When Iran's Shiite proxies consolidated control over Iraq after the U.S. invasion, Tehran took comfort in the weakening of the Sunnis, the minority community that had dominated Iraq since 1920. However, Tehran has been concerned about a potential Sunni revival, especially since the Arab Spring in Syria metastasized into a full-scale civil war and regional sectarian conflict. If Syria fell to the Sunnis, Tehran's allied regime in Baghdad would be threatened and Iran could again face a major threat on its western border.
Iran's sense of relief about preventing the collapse of the Alawite regime in Damascus shattered earlier this month when Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants surged in Iraq. The offensive likely came as a surprise, since the Sunnis in Syria had been contained and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was tied up in fighting not only the Syrian regime but also nearly every other rebel force in Syria. Tehran appears to be scrambling to refocus on Iraq and help Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's regime handle the largest jihadist threat since the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq was routed in 2007 — and this time there is no assistance from U.S. forces.
Problems With Tehran's Plan in Iraq
Iran has always had a contingency plan for dealing with any threats to its Shiite allies in Baghdad, one that relies largely on Iraqi state security forces and, if necessary, Shiite militias. Iraqi security forces have been stretched thin for quite some time, and their retreat from Mosul shows that Tehran will likely need to bolster the security forces with help from militias. However, this approach has problems because many large militias in Iraq, such as the Mehdi Army, have dissolved. The Iranians have maintained some militias that can be activated, but the current situation requires a far larger mobilization of militiamen on a communal level.
Over the years, Iran sought to rein in the Shiite militias in Iraq because the threat from the Sunnis was minimal, especially after the end of the Sunni nationalist insurgency in 2007, when the bulk of Sunni tribes decided to join the political system in a deal with the United States. The only threat was from the Islamic State of Iraq, also known as al Qaeda in Iraq, which carried out periodic terrorist attacks that the Shia-dominated government was able to absorb. Moreover, most of the Sunnis were fighting the jihadists.
At this point, the Shiite militias became more of a threat to the stability of the al-Maliki regime, given the deep intra-Shia divisions. The largest threat was the Mehdi Army, which developed into various offshoots. The Iranians moved to contain them in 2008 by supporting the al-Maliki government and using their influence to force Mehdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr and other, smaller renegade Shiite factions to fall in line. The Mehdi Army was disbanded and transformed into a social movement that supported the political arm of the al-Sadr movement.
Overall, there was a move to integrate many former militiamen into state security apparatuses and other civil bureaucratic entities. That said, a small contingent of militias were retained covertly but not allowed to operate publicly. Tehran's goal was for Shiite power in Iraq to manifest in the form of the state and to be able to rely on their arrangement with the Kurds and the Shia.
This strategy did not work because Shiite rivalries, most notably those between al-Maliki and al-Sadr, prevented the Shiite community from becoming an effective state actor. Moreover, the alliance between the Shia and the Kurds turned into a rivalry as Arbil sought more autonomy, especially regarding energy rights, and as Baghdad became increasingly authoritarian, particularly in al-Maliki's attitude toward the Sunnis.
Iraq was undergoing a major political meltdown. However, because Syria became the epicenter of the regional sectarian struggle, the Iranians diverted most of their attention to the Levant, hoping that the Sunni threat to the east would force the Shia to set aside their rivalries and that tensions between Baghdad and Arbil would ease. Contrary to Iranian expectations, intra-Shia and Shiite-Kurdish relations continued to deteriorate. Meanwhile, the war in Syria and al-Maliki's hard-line policies aggravated Sunni alienation, which weakened Iraq politically and militarily. This is why Iran is once again forced to rely on militias to secure its interests in Iraq.
Another Attempt at Building Militias
The Syrian crisis has given the Iranians a head start in forming a new generation of militia groups. These militias were designed to fight alongside the Syrian regime and Iran's premier proxy, Hezbollah, against a mostly jihadist-dominated rebel landscape. These groups comprise not just Arab and Iranian Shiite fighters but also non-Middle Eastern Shiite volunteers. The new militias are experienced in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and other similar groups and can be redeployed in Iraq, where the some of the old groups such as Asaib al-Haq and Promised Day Brigades are already being mobilized. There are also efforts underway to arm civilians and thus increase the number of fighters.
The challenge for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, whose commander reportedly has traveled to Iraq to oversee this entire process, will be to divide resources between Syria and Iraq. Tehran would not want to pull out too many forces from Syria and create an opening there for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni rebel groups to exploit. The jihadist group's strategists could well have had this in mind when they decided to mount the ongoing offensive in Iraq.
These Shiite militias will be all the more motivated to fight in Iraq because of the country's status as the global hub of the minority Muslim sect. Even in Syria, which is not as symbolic for the Shia, there has been a massive gathering of Shia from across the world. This has led to the creation of a sense of Shiite identity that transcends national origin — the counterpart to transnational Salafist-jihadism. This consolidation of willpower among the Shia to defend themselves from their historic enemies raises the likelihood of a major sectarian war in Iraq and the Levant.
This is not what the Iranians had hoped for. Although this strategy is likely to repel the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, it will require the rebuilding of a Shiite-dominated Iraq. Once the Sunni jihadists have been pushed back, the Shiite militias will hamper the long-term objective of a stable Shiite Iraqi political entity. Moreover, the Kurds, who are already pushing for greater autonomy, will have gained additional territory in the northern provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. But at this point, the Iranians have no choice but to return to militia warfare.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said June 12 that his country will not tolerate the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and "will fight and combat violence, extremism and terrorism in the region and the world." Usually, Rouhani refrains from talk of war, given his moderate credentials and his desire to accentuate them in light of the talks with the United States.
In general, the Iranians never deploy their own troops in other countries and instead rely on a small task force of advisers, trainers and the like that oversee non-state proxies. Considering Iran's ongoing international rehabilitation, Tehran will be even more careful in its intervention in the Iraqi conflict. This means the front line will be the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga forces supported heavily by militias.
The combination of these state security forces and militias is likely sufficient to protect Baghdad and the Shiite south. It is risky to send Shiite forces into the Sunni heartland, as it would only increase support for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, yet the Iranians and their Shiite allies cannot risk allowing the jihadist militant group to put down roots in the Sunni provinces. Tehran and the al-Maliki government can rely on help from the Kurdistan Regional Government's peshmerga forces, but the Kurds would also be considered hostile forces in the Sunni areas, especially when the Kurds and Sunnis have territorial disputes. The solution is to work with anti-jihadist Sunni forces and not allow the fighting to devolve along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The Shia and Iran are not without allies among the Iraqi Sunnis, who do not want to counter Shiite domination by accepting jihadist domination. But these direct contacts alone will not be sufficient. Iran will need to work with Turkey, which is threatened by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant on two of its borders. The Turks have ties to Iraq's Sunnis, and in recent years they have also developed relations with the Kurds. In addition, Tehran can coordinate with the United States, which has also pledged support to the al-Maliki government and has influence among the Sunnis. Thus, Iran's strategy will require synchronizing its regional resources with those of other state actors.