Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi: One by one, key Iraqi cities fell to Islamic State militants as Iraqi security forces failed to hold their ground. In their place, Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shi’ite militias, who once battled U.S. soldiers, have emerged as among the strongest ground forces capable of pushing back the extremists.
And now, in the battle to retake Ramadi, just as in the battle to recapture Tikrit, Washington has been put in the curious position of providing air strikes to cover Iraqi paramilitary forces supported by Tehran – for decades considered an adversary of the United States and U.S. allies in the region.
While Iran may not be a friend of the United States, Washington does not have to view what Tehran does in Iraq as adverse to U.S. interests, explained Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
“We may have to recognize it is the lesser of two evils, compared with allowing ISIL free rein over territories it still controls,” O’Hanlon said, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms.
Combined with U.S.-led airstrikes, Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi’ite militias have proved to be the only forces other than the Kurdish peshmerga to effectively fight off the extremists.
Iran’s growing influence in Iraq through its support of successive Shi’ite governments in Baghdad and battle-hardened Shi’ite militia is swiftly challenging the balance of power in the region.
Human rights organizations and analysts have warned, however, that abuses by the militias are creating a dangerous sectarian divide in the country.
“The real issue here,” O’Hanlon said, “is how do you get a handle and some degree of oversight vis-à-vis the Shia militias, so the most extreme ones can be marginalized with time, and those that might do the bidding of Iran rather than Baghdad can be brought under greater control.”
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned that Iran’s actions in Iraq could backfire when it comes to defeating ISIL.
“The more Iran becomes engaged in the fight inside Iraq, the more this plays to the Islamic State’s recruiting message, which is: the Iranians support the Shia government in Baghdad, the government in Baghdad is merely an Iranian stooge and the Iranians are coming to exterminate us Sunnis. This is a message that resonates with a large portion of the Sunni population in Iraq,” Roggio told VOA.
Expanding Regional Influence
Analysts believe that Iran wants to have as much influence as possible in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and then use that as a counterweight against the United States and the majority Sunni countries in the region.
“Iran’s end game in the Middle East is ultimately to expand its influence,” Roggio said.
Alireza Nader of the Rand Corporation said Iran has become the ascendant power in the Middle East by taking advantage of the political chaos in the region.
“I ascribe that to the collapse of the old order: very weak Arab nation states, weak central governments in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere,” Nader said. As a result, “Iran is the most powerful foreign actor in Iraq, and has a decisive role in Iraqi politics and even Iraq’s military strategy against ISIS.”
Not a U.S. Partner
Even though Washington's and Tehran’s objectives may align in fighting Islamic State, analysts cautioned that the United States should not delude itself into thinking that Iran is a partner.
Moreover, they said Washington’s traditional regional allies are uncomfortable with the tacit Washington-Tehran collaboration in Iraq.
“It’s going to be very difficult for the United States to balance these relationships, especially given the level of anxiety expressed by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia,” said Nader.
O’Hanlon agreed that Riyadh is likely quite nervous about developments in the broader Middle East, including the U.S. relationship with Iran. But he said Riyadh’s discomfort is not necessarily problematic enough to change U.S. policy.
“We have to keep our cool and remember our own interests as well,” he said.