By Kamran Bokhari

Summary Though Iran is heavily involved in Syria, Iraq will always be the most critical foreign policy arena for the Islamic republic. Even before the Islamic State captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, Tehran had to exert a great deal of effort to ensure that its Shiite allies were able to dominate the post-Baathist Iraqi government. The IS takeover of most of the Sunni areas of Iraq created a major security situation, which compounded the political problems that the Iranians faced before then. Even in the event of the neutralization of IS in Iraq, Iran will be struggling to manage its western neighbor because the Iraqi Shiite politicians remain factionalized.

For Iran, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a godsend. Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime had waged an eight-year war (1980-1988) against the then-nascent Islamic republic that left nearly a million Iranians dead and cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars. But Tehran was not only pleased about the removal of a threat (it had been 15 years since the end of the war and Iraq had been weakened by the 1991 Gulf War with the United States and the ensuing 12 years of sanctions and no-fly zones). Iran saw the collapse of the Baathist state as an incredible opportunity to transform Iraq into a close ally, given that three-quarters of the population are Shia and Kurds, who already have close ties to Tehran.
Regime Change, Opportunities and Complications
But Iran knew it was never going to be easy, for a number of reasons. First, the U.S. military occupation of Iraq represented a significant challenge in that Washington had a major say in the future makeup of the post-Baathist republic. As long as U.S. forces were present in Iraq, Iranian intelligence officials could not operate openly to influence the behavior of their Shiite and Kurdish allies. However, the Sunni insurgency, which created the circumstances that allowed the rise of IS, coupled with Iraq’s demographics, meant that Washington had to work closely with Tehran’s Iraqi allies (and by extension, Tehran itself) to stabilize the country.
Second, and more important, the Iraqi Shiite political forces were highly fragmented and spread across many groups, including Hizb al-Dawah, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrite movement. Over the years, Tehran had developed close ties with pretty much all of the Shiite factions, to varying degrees. However, the movement of maverick Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, which was the only major Shiite group that did not go into exile during the Saddam years, initially posed a key challenge for both Iranian and American plans.
By 2008, the Iranians had brought al-Sadr under their wing and were busy trying to maintain Shiite unity so that the group could dominate the new state. They also had to make sure the Americans did not succeed in their efforts to create a U.S.-leaning Iraqi government in which the Sunnis had considerable power. To counter U.S. moves, the Iranians relied on Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kateb Hezbollah and others.
Supporting these militias ran contrary to Iran’s main aim of seeing its Iraqi Shiite political proxies establish a stable government closely allied with Tehran. These militias would create security problems for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, so the Iranian solution was to encourage the militia leaders to join the political process. This was a difficult balancing act for the Iranians, but working through both mainstream politics and the militias was necessary because it was not always clear that Iran’s allies would be able to dominate the political system, where they had to share power with Kurds and Sunnis.
In all four general elections (in 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2014) the Shia either contested as a fractious coalition or as separate groups. On each occasion, the Iranians had to engage in a great deal of post-election behind-the-scenes (and in many cases very public) engineering to ensure that the Shiite members of parliament came together as a singular parliamentary bloc. The Iranians also had to make sure that their allies worked with the Kurds and the Sunnis to ensure some semblance of stable government. In late 2011, the Iranians were able to make use of this arrangement to keep parliament from granting the United States permission to maintain forces in Iraq, and American troops left the country.
Post-U.S. Iraq, the Arab Spring and Islamic State
It was at this time that the government of long-serving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki escalated its sectarian policies, politically alienating mainstream Sunni politicians, which allowed the predecessor of IS, called the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), to expand its presence in the Sunni areas. By 2012, the Syrian uprising had transformed into a full-fledged civil war, which ISI entered to use  Syria as strategic depth to expand its core turf in Iraq. Al-Maliki’s policies of alienating the Sunnis were a cause of concern for the prime minister’s patrons in Iran because they were destabilizing the Iraqi state. But the Iranians by this time were more concerned about the fate of their older ally, Bashar al-Assad, who was facing a major insurrection from a variety of forces: rebels backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE; al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra; and the Islamic State, which at this time called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
The Iranians saw Syria as the main battlespace and spent the better part of 2013 mobilizing their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well as Hezbollah fighters, Iraqis and other Shiite militiamen to aid the Syrian army. Already worried about the potential loss of Syria should the Assad regime be toppled, the Iranians did not want to give too many concessions to the Sunnis in Iraq for fear of worsening their strategic position there. Thus, they did very little to restrain the al-Maliki administration’s aggressive sectarian policies towards the Sunnis. After all, resurgent Sunnis in Syria could help Iraqi Sunnis weaken the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

While the Iranians were focused on fighting Syrian rebels and keeping mainstream Iraqi Sunnis at bay, they failed to anticipate the rise of ISIS, which was quietly preparing the groundwork for its June 2014 takeover of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and the declaration of a caliphate as it renamed itself the Islamic State. The loss of Mosul shocked the Iranians and their Iraqi Shiite allies. Iran’s policy of trying to consolidate the Shiite-dominated state and maintaining militias had prevented the Iraqi army from becoming a robust force. In addition, Baghdad’s sectarian policies had turned the Sunni population against the Iraqi army units stationed in Mosul and other Sunni areas.  

Treated by the locals as an occupation force, the Iraqi army troops were forced to flee in the face of advancing IS fighters, who faced very little resistance and took Mosul rather easily. The Iranians and their Iraqi Shiite allies went into crisis mode to respond to IS, which threatened everything they had worked for since before the ouster of Saddam. They had no choice but to rely on a coalition of Iraqi armed forces and Shiite militias to counter IS. The overseas arm of the IRGC, the Quds Force, led by its long-serving commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, mobilized the various pre-existing militias, activated the dormant ones and recruited fresh fighters into what has become known as the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces).

Since the summer of 2014, this anti-IS alliance, which also includes Kurdish forces and some Sunni militias, has been able to halt the IS offensive. In fact, it has retaken areas in Diyala, Salahuddin, Anbar and Nineveh provinces from IS – most notably the city of Ramadi. However, these gains have been slow and very difficult to pull off. IS has proved to be a formidable force fighting on multiple fronts within Iraq. The transnational jihadist movement continues to prevent the Iraqi government and its allies from reasserting control over the Sunni areas.

In addition to the military efforts, the Iranians facilitated a change of government, forcing al-Maliki to step down in September 2014 and his associate Haider al-Abadi to take his place. Al-Maliki had not only angered Sunnis and Kurds, but also many of his Iraqi Shiite allies who saw his hyper-sectarian policies as leading them to ruin. Indeed, the Iranians had long seen him as a liability but did not want to have to shake up the delicate balance among the different Shiite groups, especially during a time of crisis. But their hand was forced after IS took control of the Sunni areas. However, the change of government has not produced the desired results. In fact, the political problems have increased.

The Difficult Road Ahead

Last week, the Iraqi government announced the launch of an offensive to retake Mosul, but the key obstacle is a political one – bringing the bulk of the Sunnis back into the Iraqi political mainstream. What complicates these efforts is that the Sunnis were double-crossed before, when they agreed to end their insurgency in 2007-2008. They were superficially integrated into the political system under al-Maliki while U.S. forces were still in the country. Therefore, they are going to drive a very hard bargain this time.

A successful reincorporation of the Sunnis into the political mainstream also assumes that the majority of them are using IS as leverage to extract concessions from Baghdad. But IS control over the Sunni areas suggests that a good number of the minority sect may have aligned themselves with IS. For the Iranians, the situation has not really changed much since the early days after Saddam. They and their Shiite allies face a conundrum: they need the Sunnis to join the political system, but without extracting too many concessions.

Meanwhile, the tensions between the Shiite-dominated central Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north remain despite the shared threat from IS. But what is perhaps most critical for the Iranians is that even though the threat from IS has forged unity among the Shiite groups on the battlefield, politically they are still unable to get along. Al-Sadr has been leading demonstrations demanding political reforms – key among them the creation of a technocratic Cabinet, which remains a work in progress.


At a time when the Iranian position has been improving in Syria, with the Assad regime gaining some ground, Iraq remains a major headache. IS is just one of the more obvious threats to Iranian interests in Iraq. The decline in Shiite-Kurdish relations has prevented Baghdad from making greater gains against IS and weakened governance, especially with the collapse of oil prices leaving the Iraqis financially strapped. But the core chronic issue is intra-Shia disunity, which the Iranians have continuously juggled for the past 13 years and which is unlikely to change anytime soon.