Tehran Doubles Down

Iran's Plan to Win Iraq's Sectarian War

Iraqi women walk past a poster depicting images of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at al-Firdous Square in Baghdad on February 12, 2014. (Courtesy Reuters)

Although the Iranian debate about what to do in Iraq has not been as loud as the one in the United States, it has been equally intense. That should come as no surprise. For Iran, a civil war in neighboring Iraq, or a partitioning of that country, is less an occasion for political score-settling (as in Washington in recent days) than a threat to national security.

Iranian policymakers understand that, and their recent public statements make it possible to discern the basic outlines of Iran’s strategy. On the one hand, Tehran will shore up the Shia-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as it organizes Shia-dominated military forces and informal militias to combat the Sunni insurgents that have gained control of northwestern Iraq. On the other hand, Tehran will attempt to frame the conflict in Iraq in nonsectarian terms, presenting it, instead, as a war against terrorism. That rhetoric, Tehran hopes, will convince the West, particularly the United States, to send political and military support. 

There are obvious tensions between the rhetorical and operational aspects of this strategy, and Iranian policymakers may be less capable of finessing those tensions than they would like to think. 

Since the end of the war between Iraq and Iran in 1988 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s priority has been to ensure that Iraq would never again invade it. To that end, it has focused on establishing a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that is friendly to Tehran. It has also cultivated Shia political networks in Iraq and created a number of powerful Shia militias. As a result, Iraq has become a clear Iranian ally and a major trading partner. This has tipped the strategic balance of power in the region in favor of Iran and against its rival, Saudi Arabia.

Iran is not likely to undo all that progress by abandoning its ally; solidarity is a mainstay of the political rhetoric of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. When the city of Mosul fell to the Sunni insurgent group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Tehran's immediate instinct was to quickly offer military help to Maliki, whom it has long backed. But this is not simply a matter of personal loyalty. Iran's strategic priority in Iraq is ensuring that Iraq’s government remains dominated by Shia, with or without Maliki at the helm.

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