Iran vs. the Islamic State

The Islamic State (IS) offensive in Iraq has been blunted. Kurdish troops and the Iraqi national army have even made slow progress in pushing IS back. US and allied airpower has played an important role, hitting IS positions and convoys hard. However, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisers have been on the ground and more recently Iranian jets have launched airstrikes. The IRGC’s General Qasim Soleimani has allowed himself to be photographed on the battlefields so often, it suggests political ambitions – at least to Western observers.

An Iranian presence in Iraq is not new. Many Shi’ite political parties and militias of Iraq were formed with Iranian assistance during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It should have surprised no one, not even the most naive neo-conservative in Washington, that Saddam Hussein’s ouster would lead to a Shi’ite majority in power and that it would lean toward longtime benefactors just to the east.

What does the increased and more open Iranian presence in Iraq signify, for the region, and for Iran’s relations with the rest of the world?

Iran, Iraq, and Kurdistan

When IS fighters swept into northern and central Iraq, Tehran warned that it would intervene if IS troops came within 100 kilometers of its border or desecrated Shi’ite holy sites. It has thus far not sent in regular combat troops. It has sent advisers and launched airstrikes – paradoxically, with venerable US F-4 Phantoms.

Baghdad’s pleas for American support presented a dilemma. Iran wanted better relations with the US but mistrusted it and worried about the reintroduction of US troops into Iraq. IRGC support against IS reduces Baghdad’s reliance on the US, Western powers, and Sunni states in the region – all of whom are involved in Iraq, chiefly in delivering armaments and in the air war.

Intervention strengthens ties with the Kurds of Iraq. Iran and Kurdistan have better relations than might be expected. Iran has armed and supported Iraqi Kurds for decades as they have drawn off tens of thousands of Iraqi troops that might otherwise have been deployed against Iranian forces. Kurds in Iran (sometimes called “East Kurdistan”) are waging a low-level insurgency against Tehran, but Iran and Kurdistan remain on good terms – probably in the hope of limiting cooperation between the Kurdish regions.

Iran is in competition with the US and Israel over Kurdistan. Those two powers also supported Iraqi Kurds against Saddam, and Iran does not want to see Kurdistan become too close to them. That would allow the US and Israel to use Kurdistan as a base of operations against Iran one day. Iran has allowed Kurdistan oil to be exported through Iranian ports; neither the US nor Israel can be of help here.

Iran is positioned to manage the conflict between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government. Erbil and Baghdad have come close to war in recent years over oil revenues, but tensions have eased or at least been temporarily subordinated to fighting IS. Erbil and Baghdad recently inked an agreement on revenue-sharing. Its full and continued implementation may prove elusive.

The IRGC has long enjoyed considerable influence with Shi’ite parties in Baghdad. It played a critical role in forcing them into a viable coalition at a time when they were fighting, both in the assembly and even in the streets. General Soleimani, it should be no surprise, played a key role in the negotiations.

The US and the West

Though IRGC assistance in Iraq aims to limit US influence, it also demonstrates willingness to cooperate with the US on strategic matters. It isn’t the first time the two putative enemies have cooperated. Iran helped the US drive out the Taliban in 2001 by providing intelligence and offering to help rescue downed pilots. Its advisers had served with the Northern Alliance for many years – long after the US had quit Afghanistan shortly after the Russian withdrawal in 1989. And Soleimani’s effort to bring stability to the Baghdad government were hardly at odds with American aspirations.

These efforts had little effect in softening the US stance on Iran. Cooperation against IS is unlikely to have any discernible effect either. This is especially true in the United States Congress, which has become increasingly conservative since last November’s elections, and in the public at large, which has no significant pro-Iran constituency, though a sizable and influential anti-Iran one.

Iran, however, will trumpet its role in fighting IS over the next few months in the hope it will be of some value when the nuclear talks resume next year.

The region

Iran has built an international-Shi’ite coalition to fight Sunni extremism and to keep the Bashar al-Assad government in power in the rump of Syria it still controls. Iran has brought Shi’ite Afghans (Hazaras) and Lebanese Hezbollah troops into Syria and more recently into Iraq, forming a significant fighting force in the region – much of it arrayed against IS and al-Qaeda.

The Sunni powers are alarmed by this and have recently announced the formation of a military alliance aimed at countering IS and Iran. Iraq has countered by insisting that Iran should be part of the anti-IS league, but sectarian fears are prevailing.

Sunni Iraqis are concerned that Shi’ite and Kurdish troops – aided by Iran – want to expel them from many parts of Iraq. Indeed, they have already done so in areas around Baghdad and in northern Iraq. This will make Kurdish-Iraqi operations deep inside Sunni territory highly risky.


The Iranian public sees its contribution in the war on IS and religious extremism as important yet unappreciated, both in the region and in the West. Their country receives no respect or sanctions relief, only military alliances against it and the prospect of stiffer sanctions.

The effects the ongoing war will have on Iranian politics is unclear. However, wars, especially victorious ones, usually bestow tremendous prestige upon the military, often upon specific generals. The much-photographed Qasim Soleimani is being lauded in the Iranian and Iraqi media, though he is hardly mentioned elsewhere. A diligent general who appears to brave enemy fire could be an important candidate in the presidential campaign of 2017 – one who could garner support from the reform-minded middle classes and add a military-populist dimension to the government.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com

This article originally appeared on Asia Times Online.


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Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing) 

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