Following the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq: Growing Iranian dominance

Islamic State has aroused many forces against it, both Arab and non-Arab, but primarily the latter.

March 25, 2015 22:33
4 minute read.

ISIS Warns of new Attacks . (photo credit: ARAB SOCIAL MEDIA)


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Islamic State has aroused many forces against it, both Arab and non-Arab, but primarily the latter.

Iran has been the most influential external force in Iraq for a long time, and there is a great deal of evidence pointing to its economic and political involvement in Iraq in recent years.

The possible battlefield success of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, however, is liable to have significant consequences for both Iraq and the entire region.

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The (Shi’ite) government of Iraq needs a great deal of help to cope with the challenge posed by Islamic State (IS). The difficulty in assembling a coalition of ground forces to fight the organization has led the government to ask Iran to enter the vacuum. To illustrate the point, approximately two thirds of forces currently taking part in the attempt to rescue Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit from IS forces are Shi’ite militias receiving support and guidance from Iran. The Western-Arab coalition’s aerial bombardments are inflicting losses on IS and damaging its assets, mainly in Syria, but Iran, which is increasingly viewed in the West as a stabilizing force – as a solution, not a problem – will get the credit if and when IS is defeated.

Iran has a special interest in events in Iraq, with which it shares its longest border – about 1,500 km. long. It has an interest in cultivating the large Shi’ite stronghold (while weakening the Sunni identity) in southern Iraq, which controls the strategic gate to the Persian Gulf, and which contains about half of Iraq’s oil reserves. Until Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, Iraq was Iran’s main competitor for control of the area, but the military balance of power between the countries will clearly be weighted in favor of Iran for the foreseeable future.

Iranian intervention in Iraq is driven by its view of this territory as its natural sphere of influence. It is fed by the ambition to achieve regional hegemony, with the realization that Iraq is an important element on the way to achieving this goal. Iran also wishes to maintain the considerable gains it has reaped (to a large extent, due to the “generosity” of the US) from the weakening of the Iraqi state and the rise of the Shi’ite population in the country.

Iraq’s basic weakness since 2003 has “invited” intervention from Iran, which sought to enhance its influence, reduce the threats to its national security, and pave the way to imposing its hegemony in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. In this framework, the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – a force founded in the early 1990s to promote Iran’s interests beyond Iran’s borders by military, political and economic means – is providing financing, equipment and weapons to the Shi’ite militias that were organized in response to the rise of IS.

The de facto control by pro-Iranian militias of the territory will facilitate Iranian aid to the Assad regime in Syria and improve Iran’s regional status. At this stage, the consequences of growing Iranian influence in Iraq for the stability of Jordan and on questions such as a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley Rift in any future permanent settlement with the Palestinians are unclear, as are the effect of the expected worsening in the security situation of moderate Arab countries, such as the Persian Gulf states.

What is definite is that Iran feels a kind of patronage towards its western neighbor, and regards intervention in its territory as natural. It should be emphasized that most of Iraq’s problems are not related to any particular external player. Its distress, however, makes external intervention much easier. The Iranian influence in Iraq is not new, and may be partly unpreventable, if only for historic, ethnic and geographical reasons. If the Shi’ite militias are successful, however, Iraq could easily become a satellite of Iran for all intents and purposes.

IS must be defeated. It is not at all clear, however, whether absolute Iranian dominance in Iraq will really bring about the longed-for stability. A victory by the militias is liable to aggravate the inter-ethnic tension, and make it difficult to bring about a political consensus in this divided country. It should be emphasized that this is not a deterministic process: the way for Iran to exercise its influence after IS is defeated depends to a large extent on the Iraqi government, on giving the lead to the Iraqi army (although most of it is in any case composed of Shi’ites), and on the role played by the US – more involvement on its part in the fighting against IS, even from the air, is likely to deprive the militias of their leading role.

In any case, in a situation in which Iran has recognized and accepted threshold nuclear capability as the result of an agreement, Iraq, like other countries in the region, is liable to become convinced that its best policy is to fall in line with Iran.

The author is a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) of Tel Aviv University.

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