EXPLAINER: Iran’s relationship with Iraq

EXPLAINER: Iran’s relationship with Iraq
Updated 18 June 2014

EXPLAINER: Iran’s relationship with Iraq

EXPLAINER: Iran’s relationship with Iraq

TEHRAN: President Hassan Rouhani pledged Wednesday that Iran will do whatever it takes to protect Shiite shrines in Iraq from Sunni militants battling the Baghdad government.
However, he does not want to send troops and would most likely rely on volunteer militias. Iran and Iraq have close ties and are united by Shiite Islam, but their relationship is more complex.

What is the present role of Iran in Iraq?
Iran is 90 percent Shiite and around 6,000 Iranians visit each day the mausoleum of revered Shiite Imam Hussein in Karbala.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is a Shiite who took shelter in Iran during the rule of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, when Iraq’s Shiite majority population was oppressed.
Maliki returned to Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion and became prime minister in 2006 and Iran helped negotiate his second term as premier in a governing coalition after a 2010 election that he had lost.
The advance of jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and allied groups through northern Iraq toward Baghdad is prompting caution about Maliki, who is seen by diplomats and analysts as having inflamed sectarian tensions by centralising power in his office and largely excluding Sunnis from the political process.

Will Iran deploy troops on Iraqi soil?
Tehran has no desire to become embroiled in a military conflict. The wounds of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq remain raw and Rouhani on Saturday said Baghdad’s political leaders have the capacity to solve the problem of ISIL.
However, Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is said by diplomats to have been in Baghdad since last Friday, advising Maliki.
Iraqi security forces wilted under the militant offensive, with some ditching their uniforms to flee.
Iran sent military advisers to Syria in support of President Bashar Assad against rebels and could do the same in Iraq.

Does Iran finance Shiite militias in Iraq?
The US military in Iraq certainly thought so. American officers routinely cited Iran’s financial support and supply of weapons to militias who used them to attack US troops, and accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of training militants who kidnapped and killed American soldiers. US battlefield reports published by WikiLeaks state that the Quds Force worked with Iraqi extremists to encourage the killing of Iraqi officials.

How far is Iran willing to go to help Maliki?
Although Maliki is seen as a strongman and a survivor, his opponents accuse him of centralising power and sectarianism. The past week has also called into question his credibility as leader of the armed forces.
A Western diplomat told AFP: “Iran’s support is becoming more measured. There is mistrust of official military involvement in Iraq because Iran does not want to fall into the trap of an intervention that would be perceived as a war against Sunnis. Maliki is a politician of experience, but Iran can find other acceptable candidates, such as (deputy premier) Hussein Al-Shahristani and Ammar Al-Hakim,” who heads the Citizens bloc seen close to Iran.
Ramzy Mardini, non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, believes there is no clear alternative, for now. “Iran can’t just wave it’s wand and make Maliki disappear. Maliki isn’t just one man, he embodies a regime and security apparatus. Iran needs Maliki, and Maliki needs Iran.”

Is US-Iranian cooperation in fighting militants led by ISIL possible?
“Yes,” says Mardini. “The US and Iran share key interests with regards to the stability and unity of post-Saddam Iraq. ISIL is both a common enemy and an emerging threat.” The United States and Iran also conferred on security matters relating to the Taleban in Afghanistan, following the September 11, 2011 attacks on the US.

Will the Iraq crisis have an impact on Iran’s regional influence?
Iran believes its support for Assad has been vindicated both by his election victory and the “terrorist contagion” that has seen ISIL spread in Syria and Iraq.
“Iran has shown it has the ability to bolster stability in the region,” says Iranian political analyst Amir Mohebian.
Despite the split over Syria, Gulf Arab states may also look to Tehran. “The Gulf states can no longer rely on the United States as they once had before to balance Iran, which creates the rationale to reposition their foreign policies from balancing to hedging,” says Mardini. “Their geopolitical realities are favoring improved relations with Iran, not worse.”