US delay on IS may have cemented Iran’s position in Iraq

The Obama administration weakened its hand by delaying its response in Iraq

People fleeing Islamic State fighters in Mosul last June arrive at a checkpoint in Irbil, in northern Iraq. Photograph: Kamal Akrayi/EPA

People fleeing Islamic State fighters in Mosul last June arrive at a checkpoint in Irbil, in northern Iraq. Photograph: Kamal Akrayi/EPA

 

Iraq’s national security adviser Falah Fayadh was in Washington struggling to arrange delivery of US fighter jets to aid the country’s fight against a surging Sunni Arab insurgency when the shocking reports began flooding in.

Islamic State, then known as Isis or Isil, had swept through the country’s second- largest city, Mosul, and was hurtling toward Baghdad. It was June 10th.

Fayadh rushed back to the Iraqi capital as residents began making plans to flee Baghdad for the south of the country or go abroad. Bank officials feared runs on deposits.

Iraq’s Shia-led government pleaded with the US for help. But Washington’s reply was chilly. “They said they were studying the matter,” says Fayadh, “and hinted that they were not satisfied with the government.”

It would be two months before the US came to the aid of Baghdad by launching air strikes to support Iraqi forces defending the capital from Islamic State (IS) advances. Meanwhile, Washington’s arch-rival in the region, Iran, began sending weapons, ammunition, crucial intelligence and senior advisers within 48 hours of the Mosul crisis.

“From the first day, we sent a request to the Americans for training and weapons,” says Gen Qassem Atta, head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. “The US excuse for not sending it [help] was to wait for the new government to be established. We had no choice . . . but to go to Iran. We had to defend ourselves.”

Regional powers

Iran has for years had a powerful influence among the Shia and Kurdish political leaders that have dominated the country since the 2003 US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But there have also been leaders in both communities who have always resisted Tehran’s attentions, or sought to balance them by cultivating partners such as Turkey or Jordan.

But in more than a dozen interviews, Iraqi and Iranian insiders say the Barack Obama administration’s decision – to wait and insist on the removal of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki before taking action – strengthened Iran’s position in Iraq. The US position, they argue, further enmeshed Iran in its neighbour’s vital affairs, deepened ties between the two countries’ security institutions and stifled attempts to wean the country from Tehran’s grasp.

Questions about the roles of Iran and the US – which announced the deployment of up to 1,500 extra troops last week – in Iraq come at a critical juncture in relations between Washington and Tehran. Officials from the two countries are struggling to forge a deal on the Iranian nuclear programme while coming to an understanding on their shared interest in fighting IS.

The US has dangled the option of more co-operation against the Islamist group in the event of a nuclear deal. But by giving Iran first crack at shaping Iraq’s security response to the IS threat, the Obama administration may have weakened its hand.

In the space of a few days Iran reformulated the ultimately failed Iraqi security infrastructure that took Washington nearly nine years and billions of dollars to build. Iran’s rapid response may greatly impact the future of Iraq and the nature of the war against IS, now encompassing Iraq, Syria and increasingly ensnaring Lebanon.

Critics argue this will favour Tehran and its allies by further cementing the role of Shia and pro-Iranian militias in the country’s security institutions.

“The US didn’t move quickly enough to help Iraq while it [IS] was invading Mosul and left other countries to build up their influence,” says Nabeal Younes Mohamed, a political science professor and adviser to one of Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians. “Iran acted quickly to keep its influence.”

US vacuum

US officials reject the idea that Iran filled a vacuum left by the US. A senior US official told reporters on Friday that Obama dispatched special forces to assess Iraqi security forces and surveillance drones within four days of the fall of Mosul and established joint operations centres in Baghdad and Erbil.

Separately Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council, says: “It is important not to overstate the extent to which Iran has influence on Iraq’s leaders.”

It may be too early to determine the ultimate ramifications of Iran’s role in the war against IS. But Baghdad’s dependence on Iranian firepower and personnel – including Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, Tehran’s overseas paramilitary unit – may limit future US policy leverage. It could also further complicate the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme and the situation in Syria, where the US is avoiding conflict with Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed regime.

While Iran’s physical footprint in Iraq is likely to be similar to the hundreds or several thousand of advisers the US has authorised to deploy, its reactivation of Shia militias and its role in organising the so-called “popular surge” of volunteers gives Tehran a far more robust force on the ground.

One Iraqi official told Randa Slim, an analyst at the Middle East Institute who travels frequently to Baghdad, that Soleimani was “the commander of the Iraqi armed forces” during the first two weeks after the fall of Mosul. “During that time, while the US was hedging and wondering what to do, Soleimani rushed to the aid of Iraq,” she said.

Iran was initially taken aback by the scale and speed of the IS victory in Mosul, and several officials describe ongoing recriminations in Tehran about the failure of the country’s vast intelligence networks to predict its encroachment into northwest Iraq.

“Iran’s policies in the region are not attached to Soleimani but Iran now needs to cover up its failures,” says an Iranian reform-minded political analyst. “Soleimani carries out the policies which are set by [supreme leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. ”

Iran welcomed the US overthrow of Saddam and the elevation of Shia and Kurdish allies in Iraq. But it has long worried about the threat of Sunni extremists on its borders, and fears IS could destabilise the country.

The phone calls to Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, began on June 10th. “They said if you want, we are ready to help,” said Gen Atta, who is among senior Iraqi armed forces officers sceptical of Iran’s influence. “In the early days they even offered troops.”

White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken acknowledged in a recent speech that the Obama administration sought a new government in Baghdad before it began military operations against IS. Otherwise the US faced the prospect of being “perceived as the air force of Maliki, perpetuating his hold on power,” he says.

“The departure of Maliki was essential to winning broader support for the campaign. We could not expect Iraqi Kurds or Sunnis or the various neighbouring states to join forces to counter Isil [IS] with an Iraqi government pursuing a blatantly sectarian agenda.”

Despite misgivings about Maliki’s competence, Iranian officials dispatched Soleimani to Baghdad within two days of the crisis. He also paid an early visit to Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and a vocal longtime sceptic of Iranian influence, who warmly thanked Tehran for its support.

“Barzani was always closer to the US and the West, but when the West abandoned him at the beginning of the crisis, of course he moved closer to Iran,” says Muthana Amin, a Kurdish member of parliament and member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union.

Robust engagement

It was not until IS overran the city of Sinjar in August, killing and displacing thousands of minority Yazidis that US air strikes and a more robust engagement began.

Potentially, Soleimani’s most significant move was to help the Iraqi government mobilise Shia volunteers to defend the country and support its regular forces. In addition, Iran appears to have resurrected the Shia militias it had trained and which fought US forces after the toppling of Saddam.

“They sent advisers, people to guide, planners, trainers, training the trainers of the popular surge,” says Mowafak Rubayie, Iraq’s former national security adviser. “They helped in mobilising the Shia militias.”

Iranian commandos in battles in northern Iraq were careful to avoid clashes with the US, which would not only weaken Tehran’s position in Iraq but also in the nuclear talks. “There is a [war] field understanding between Iran and the US and that is because we must not hit each other by mistake when we are advancing in the field,” says Hossein Sheikholeslam, adviser to Iran’s parliament.

Iran’s most controversial proposal was to cede stretches of mostly Sunni Iraqi territory, such as western Anbar province, to IS, hardening the partition of the country into ethno-sectarian cantons as it had done in Syria. “Some in Iran and some of its friends [in Iraq] believed that this is a bit like Syria,” said the senior diplomat.

“The strategy is give up Anbar, keep control of what you have, strengthen it and regroup and fight back later.”

The strategy, which appears to be the Iraqi government’s game plan, has raised fears that it reflects Iran’s policy of focusing almost exclusively on the country’s Shia majority.

“Isis [IS] is going to have a long life and will not finish in one or two years because Sunni culture likes the group’s behaviour,” says Sheikholeslam. Many Iranians credit the regime with behaving more rationally in Iraq compared to Syria, where its insistence on keeping Assad in power has complicated its relations with its neighbours.

Iran’s jeopardy

“In Iraq, Iran could not afford any adventurism because its own borders could be jeopardised,” said one Iranian analyst. Some argue the country’s losses in the region should not be underestimated.

“Iran was like a billionaire which has become a millionaire in Syria and in Iraq,” says one reform-minded political analyst in Tehran. “Iran cannot retreat from its support for Bashar [al-Assad] while its fight against Sunni extremists in Syria has expanded to Iraq and hence very close to Iran’s borders.”

Tehran’s early response to the IS incursion promises to shape Iraq’s national security framework for years. The Kurds’ once-promising attempt to wean themselves off the Islamic Republic’s influence by strengthening a partnership with Turkey appears in shambles.

The Shia militias had been mostly dormant since 2010 after Maliki launched a messy war to stamp out forces loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s forces, now rebranded the Peace Brigades, and other Iranian-backed or trained Shia militias, have reassumed their robust role in Iraq’s public life.

The volunteer forces, which many Iraqi officials now want to incorporate into the security services, are potentially an even more fervent force propelling the type of Shia populism advocated by Iran’s leaders.

“I think in the long term Iran’s role is going to have a negative impact on the Iraqi people,” said Nabeal Younes. “We need help at this time, but it doesn’t mean we agree on such an influence.”

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s new prime minister, for years critical of Iran’s role in the country, has previously accused Tehran of turning Iraq into a battleground in its contest with the US. But hours after finally seating his government and attending a rare meeting with the influential Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Abadi headed to Tehran for one of his first foreign visits as premier.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited2014)

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