Iran brushes over divides in the sand

Iran brushes over divides in the sand
5 min read
16 Dec, 2014
Since the US invasion in 2003 and the fall of Sunni hegemony in Iraq, Iran has stepped in to increase its presence in the Arab world. Yet the sectarian divides threaten Iran's power.
Iranian-allied clerics have enormous influence in Iraq [Getty]

Numerous media reports have linked Iran to an airstrike on positions in Iraq held by the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS).

This is not an unlikely scenario, since Iraq's sovereignty has been subject to numerous violations, making the country a battlefield for competing regional and international powers.

Western and Iranian aircrafts have been free to fly over Iraq without facing any condemnation by Iraqi politicians who have grown accustomed to ruling without sovereignty and under the influence of international and regional powers.

They did, after all, come to power through the US occupation. There has not been any real condemnation by Arab leaders, given the current chaos in the region.

Regardless of the validity of the reports on the airstrike, Iran has been fighting a war against the Islamic State group, whether by directly targeting its locations or not.

Not adversaries, not allies

Although Iran did not join the international coalition against IS, it still considers the militants to be a real threat to its interests in the region. That is why Iran has been exerting efforts with its allies to fight the IS group and eliminate its threat from the region, and this is particularly true of Iraq where the Islamic Republic has gained a lot of influence in the Baghdad government.

The gains it has made in the country since the 2003 invasion have been threatened by the rise of the extremist group. Iran's allies even risk losing power in Iraq.

Iran has benefited from the US occupation of Iraq and turned a threat into an opportunity to harm the Americans. At the same time it used the chaos in the country to extend its influence in Iraq.

When the US toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iranians felt they had finally rid themselves of their sworn regional enemy. But they also felt targeted by the neo-conservatives in Washington, and began plotting a strategy to confront the Americans in Iraq.

This strategy consisted of two parts; the first was to destabilise the situation for US troops in Iraq by supporting resistance factions. The second was to seize control of the new political system in Iraq so power would not fall into the hands of the Americans.

Sectarian Shia-dominated parties played a major role in Iran's plot in Iraq and Tehran depended on them for political influence. But relations with these parties varied; Iran had a very close relation with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (formerly known as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), headed by members of the al-Hakim family.

Iran embraced the council, while its relations with the Islamic Dawa Party, led by Nouri al-Maliki and the Sadrist Movement, became much weaker.

After the invasion

What happened after 2003 strengthened the relations between the Islamic Dawa Party and the Sadrists on one hand and Iran on the other. The sectarian divisions brought about by the US and accepted by Iraq's political elite enabled Iran to establish a close relationship with the Shia bloc.

Tehran became the main sponsor of Shia politicians in Iraq who were opposed by Sunni powers, themselves backed by neighbours in the region.

Despite the initial unity of the Shia powers in one coalition, a series of disputes sparked unrest among its members. Iran attempted to resolve the disputes, and have Shia leaders reach agreements.

For example, Iran managed to convince Muqtada al-Sadr to back Nouri al-Maliki to be prime minster for a second term, in the backdrop of disputed elections and international interest in the results.

When US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Tehran's Iraqi allies successfully consolidated their position in power. Many believed that Iran had seized complete control in Iraq.

However, the Iranians and their allies did not notice the harm Maliki's policies were causing Iraq. This affected the stability of Iraq and threatened their own influence in the country.

Maliki decided to clash with Sunni representatives in the political process, which fuelled their pre-existing sense of injustice. This situation helped the IS group to make inroads into the Sunni community, their success fuelled by Maliki's sectarian policies.

Further divides

The IS group expanded its territory and seized control of Mosul and other areas with Sunni majorities. This brought the Iranians a new challenge that threatened the existence of some of their main allies, as well as the Islamic Republic's influence and dominance in Iraq.

     There is no strategy in place by Iran to reach a political solution in Iraq.

This situation came about not just because of the extremist organisation's territorial expansion, but also because the US re-entered the scene and competed with Iran over political influence in Iraq.

Thus, what is happening in Iraq reflects a wider US-Iranian rivalry over the orientation of the new Iraqi government, headed by Haidar al-Abadi. It also reflects Iran's face-off with the IS group in order to prevent it completely taking over Iraq and consequently harming Tehran's interests there.

The problem with the Iranian regime is that it acts with a "crisis management" mentality. There is no strategy in place by Iran to reach a political solution in Iraq or to change their allies' sectarian behaviour, which caused the crisis in the first place.

Instead of patching up rifts and tackling injustice, Tehran is focused on confronting the IS militarily.

However, what they do not realise is that employing their military experience in reorganising Shia militias - who raise pictures of Major General Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran's Quds Force, on the battlefields - has actually strengthened the Islamic State group's support, intensifying Iraqi Sunni aversion to the Shia politicians who sold themselves and their country to Iran.

Although Suleimani's pictures show Iran's rivalry and its challenge to the US and the West, it is also understood by the Sunni as a challenge to them and a sign of the Shia parties' dependence on an outside power.

Without isolating the IS group from its popular support, through a massive national reconciliation process and agreement between Sunni and Shia parties that rejects both Iranian and Western powers pulling the strings in government there will be no end in sight to the IS group phenomenon.

Even if it is militarily defeated, so long as Iraq's identity crisis continues, the extremists will re-emerge under a different guise.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.