ISIL’s War in Iraq, Iran's Opportunity to Score a Political Win
Center for Graduate International Studies (CGIS), University of Tehran
Diako Hosseini, Researcher,
The invasion of Iraq by the terrorist forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not a pleasant development, but an even more unpleasant development will come about when the government of Iraq and its neighboring countries lose the opportunity to act. The [US president] Barack Obama has announced that the United States has no plan to dispatch its military forces to Iraq in order to help the country’s government counter the terrorists. He added that even if Washington made a decision on military intervention in the Iraq’s crisis, it would be limited to air strikes. In a move, which undoubtedly reveals the US president’s unwillingness to get his country caught in another dire case like Afghanistan, Obama is simply hoping that the Iraqi government would be able to tackle the ISIL militants on its own. This situation has provided Iran with a unique opportunity to demonstrate its power and finesse for crisis management in the absence of the United States through cooperation with other neighboring countries of Iraq. There are a few reasons to discourage Iran's direct military intervention in Iraq. Firstly, such an intervention will practically endorse the war between Shias and Sunnis, not only in Iraq, but also all across the Western Asia. The United States, on the one hand, will not be unhappy with such a situation, while on the other hand, it would confirm the legitimacy of political goals pursued by the ISIL and its supporters. Secondly, in the follow-up to direct and unilateral intervention in Iraq by Iran, the Islamic Republic will have to incur the costs of possible failure in this war on its own and even in case of victory, it will be exposed to vengeful and retaliatory measures by the ISIL and similar terrorist groups. Thirdly, an outright demonstration of Iran's power will increase the motivations of other regional countries to strike a balance of powers with Iran and form alliances against the Islamic Republic.
From the viewpoint of Iraq’s neighboring countries, a powerful Iran with the license to launch military intervention in regional countries will be more dangerous and less trustworthy. Now, do all these reasons mean that Iran should remain idle and watch as unrest and chaos consume its western neighbor?
From the viewpoint of Iran, the presence of Takfiri militants across the region is not only a military threat, but also a political one, which poses the most serious threat to Iran among all neighboring countries of Iraq. If the ISIL were allowed to have its way in Iraq, this would greatly increase the audacity and self-confidence of this group and other militant groups similar to it in Syria, and possibly in Lebanon. In addition, apart from Iran, other neighboring countries of Iraq have been fighting side by side the ISIL militants against the Syrian government for three years and are currently not willing to change the situation of war fronts in Syria to the benefit of the legitimate government of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad by taking a military initiative against the ISIL. Even if the ISIL aimed to pose a threat to conservative monarchies in the region, that threat would only come after Takfiri groups have settled their scores with the sole Shia power in the region. Therefore, Sunni and Arab neighbors of Iraq are more immune to terrorist attacks by the ISIL compared to the non-Arab and Shia Iran. This is especially true as the ISIL owes a large part of its spiritual and material support and motivation to these monarchies. There is also one more convincing reason to be mentioned here: the war theater chosen by the ISIL includes two important allies of Iran; that is, Iraq and Syria. The loss of every one of those allies will speed up the fall of Iran's position and influence in international system.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said in a recent press conference that Iran is ready to assist the government of Iraq in dealing with terrorism. For understandable reasons, Iran is not willing to spearhead the fight with terrorists. However, it is also not willing to become notorious as a country that is not ready to defend its natural sphere of influence. During the past decade, the Islamic Republic of Iran had persistently urged the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq and trust the responsibility for restoring regional security and stability to countries in the region. At present, it is not willing to witness once again the unilateral presence of the United States in Iraq because as soon as the American troops set foot on Iraqi soil, the assumption will be strengthened that no regional power in the Middle East is able to protect the region’s stability and security in the absence of the United States. The Islamic Republic of Iran clearly remembers how a similar mistake by European countries in the conflict of Kosovo in 1999, helped to prove the United States’ claim to being the “global police.” Iran will certainly not repeat the same mistake. Instead, the Islamic Republic of Iran has other trump cards to play in this game.
A useful and alternative initiative would be establishment of a rapid deployment force by the neighboring countries of Iraq, centered on Iran and Turkey, on the official request of the Iraqi government. In order to do this, Iran can encourage the Iraqi government to hand its official request for the establishment of this force to Iran. The next step will be to convene a meeting of Iraq’s neighboring countries to discuss this issue. As a final step, the composition of this force, its goals and a timetable for joint action to achieve the common goal of “helping the Iraqi government to fight terrorism,” will be determined. If this initiative were accepted by all neighboring states of Iraq, Iran would be able to play its leadership role as the main pillar of regional security in order to spearhead the war against terrorism in the region. If some of the neighboring countries of Iraq oppose this initiative, those countries that have opposed the plan will become more isolated internationally. In both cases, Iran's constructive role will be reaffirmed and this will be a major political win for the Islamic Republic.
Key Words: ISIL’s War in Iraq, Iran's Opportunity, Political Win, US, Direct Military Intervention, Iraq’s Neighboring Countries, Takfiri Militants, Hassan Rouhani, War against Terrorism, Hosseini