From Tehran to Mosul

Iran and the Middle East's Great Game

A member of a Shiite militia looks out at Islamic State positions near Mosul, October 2016. Stringer / Reuters

The battle for Mosul is finally underway. The fight to dislodge the Islamic State (ISIS) from Iraq’s second largest city, which it has occupied since June 2014, promises to be a bloody slog. A battlefield victory could take weeks or even months.

In addition to the challenges of taking the city, the sheer array of actors involved in the Mosul drama could lead to serious complications once ISIS is driven out. The United States is backing a coalition that includes Iraqi military forces and Sunni tribal militias. Kurdish Peshmerga and largely Shiite militia groups are also involved, but they are confined to liberating villages and towns outside the city. The plan is to whittle away at ISIS control surrounding Mosul, advance into the city from various angles, and leave an open corridor out of the city to allow for an ISIS retreat back to Syria. Turkey, which already has troops present in northern Iraq to fight Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) forces, and has sponsored its own Sunni Iraqi proxies, has failed to secure an official role in the fight. It has nonetheless amassed forces along the Turkish–Iraqi border and threatened a more large-scale invasion into the Mosul area.

In short, each major player has different interests in the Mosul campaign, and will want to advance those interests while preventing rivals from doing the same.

Among the outside forces, Iran is one of the more intriguing. Long the United States’ main opponent in Iraq, Tehran’s immediate goal—to help the Iraqi government expel ISIS from Mosul and its surrounding areas—now aligns at least partly with Washington’s. Yet in the chaos of today’s Middle East, achieving that simple objective will present Iran with a host of challenges.  


Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has been closely involved with its neighbor Iraq. Tehran’s Iraqi Shiite allies, long suppressed under Saddam, now dominate the country’s politics. For Iran, which is short of friends

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