With the spread of ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq — brought to new levels of terror by the rise of the Islamic State — Iran’s image as an island of stability in a conflict-ridden Middle East may be short-lived. Its government — already struggling to manage a decrepit economy and tricky nuclear negotiations with the international community — now faces serious questions over its Iraq policy and a “winner-takes-all” mind-set that could eventually threaten Iran’s own national security.
Iran’s policy toward its western neighbor appears to have two main goals: preservation of influence there, and prevention of any spillover of Iraq’s ethnic conflicts into its own multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society.
But as Iran steps up military support for the Iraqi government, Iranian officials fear, quite reasonably, that intervention could suck the country into an open-ended sectarian civil war.
Iran took a big step in that direction following the fall of Mosul on June 10, when regular Iraqi army units disbanded and fled in the face of a few hundred Islamic State fighters.
With Iraq’s then-Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, losing his grip on the country, Iran quickly decided to send military advisers, drones and, by some accounts, Iranian-piloted fighter jets.
This decision to intervene was unusually bold. Previously, Iran’s leaders have been circumspect about overt foreign intervention, preferring to operate through local proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. When the Afghan Taliban — another puritanical Sunni movement with a special hatred for Iran — overran the city of Mazar-e Sharif and executed eight Iranian diplomats in August 1998, Iran massed 70,000 troops on the border and threatened to invade. But Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, after deliberating for a few days, decided that an invasion, though militarily feasible, was not worth the risks. More recently, Iran has denied supporting Syria’s President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
However, in the case of Iraq, the Iranians believe that they have too much to lose by standing on the sidelines. Iraq became Iran’s closest Arab ally soon after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003. In addition to their close political ties, bilateral trade has soared, to $12 billion in 2013. As a result, Iran is more explicit about the need to intervene.
But an interventionist policy has its dissenters. Beyond the need to protect the central government in Baghdad, some critics are questioning the assumption that Iraq’s Shiite majority necessarily implies Shiite political dominance. Etemad, a moderate Iranian newspaper, warns that Iran’s support for Maliki has alienated too many Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds over the last eight years, and that given Iraq’s multi-denominational character, majoritarian democracy based on a unified Shiite electoral bloc “will certainly mean the continuation of the crisis in Iraq.”
Others have called on Iran’s government to negotiate with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers in the Middle East to conclude a regional deal on Iraq. This is unlikely to happen as long as Iran and its principal regional rivals, the Gulf states (led by Saudi Arabia) and Turkey, view one another’s geopolitical calculations in zero-sum terms. Indeed, Iran’s prompt support for Iraq’s Shiite-led government was partly intended to preempt competition from regional adversaries.
But Iranian critics of intervention seem to believe that there is a middle way. Inter-sectarian dialogue in Iraq and a regional compromise with Turkey and the Gulf states does not necessarily translate into a loss of Iranian influence. Iran has already countenanced the removal of Maliki in favor of Haider al-Abadi, and if a broader reconsideration of policy is needed to quell the Islamic State threat, so be it. Iran’s hawks might believe that their country is invincible, but fears are growing that regional overreach could trigger a long list of dangerous consequences.
One such outcome might be the partition of Iraq into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states. An independent Kurdistan could rouse Iran’s 7-million-strong Kurdish minority, while Iran’s Sunni minority (10 percent of the population) includes militant elements that could mobilize against the government.
And yet Iran’s effort to maintain influence in Iraq might bring about precisely that outcome.
In short, Iran’s geopolitical calculations, however careful they may seem, could have incalculable consequences for its own stability, not to mention that of Iraq and the entire Middle East.
Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)