Pipes believes that the best result in the region would be a breakdown of the colonial borders and the creation of a separate Kurdistan entity.