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Iran's Involvement in Iraq

Updated on June 16, 2014

Obama and Maliki


The Sectarian Dimension

The populations of Iran and Iraq are both majority Shi’a, but Iraq has a sizeable Sunni minority. During the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iran-Iraq relations were icy at best, and degenerated into a terrible war in the 1980s. In post-Saddam Iraq, the government in Baghdad has become more closely aligned with Tehran.

The current Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, is a Shi’a Muslim and has created a Shi’a dominated government. Perhaps because of his own political insecurity or maybe because of pressure from Iran, Maliki has not included many Sunnis in his government. This is an important aspect of the crisis, because President Obama cited as a condition for increased American support that Maliki form a more inclusive government, one that is more representative of the ethnic make-up of the country. Considering the bloody sectarian civil war Iraq endured in 2006 and 2007, it may have been unrealistic to expect Maliki to have created a viable political system in several short years. Also, it seems that forming a government that includes insurgents, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS), would be a non-starter, since many of them are foreign radicals that have infiltrated the country through Syria. However, Western analysts seem to agree with Obama that Maliki has not taken even the minimum steps toward achieving a pluralistic political system.

Iran has been friendly with the Maliki government, and it is clear that they are more comfortable with a Shi’a, as opposed to Sunni, controlled government in Baghdad. Geopolitical reasons aside, the Iranians are also concerned with the protection holy Shi’a sites in Najaf and Karbala, which ISIL has threatened to completely destroy. Iranian and Iraqi religious pilgrims frequent these sites every year, and for Shi’a Muslims they are comparable to Mecca and Medina in significance.

Qasem Sulaimani


Current Iranian Activities

Many Western news outlets reported over the weekend that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, in particular the powerful Quds force, have been deployed in Iran. According to Iran’s state media, these allegations are untrue, but it has been noticed that the commander of the Quds force, Qasem Sulaimani, is in Baghdad advising Maliki on how to combat the insurgency. The Wall Street Journal also has reported that one member of the Quds force has already been killed in Iraq. Nothing has been substantially proven, but considering Iranian relations with Maliki and the important role Iran has played in Iraqi politics over the last few years, it would be naïve to imagine that Iran is not deeply concerned with this crisis.

At the moment, Obama is still mulling over potential military action in Iraq. He has ruled out “putting boots on the ground”, but targeted air strikes are certainly on the table. The issue is though, how effective would air strikes be against a lightly-armed, guerrilla force such as ISIL? ISIL has shown their strength in urban combat, and air strikes in that context would cause far too much collateral damage to really be effective.

Another consideration for Obama is that if the USA does commit to military action against ISIL, then the American military would have to cooperate with Iran. This would be unprecedented and certainly controversial, but perhaps in the long run, it may lead to a closer engagement with Iran. This kind of trust-building exercise may lead to an actual deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

Another complicating factor is that ISIL is also an enemy of the Assad regime in Syria, and the USA would be indirectly helping Bashar al-Assad by fighting ISIL.

ISIL Allededly Executing Iraqi Soldiers


The Battle Ahead

ISIL has surprised the world by advancing so quickly in Western and Northern Iraq. They have taken control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and they are within striking distance of Baghdad. So far the areas they have conquered have been where most of the Sunnis in Iraq already live, and they have not yet made it to the areas of Shi’a dominance in southern and eastern Iraq.

Shi’a clerics now are calling for volunteers to join the Iraqi military to combat ISIL, and there are murmurs that Muqtaba al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army may be reborn after being disbanded a few years back. These Shi’a militias will not give in easily, especially if they have support from Iran. Iran’s military commanders have also made clear that if ISIL gets within 60 miles of the border, they will not hesitate to strike them.

If ISIL continues the path they are on now, we will see a real bloodbath once the major clashes begin. Also, we can expect that Iran will not sit by quietly as Iraq is gradually taken over by Sunni extremists.

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Map of Iraq's Sectarian Groups

Pink represents the Sunni majority area, and Green is the Shi'a majority area.
Pink represents the Sunni majority area, and Green is the Shi'a majority area. | Source

CBS Newscast


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    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 3 years ago from USA

      Instead of picking on Iran, why don't you look closer to our compatriots. You will find more relevant info.

      Or the French to name another terrorist country! What do you think Philippe Morel?

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      This new ISIS offensive could provide the spark for a wider Sunni-Shia war. Iraq would be the proxy for it but Saudi Arabia and Iran on opposing sides could create this calamitous situation. This is what our original Iraq War in 2003 has sown. Excellent Hub, Philippe.