The de facto break-up of Iraq into three separate entities — Kurdish, ISIS-controlled, and the central government — appears increasingly as a distinct, albeit unfortunate, possibility in the light of rapid military developments since early June. With the geopolitical tremor in Iraq, Syria, and indeed the entire region implicated by these sudden changes, the question of appropriate short and long term Iranian response is exceedingly important.
Already, Tehran has drawn the red line with respect to the holy cities and President Hassan Rouhani has promised full-scale support to the Iraqi government to defeat the terrorists. So far, the Iraqi government has not formally approached Iran for assistance and, therefore, the extent of Iran’s involvement depends on the decisions made in Baghdad in the near future.
A correct understanding of the nature of the new Iraqi crisis is doubtless an important prerequisite for a sound Iranian reaction vis-a-vis a dangerous crisis close to its territory that has sectarian dimensions. A legacy of Iraq’s 2003 invasion, this is in a certain sense a crisis of new nation-building and statemaking in post-invasion Iraq that has reached a new critical threshold as a result of the multiplicity of causal factors ranging from the defects of central governments in achieving a politics of unity, to the spill-over conflict from Syria, to the security vacuum following the 2011 US military withdrawal, to the persistent “roll-back’ strategy of Iraq’s Arab neighbors aimed at reversing the Iraqi Shiites’ political gains one way or another. The latter’s bankrolling the centrifugal forces in Iraq has been a major determining factor that is reflected in the media reports of generous financial support for the ISIS (Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) by wealthy donors in Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
From Iran’s vantage point, this is a serious crisis that threatens the well-spring of Iran’s economic, political, and strategic interests in a neighboring country with which it has strong historical and religious bonds. A de facto balkanization of Iraq is fundamentally averse to Iran’s national (security) interests and, therefore, Iran has no choice but to do what is necessary and in the realm of possibilities to prevent this unwanted scenario.
The big question is, of course, what Iran can do that does not somehow backfire, achieve the unwanted outcome of exacerbating the situation and inflicting undue costs? There are, of course, sunk-costs to any existing scenario of action and one must weigh the short and long-term aspects of alternative courses of action, i.e., inaction, limited assistance, intervention, etc.
In drawing a “red line” on the protection of the holy cities, Iran may have sent the wrong signal regarding the limits of its crisis response. Iran’s primary interest is Iraq’s integrity, territorial sovereignty, and internal peace. In a balkanized Iraq, the Shiite-led government would be deprived of a lion share of its oil revenue, unable to sustain a crippled economy with the rebels now in control of the country’s biggest oil refinery, power plants, etc., causing fuel and electricity shortages in Baghdad and other cities bound to worsen as time goes on. Therefore, sooner or later the central government must mount an effective counter-offensive to regain the large swath of territory lost to the foreign-backed terrorists. Yet, with the alarming signs of erosion of military discipline and loyalty witnessed in the fiasco of Mosul’s fall, it is unlikely that Baghdad, which has purged scores of top military and police officials, is sufficiently prepared for this task — that its future depends on.
More likely, Baghdad can achieve this objective only with the help of international community, which has been critical of the government of Nuri al-Maliki for supposedly pursuing a sectarian politics of exclusion of the Sunnis. Aside from the question of veracity of such criticisms, the real issue is what Baghdad can expect in terms of outside support to defeat the scenario of Iraq’s break-up and balkanization along ethnic and religious lines, which as stated above is untenable economically given the location of Iraq’s oil resources in the northern part of the country?
With respect to the US, which has repeatedly rebuffed Maliki’s request for air strike against the terrorists, the Obama administration has come under pressure to do something, other than sending military hardware to Iraq and beefing up security for its huge embassy. The Pentagon officials have ruled out immediate air strike on the ground of lacking the necessary intelligence required for identifying targets. At the same time, the call for dispatching US special forces to tackle this problem and assist Baghdad in its current counter-insurgency efforts is gaining momentum, i.e., a limited US intervention.
In such a scenario, the best that Baghdad can hope for is the limited stability of its own enclave, not a successful roll-back and the end of ISIS-controlled entity, whereas what is needed is a strategy of overwhelming response that follows the objective of a decisive defeat of the terrorists and regaining central government authority in Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujeh, etc. This would be in line with Iran’s interests and, therefore, Iran must be prepared to commit the necessary resources to assist Baghdad to achieve this key objective.
Lest we forget, the fall of Mosul has resulted in a huge arms shipment to Syria, which will likely translate in bolstering the ISIS’s foothold in Syria, thus fueling the warfare in the Syrian theater. This in turn represents a double setback for Iran that ranks as a serious national security worry. Iran’s assessment of the intention of outside forces, i.e, US, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, etc., must be on the mark and not based on the official rhetoric of these players who are stakeholders in the current Iraqi crisis. A
misperception of these players’ real motives and intentions can result in erroneous policies with disastrous consequences.
On the other hand, given the fluid nature of the crisis and the shifting balance of forces inside Iraq to the detriment of Iraqi government, any Iranian response must be flexible and dynamic, taking into consideration the variables from an apt “threat analysis,” such as the long-term hazards to Iran’s regional security interests as a result of the Sunni extremists’ control of a chunk of Iraqi territory, which they can utilize to starve the central government economically and simultaneously to bolster their sinister cause inside Syria. Perhaps before they have a chance to dig deep and to institutionalize their impressive military gains, a central government counter-offensive with the help of the international community is necessary, in a word, time is not on the side of the central government.
Clearly, Iran’s net of responses to this crisis must not be pegged to the American response, given US’s allegiance to the GCC states backing the ISIS terrorists, US’s own ambivalence regarding the Iraqi government, and Israel’s increasingly close ties to the Kurds and its support for an independent Kurdish states, now a step closer with the Kurds’ complete control of Kirkuk. Henceforth, before any (limited) US-Iran cooperation on Iraq can materialize, Tehran requires greater transparency regarding the US’s intentions and objectives: is the US committed to preventing Iraq’s balkanization or not? Is the US firmly committed to Iraq’s territorial integrity or not? There is an intense debate in the US on these questions nowadays and ultimately the chips must fall on one side or the other.
Meanwhile, Iran must be fully cognizant of the multiple risks to its interests generated by the new Iraq crisis. Other parties cited above may be seeking Iraq’s ‘Vietnamization’ with Iran plagued in a military quagmire along sectarian fault lines. A close US-Iran alliance inside Iraq may also backfire against Iran in the region, stigmatize Iran to the benefit of the takfiri and al-Qaeda groups.
Still, despite such concerns, Iran must set its eyes clear on what the requirements of a successful Baghdad counter-offensive to regain the lost territories and regain full authority are and commit to assist Baghdad in meeting those requirements as much as possible.