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What Does Iran Want in Iraq?
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What Does Iran Want in Iraq?
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While the world’s watchful eye settles on the besieged and suffering city of Aleppo, another important conflict looms just across the Syrian border.

For months now, Iraqi forces, joined by U.S. military personnel, have been laying the groundwork for the recapture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the country’s second-largest metropolis, which fell to Islamic State fighters back in June 2014. The campaign will be a critical test for the Iraqi army and for the fractious central government in Baghdad.

Lingering in the background of this key confrontation with the Islamic State group are the Hashd al-Shabi, commonly referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs. These Iran-backed Shiite militias have played a sizable role in the fight against the Islamic State in northern Iraq, but not without inviting controversy and condemnation of their own. And while these Shia fighters have reportedly agreed to remain on the periphery of the battle, some experts worry that these forces may only exacerbate sectarian tensions in and around the majority-Sunni city once the battle is underway, and might even pose a threat to American troops.

To help sort all of this out, the Mideast Memo spoke recently with Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who specializes in Middle East security and Iranian foreign policy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RCW: Let’s start with Mosul and the PMUs. What kind of an effect, if any, will these militias have on the bid to reclaim the city?

VATANKA: The first thing to point to is how the PMUs first came about. This goes back to 2014, when Islamic State was rapidly taking territory in Iraq, prompting Iraqi spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to issue a fatwa calling on Iraqi Shiites to take up arms against the jihadi militant group.

If we don’t get this important point right, then we’re going to mistakenly point to Iran and blame them exclusively for the development of Shiite militias in Iraq, and in the process miss the real dynamic in the country.  

This of course does not mean that Iran’s role has been minor, but it is important to understand what was evolving politically in Iraq at that time, and why that moment has since passed. It is no longer 2014, and the need for the formation of militias has dissipated. For the Iraqi army, this is going to be a long-term struggle not just against ISIS, but also the sons of ISIS.

Defeating these extremist forces in the country will also require a political solution, however, and one that involves Iraq’s Sunni communities. This cannot be accomplished through sectarian militias.

RCW: How does Iran view the PMUs? Do they hope to model them after their own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)?

VATANKA: The Iranians are pretty clear that they would prefer to establish a state within a state inside Iraq -- something like the Revolutionary Guard or Hezbollah in Lebanon, if they could get away with it, which is doubtful. In truth, the Iranians have some fundamental objectives in Iraq. First and foremost, nobody in Iran wants to see Iraq ever again develop into a power that could threaten Iranian security. Outside of this, however, the Iranians have demonstrated some flexibility. If Tehran’s baseline preference is to keep Iraq militarily weak, it still has a tremendous amount of middle ground to bring in aggrieved Sunni communities to help stabilize the country.

Iran knows as well as anyone that these communities will be essential to not only defeating ISIS, but ISIS-ism. They’ve seen firsthand the longevity of groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

RCW: So Tehran doesn’t want Iraq to be a failed state?

VATANKA: Iran doesn’t want a Gaza as its neighbor, no. Why settle for that when it could instead exert influence over a much stabler country?

Iraq has developed into one of Iran’s biggest trading partners -- we’re talking billions of dollars. Sure, Iran could sell weapons to Iraq, but you can’t sell cars and refrigerators to a failed state.

In Tehran there is a minimum consensus on Iraq. The Rouhanis of the world want to develop state-to-state relations, whereas the IRGC sees Iraq more as a little brother. But Iranian officials need to come up with a more uniform approach, because while it’s current policy might make perfect sense in Tehran, it is the image of the meddling Revolutionary Guard that is most prevalent.

RCW: And that is the image being broadcasted to the world.

VATANKA: It’s a real problem for them. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Revolutionary Guard is the face of the Islamic Republic around the world.

RCW: Mosul is about 85 km from Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region, and Kurdish peshmerga forces have played a key role in the fight against ISIS. How do policymakers in Tehran view the Kurds in post-ISIS Iraq?

VATANKA: Iran has traditionally been closer to one particular Kurdish faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, but it has also worked in more recent years to keep longtime Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in power. Iran has never really taken full Kurdish independence seriously, but Iranian generals got a taste for fighting the Kurds about 40 years ago during the 1979 Kurdish rebellion. Iran, remember, is an imperial state with many different minority groups, not just its own Kurds. It has multiple restive communities to worry about and keep in check.  

RCW: Would Iran accept more Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq as a tradeoff for stability in the region?

VATANKA: Iran has already accepted a great deal of Kurdish autonomy, and in 2014, when Iraqi forces were dropping their weapons and fleeing, it was the Iranians who rapidly moved into Iraq to assist in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds haven't forgotten this.

RCW: The political situation in Baghdad remains tenuous. What role does Iran have in the country’s current political discord, and how does it hope to exert influence in Baghdad moving forward?

VATANKA: I look at the Iraq-Iran relationship a different way. I believe the Arab states in the Gulf and the Middle East have missed an opportunity to match Iranian influence in Baghdad. If, instead of looking at Iraqi Shiites as Shias first and Arabs second, the region’s Arab powers should try to view it the other way around, and really focus on the Arab character of Iraq.

Iraqi Shiites fear that Arab states ultimately want to install another Sunni strongman in Baghdad. If the Gulf states, rather than disregarding these fears, instead examined and exploited the differences between Arab and Persian societies, and also how unusual the model of government in Iran is as compared to Shiite history, this could present them with an opportunity.

RCW: It’s a rather modern concept, the Iranian supreme leader.  

VATANKA: It was completely made up by one man in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Compare that to Iraq, where you have Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, more of a quietist, and you have a model that could not only work in Iraq but throughout the Shiite world. But if Iraqi Shiites remain convinced that marauding Sunnis are going to come and murder them, this will only continue to push Iraq’s Shia toward Tehran.

More on this:

The Fight for Mosul Is About to Begin -- Los Angeles Times

Iraqi Leader Outlines Plan for Iraq After ISIS -- Al-Monitor

The Political Battles in Baghdad After the Battle for Mosul -- War on the Rocks

The Man Holding Iraq Together -- RealClearWorld


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