The Fallacy of Iranian Leverage

Why the Turmoil in Iraq Will Weaken the Islamic Republic

Members of Iran's Basij militia march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, September 22, 2010. Morteza Nikoubazl / Courtesy Reuters

In the breathless coverage of the bloody advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) through Iraq, some news analysis has suggested that the ISIS victories could actually boost Iranian leverage in the region. According to this view, since the Shia government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is increasingly relying on Iranian support to hold off ISIS expansion, Iran’s influence in the region could rise and its hand in the nuclear negotiations with the West could consequently strengthen.

The West’s nuclear talks with Iran are nearing a critical July 20 deadline for a final deal, so it isn’t surprising to hear speculation about how ISIS’ victories will affect the negotiations. Israeli leaders, for example, have expressed concerns that the United States may try to push through a less than optimal deal as it is tempted to work with Iran to confront a common adversary in Iraq. And other neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, share similar concerns about diminished American influence and increased Iranian regional power. But this way of thinking misreads the fallout of the Iraq crisis and its relationship to the nuclear negotiations. 

For one, Iran has its own reasons to counter ISIS, for which the United States will not need to pay a price. ISIS is a threat to Iran because of its anti-Shia ideology and because it is menacing a friendly ally in Baghdad, which has ensured that Iraq poses no strategic threat to Iran. ISIS gains also put in jeopardy Iran’s broader strategic alliances with Syria and Hezbollah by capturing territory through which Iran typically sends Hezbollah armaments.

To be sure, Sunni extremists’ efforts to stir sectarian strife through brutal atrocities against Iraqi Shia will no doubt make the Iraqi government and the country’s majority Shia population more amenable to overt Iranian assistance and influence in the country. But they were already fairly amenable to begin with: Maliki has already demonstrated as much by pursuing anti-Sunni sectarian policies that helped fuel

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