Legendary Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, is directly responsible for Iran’s security in the Middle East beyond its borders. Events have conspired to put Suleimani in position to lead Iran in a struggle that could confirm it as the region’s dominant power.
According to a June 17, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Is Exploring Talks with Iran on Crisis in Iraq,” a senior US diplomat met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna on June 16th to explore whether the US and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from an Islamic militant insurgency. More than a decade after the US invasion, fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and other insurgent groups, have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. Iraq appears to be collapsing. ISIS is the same group that helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Under US policy, the hope was that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. However, the FSA has not been truly successful and ISIS has regularly attacked its units while also fighting the Assad regime.
The reported meeting between the US and Iran on the Iraq matter took place after US Secretary of State John Kerry signaled in an interview on Yahoo! Newsthat the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq. The partnership seemed unlikely from the start given the US has called Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and alleged it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, the Obama administration recognized that Iran’s involvement in Iraq was inevitable. The Obama administration’s approach to the ISIS crisis includes exploiting the situation to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a more intercommunal government, to include Sunnis and Kurds, in an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. Indeed, Obama has insisted that no American military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, made headway on the issue. It was agreed a session will be held in the Parliament in Baghdad to discuss establishing a new government, more representative of ethno-religious groups in Iraq. That seems risky given the situation. Certainly, an arrangement could be cobbled together quickly. Yet, a rushed effort may not serve Iraq’s long-term interests. It could be overcome by a decision by Iran to back hard-line Shi’a leaders. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, recently traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders. Reportedly, Quds Force fighters recently went into Iraq, joining comrades already operating in country. There are concerns Suleimani has mobilized Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi’a militia groups.
While Kerry, in his Yahoo! News interview, left the door open for military cooperation with Iran, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stepped the US back from it. Psaki stated that while there may be discussions about the political situation in Iraq, “We’re not talking about coordinating any military action with Iran.” She also said the Vienna meetings with Iran would not discuss “military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” Less than three hours later, the Pentagon ruled out military coordination.
As a new reality for the 21st century internationally is being created, US leadership is still required. The US has played an important role in defeating terrorism worldwide, and must not stop now over Iraq. US friends and allies, who are concerned with the Middle East and also face threat from groups such as ISIS, want to be assured that the US can still be relied upon. Force must be used to deal with ISIS. The Obama administration pledged that it will stand with the Iraqi people, much as it pledged to stand with the Syrian opposition, but it is unclear as to what will be seen from the US. It might act cautiously enough in response to ISIS as not to be truly effective at all in the endeavor. Perhaps an additional 21st century reality might emerge from this situation. When the US does not act, it may need to accept that other states with sufficient and effective capabilities will. Without reservations, Iran will act to secure its interests in Iraq. Conceivably, tacit cooperation with the US, as in Bosnia in 1995, and Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, might be acceptable among more moderate elements of the Iranian regime, However, going it alone would undoubtedly be the preferred option by the majority of Iran’s military and security officials and hardline political and religious leaders. If that occurs, the outcome in Iraq may not be shaped to the desires of the US in the long-run. If the US ever decides on military action, it may not need to consider how it might coordinate with Iran, but rather, whether it could act effectively militarily in the midst of unilateral a intervention by Iran.
Iran’s Response as a Regional Power
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already believed that Iran was gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East. Khamenei stated: “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated on September 20, 2013, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” Through bold and decisive actions, Iran has sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region. On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western state wile over using as a means to weaken the government in Tehran. In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime. Iran has trained and equipped pro-Assad Syrian militiamen, and organized them into the National Defense Front. It has sent truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013. An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad. Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria. Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus. To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria. In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country. In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement. Trained mostly in Iran, some groups have carried out small-scale attacks on police.
Iranian leaders view Obama as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than in actions in which US participation would be very limited as in Libya. Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. To their surprise, Obama withdrew from Iraq as a result of a campaign promise rather than strategic considerations. The whole enterprise appeared wasteful. Suleimani on September 27, 2013 remarked: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace. The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.” Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq, but the door was also left open for the growth of Al-Qaeda there.
Saudi Arabia would be very displeased to see Iran take control over the situation in Iraq. Yet, if the US is hesitant on Iraq, in the midst of the Islamic militant thrust toward Baghdad, Saudi Arabia will likely be as well. The type of military commitment Saudi Arabia would need to make in Iraq would very likely require various forms of US support to maintain. Saudi Arabia has already had a hand in the matter regarding the supplying, arming, and training of Islamic militants running through the country.
Tehran likely heard Obama recently explain that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter. Accordingly, Obama explained the US has a stake in that. On June 12, 2014, Obama proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. He believes part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. In his view, over the last several years, trust and cooperation has not developed between moderate Sunni and Shi’a leaders inside of Iraq, and that accounts in part for some of the weakness of the state. That weakeness, and then carries over into their military capacity. Accordingly, while support would be provided to the Iraqi military following consultations with the Iraqis, political change would also be sought. Obama stated, “There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shi’a who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists. And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shi’a and Sunni that we haven’t seen so far.” As leaders in Tehran would know that the talent to captivate through speeches is not the same as the talent to lead internationally. Public statements on Iraq have been satisfying enough for those who would not look more deeply, perhaps seeking simple answers. Yet, they conceal the reality that forcing together a sustainable, cooperative political arrangement in Iraq will prove difficult.
Tehran likely chuckled after hearing Obama emphasize multilateral action during his commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York on May 28, 2014. Obama explained “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.” He would later clarify this statement with reporters by explaining the US must take a more robust regional approach to partnering and training, partner countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. He further explained, “We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. But what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security.” Given the troubles of the US-led actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizing multinational operations in the future will be extremely difficult, especially during crises. Great Britain has already announced that it is not planning military intervention of any kind in Iraq. Indeed, unless there was some type of coordination with Iran, the US would have to act alone.
Tehran is probably not convinced of Obama’s capability to solve the crisis in Iraq given what they witnessed on Syria. On Syria, Obama appeared paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of decisive and assertive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. After accusing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crossing his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the renowned decision not to take military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.
How Iran Might Proceed in Iraq
Iraq will be a real test for Iran’s military and security services. It would be an opportunity to confirm Iran’s dominance in the region. Suleimani, who oversees Iran’s security interests in Iraq, is a legend among Shi’a in the region. On September 25, 2013, Baghdad Shi’a Friday Prayer Leader Hojjat al-Eslam Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Qassir praised Suleimani. He stated, “If there is any fear in the Israelis’ hearts, Qassem Suleimani is its cause. If America has faced problems in the region, know that Qassem Suleimani is the cause; if any problems have been created for the House of Saud, know that Qassem Suleimani has had a hand in it. Therefore, know why they have implemented this war against Qassem Suleimani. Know that Qassem Suleimani is a spear that lands in Israel’s hearts and we are proud that there is a leader like him among the current global Shi’a leaders.” Khamenei based his vision for Iran’s role as the premier power in the Middle East on the capabilities of IRGC commanders as Suleimani given their virtue, faith, and obedience to him and respective capabilities to formulate and implement successful action plans.
National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission Spokesman and Member of the Iranian Parliament, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, on June 24, 2014, neither confirmed nor denied the presence of IRGC Quds Force in Iraq, stating, “I do not deny this matter and of course do not confirm it, because I am not in a position to do so. But we are implementing [existing] agreements between Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq [that are] within the legal international framework.” He further stated, “If the Iraqi government formally requests aid from us, we will not hesitate and will aid our neighboring country within the legal international framework.” However, it would be logical for Iran’s intervention in Iraq to initially involve the Quds Force, and small numbers of IRGC combat units. Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops, would increase intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory. By moving throughout Iraq, particularly ISIS held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links would be sought with Iraqi Army commanders and troops in the field to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Intelligence collected concerning ISIS that would be utilized in the development of an operational plan. Those MOIS and Quds Force personnel, along with other IRGC units, would also engage in direct combat with ISIS fighters, gaining a detailed knowledge of the battle lines. Iran would further train and equip Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, and deploy some in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq. Others will be deployed directly against ISIS. They would receive truckloads of arms and equipment. Supplies and other weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades would be flown into the Iraqi Army. Iran could possibly deploy Lebanese Hezbollah to join the fight.
Iran might soon after opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “If the legal government of Iraq and Mr. Maleki, as the primary representative of this government, (formally) request aid from Iran, as a neighboring and friendly country, we will aid him without any limitations.” He went on to state, “For example, we can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi army that we have been able to provide the Syrian army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That might mean having great numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there. Aspects of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts. Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent. They would provide Iraqi and Iranian units with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by ISIS. Iran might deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units. Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support military movements and control of recaptured territory. Basij volunteers in Iran may be mobilized to serve in Iraq.
Tacit US-Iran Cooperation “a la Bosnia” Is Unlikely
In Bosnia, IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel operated successfully, working in concert the US and other states to airlift of arms supplies to the Muslim-Croat Federation’s Armija. Regarding the actions of ISIS in Iraq, Velayati, explained on June 19, 2014, explained: “Iran opposes extremism and America also opposes extremism. Thus, these two countries move in a parallel ‘direction’ but this does not mean cooperation between these countries.” He concluded, however, “I do not see an outlook for cooperation between these countries, because, in our assessments, they seek a sort of dominance in Iraq and in some other important and oil rich countries in the region.” Again speaking on behalf of the National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini rejected cooperation with the US stating, “The Americans want to be in Iraq next to Iran at any cost. As Iran is aware of the White House’s behind-the-scene plan, it will never be placed next to America.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani kept the matter alive on the Iranian side, explaining Iran has not ruled out working with the US against ISIS in Iraq. On June 15th, he was quoted as saying, “We can think about it if we see America confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.” However, conspiracies abound in Iran on whether the US wants to stop ISIS. Khamenei has stated, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.”
Tehran has undoubtedly observed that the Obama administration already has increased intelligence-gathering flights by drone aircraft over Iraq. It has been alleged to be the beginning of a phased approach. The US might also initially seek to shore up Iraqi forces with security assistance. Obama has ruled out sending combat troops. However, what resonates with Tehran is degree of uncertainty apparent in the administration’s reported reaction in Washington. Indeed, despite what has been done so far in Iraq, Obama’s White House advisers are now engrossed in a policy debate on airstrikes. National security officials have raised concerns over the ability to target roving bands of insurgents and degrade their fighting capabilities. Airstrikes that damage cities or Iraqi infrastructure could worsen the crisis. Another big concern is the risk of hitting the wrong people. Obama’s insisted on June 13th that if he decides to act, military action would be “targeted” and “precise,” reflecting his desire for a cautious path that avoids civilian casualties and prevents the US from being dragged back into Iraq. Obama has promised to “consult with Congress,” stopping short of saying he would put the issue to a vote. Congressional opposition to airstrikes in Syria contributed to Obama’s decision not attack.
By engaging in a lengthy discourse and considering gradual response in Iraq, US authorities appear relatively relaxed about events in Iraq compared to their counterparts in Iran. Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to include Suleimani, and hard-line political and religious leaders, realize that waiting could lead to tragic consequences. ISIS has begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives. Syria provides a template to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory. On June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters. Iranian military and security official know that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to prevent attacks against them. If attacks were launched, ISIS would follow through without hesitation with such threats. That is the sort of thing ISIS as terrorist group does. If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk. ISIS would certainly initiate attacks on Iran. They know ISIS will attempt to establish an Islamic state in captured territory whether it is sustainable or not.
Tehran knows US efforts to reform the Iraqi government will weaken Iran’s influence over Baghdad. On June 23, 2014, Khamenei explained, “In the Iraq situation Western dominance-seeking powers, specifically the regime of the United States of America, are seeking to take advantage of the ignorance and prejudice of powerless masses.” He added, “The main goal from the recent events in Iraq is prohibiting this country’s people from the achievements that they have gained despite America’s lack of presence and interference. [Iraq’s] most important achievement is the rule of a democratic system.” He further explained, “America is discontent about the present trends in Iraq, meaning the holding of elections with the good participation of and the determination of trustworthy choices by the people. America is seeking Iraq’s domination and the rule of individuals obedient to America.”
For the Obama administration to believe that Iran would allow the reduction of its interests in Iraq without some response would be counterintuitive. Iran knows that the type of representative government that the US seeks cannot be designed on the fly and is an enormous request under the circumstances. The fact that Maliki ever came to power evinces the US inability to manage events politically in Iraq. As Velayati, on June 19, 2014, explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.”
The Way Forward?
Officials and advisers in the Obama administration likely came to terms before this crisis in Iraq that proposals for military action in Iraq would be the most difficult documents to put before the president. Any military action would need to be minimal, yet effective enough to achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, which is not easy plan. For this reason, Obama’s advisers had difficulty getting their president to rapidly come to terms with any proposals offered on Syria or Ukraine, consequently creating uncertainty globally over how the US would proceed.
Iraq seems to be unraveling and time is of the essence. Right across the border from Iraq, however, Iranian leaders see a great danger, and they are attending to it. The Iranians are not going to wait and see what the US does next. They want to stop ISIS. Yet, they want to protect their interests in Iraq by shaping the political situation in Baghdad in their favor. If they manage to do so, they can further Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region. Military and security officials may also gain a louder voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on the nuclear negotiations and other issues. Moreover, the failure of the US to act decisively and effectively in Iraq would eliminate fears within all quarters in Tehran that the US might take military action against Iran, a far greater enterprise than fighting ISIS. In the US, White House advisers are once again agonizing over a foreign policy decision. They, however, have wiled the idea that from the chaos, they can eke out the opportunity to put Tehran’s man out of power in Baghdad and create a new government. By attempting to absolve itself of the “unpleasantries” of exercising military power while claiming the title as the world’s leader, the Obama administration could cause the US to face another negative turn of fortune on foreign policy. Something significant militarily must be done immediately, even before the US induced process of reform is completed. If not, the Obama administration must be ready to accept the bitter scenario of the field in Iraq eventually being fully turned over to Iran.