As Iraq's politicians fumble, Iran fears its own quagmire

While volunteers have signed up to defend Shiite shrines in Iraq, Iran is leery of entanglement and suspicious of US motives. Iraq's parliament remains deadlocked on forming a new government. 

By , Staff writer

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    Men line up for a ceremony as Shiite Muslim pilgrims visit the tiled shrine and gilt inner sanctum of Imam Hossein, a grandson of Prophet Mohamed and Shia Islam's third and most revered imam, in Karbala, Iraq, on June 20, 2014. Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has made a call to arms for all able-bodied Shiites to fight Al Qaeda-inspired Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), who have seized control of western and central sectors of Iraq in a lightning advance, and vow to attack Karbala and another shrine city Najaf.
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Within days of Sunni jihadists' surge across Iraq last month, 5,000 Iranian volunteers had registered to fight and defend Iraq's Shiite shrines. 

Many of them signed up via a website calling on recruits to battle "terrorists" from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which had vowed to attack every Shiite holy site in Iraq as it marched from Syria, south toward Baghdad.  

Iranian men vowed to be the first in line, one writing in the comments that his “only request from God is martyrdom." Another wrote “my heart is tearing apart” over Iraq.

Recommended: How much do you know about Iran? Take our quiz to find out.

But today the website, with its message of sacrifice and resistance that has inspired Shiites for centuries and defined Iran’s Islamic Republic, is blocked here – a fate normally reserved for websites critical of the regime or thick with Western culture and news. 

Iran, like the US, is struggling to determine the best course of action in Iraq. The Sunni militants' declaration of an Islamic caliphate over swathes of Syria and Iraq – along with its ambitions to expand from Algeria to Pakistan – prompted Iran to send advisors and military hardware to Baghdad.

But Tehran is leery of deeper entanglement, particularly if it entails a de-facto alliance with the US. And it seems unsure what its end goal should be.

“The Iranians are faced with the same dilemma that the Americans are in Iraq, precisely because the Iraqi political dynamic is independent,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii now in Tehran. “Should they push Maliki out, or should they try to convince him to be much more inclusive?”

Avoiding the 'Iraqi mire'

Despite its strong rhetoric, Iran’s response has so far been limited – perhaps in part to avoid spurring a greater US military role. Iran has given Iraq a handful of aged Soviet-era Su-25 aircraft, the same planes that Iraq's air force flew to Iran for "safe keeping" on the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

And the Pentagon this week stated that it knew of no “regular” Iranian troops on the ground. Spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told a briefing that "there are some Iranian operatives – Qods Force operatives –inside Iraq that are training and advising some Iraqi security forces, but more critically, Shia militia.”

ISIS threats to Shiite shrines are a deliberate provocation and Iran should avoid overreacting, says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political analyst in Tehran.

“To drag Iran into the Iraqi mire wouldn’t serve Iranian interests. It is going to be a long skirmish and it might go far beyond Iraq,” says Mr. Bavand. “So if they are intelligent enough, of course [Iran] should not be dragged in.”

This desire to limit entanglement may explain why the Iranian recruiting website is now officially blocked.

Reining in the volunteers

Iran’s history with ad hoc militants over the last decade is one of restraining them, not unleashing them. 

When Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in 2006, media reports said Iranians were volunteering to be suicide bombers. In the end, none were sent. The head of Iran’s Basij militia said the volunteers had no official sanction and “might be well-intentioned but their methods are not right.”

Likewise, during Israel’s incursion into Gaza in 2008-09, several hundred radical student volunteers arrived at Tehran and other airports, demanding to be deployed. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself thanked the “enthusiastic youth” for their willingness to sacrifice, but sent them home.

“Our hands are tied,” Iran’s supreme leader told the would-be fighters. “If we could be there, [and] we were needed to be there, then we would surely be there and not pay attention to anyone, but it is not possible; everyone must know that.”

Neither of those conflicts with Israel involved defending Shiite shrines right across Iran's border. Still, the fact the recruitment site is blocked indicates a similar caution about sending ad hoc militants to Iraq.

Conspiracy theories

While the US and Iran both firmly oppose ISIS, top Iranian officials have pointed out that the group began to flourish anew as part of a Sunni anti-Assad rebel force backed by the US and its Persian Gulf allies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said this week that “the brains behind these [ISIS] operations are in the US intelligence system,” and that ISIS “enjoys the financial, intelligence and logistics support” from the US and its allies. 

“We have emphasized frankly that we see no necessity for cooperation [with the US] because we do not trust Americans’ behavior and intentions in the region,” Mr. Amir-Abdollahian told IRDiplomacy

Yet at the start of the Iraq crisis a month ago, President Hassan Rouhani said the US and Iran could work together in Iraq. And this week former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reportedly said there is “no obstacle” in joining the US on the “common issue [of] fighting terrorism” in Iraq.

ISIS challenges Iran both ideologically and strategically, with its anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian agenda, says Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. For this reason, he says, Iran will continue its its independent effort in Iraq, though the crisis has not become so grave that direct US-Iran liaison is necessary.

“It is very possible that Iran and the US will try to cooperate via the Iraqi government, not directly, but indirectly,” says Mr. Barzegar. “Because at the end of the day, it is in Iran’s interest and the US interest, and this is a common interest, to not let Iraq’s unity be in danger, and to not let the terrorists come back.”

Still, the conspiracy theory has gained popular traction in Iran, fed by politicians, senior military officers, and the media. The defense minister calls ISIS a US plot with the “Zionist regime” to weaken anti-Israel resistance. Fars News claimed last week that “lots of evidence” – such as ISIS never attacking US embassies – proves ISIS is “inclined toward” the US.

“When I talk to people in the streets, everybody thinks that Israel is behind this – I’m not joking,” says Mr. Farhi. “Certainly they say: ‘Come on, you can’t have a group of rag-tag militants [threaten Iraq]; somebody is behind this.’"

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