In an announcement that could complicate the cornerstone of America’s mission in Iraq—training Iraq’s military to fight ISIS—an Iranian general said Monday that he also is prepared to begin training Iraqi military officers. The message comes after Baghdad and Tehran reached a security agreement in December, which has not been made public but will reportedly increase military cooperation between the two countries.
Washington and Tehran have quietly cooperated in the fight against ISIS largely by avoiding direct contact and keeping to separate spheres of influence. If Iran begins training Iraqi officers at the same time the U.S. carries out its own multi-year training mission, those spheres could collide. Iran hasn’t actually begun any training yet, only signaled its readiness, but if it does start, there are some obvious logistical questions to sort out that carry broader implications. It’s not clear whether the U.S. and Iran would split up the Iraqi army in some sort of shared custody training different units, or if a single Iraqi officer could end up receiving direction from both American and Iranian advisers.
The American military began training Iraq’s forces in late December, days before Iran and Iraq concluded their security agreement. Currently the U.S. vets Iraqi troops to ensure they don’t have ties to terrorist groups, but has not reported screening for ties to other armies.
A Pentagon official told The Daily Beast that the department was unaware of Iran’s announcement about training Iraqi officers. The official did not provide further comment on how the U.S. mission to train Iraq’s military would be impacted if Iran began a similar program.
It’s no secret that the U.S.-backed war against ISIS relies on sectarian militias sponsored by Iran to combat the group in Iraq. After the Iraqi military collapsed during the initial ISIS onslaught, militias filled the gap, battling ISIS outside of Iraq’s Kurdish regions. While the militias counter ISIS on the ground, the U.S. has focused on conducting airstrikes and retraining the Iraqi military to eventually take on the group.
But the growing influence of Shia militias with ties to Iran, which have operated under U.S. air cover in the past, poses problems for both the U.S. and Iraq. While Baghdad attempts to form a national government and bring the country’s Sunnis back into its political system, Shia militiamen are accused of massacring more than 70 Sunni villagers last month.
The statement Monday from Brigadier Gen. Hossein Valivand about training Iraqi officers was reported by Iranian media, but received little notice in the West. Valivand, who runs the Iran Army’s Command and General Staff College, said “Iranian military experts are prepared enough to offer training to Iraqi forces,” according to Presstv, Tehran’s English-language news outlet. “Valivand added that the issue of training Iraqi soldiers had been discussed during a recent visit by Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi to Tehran,” Presstv reports.
The “recent visit” is a reference to a December meeting between Iraq’s defense minister and his Iranian counterpart that resulted in a security agreement between the two countries. Al Arabiya provided some of the few details on the agreement in English. Citing Iranian state television accounts, Al Arabiya reported that the defense ministers had ”agreed to continue cooperation in the defense arena with the creation of a national army to protect the territorial integrity and security of Iraq.”
“The Iranian proxy forces which include elements from the IRGC [the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s expeditionary military force] were already doing this for months,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher on Shia Islamist militarism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s an interesting kind of public messaging campaign,” Smyth said of Monday’s announcement, “to demonstrate further support for the Iraqi national entities while they are simultaneously militia-izing the rest of the country.”
“None of this comes as a surprise,” said Mark Dubowitz of the agreement and Iran’s expanding military role in Iraq. Dubowitz leads the Iran sanctions and nonproliferation projects for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which describes itself as a non-partisan policy institute focused on promoting “democratic values” and countering “ideologies that drive terrorism.”
Dubowitz sees Iran “hedging its bets” in Iraq, bolstering its influence in both the military and among its loyal militias.
“Iran has obviously been training the Shia militias and using the proxies very effectively in Iraq and elsewhere. I’d imagine that Iran is hedging their bets: Train the security forces and the militias so you can increase your influence and facilitate the coordination between the formal service and the militias and ensure that, whoever comes out the winner, you retain effective control. It’s the same playbook in Lebanon; Hezbollah has been the proxy but Iran has also exerted increasing influence over the uniformed military services”
Doug Ollivant, former Director for Iraq on National Security Councils under Presidents Bush and Obama, does not see an inevitable conflict if the U.S. and Iran are both training Iraqi forces.
"I think we’re going to compete in different spheres.” Ollivant said. “U.S. forces are more or less restricted to a few military bases. As long as the Iranian forces aren’t on those bases there are not going to be a lot of opportunities for interaction."
After serving in Iraq as an army officer and later for the White House, Ollivant now works as a Managing Parter at Mantid International and an ASU Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.
According to Ollivant, there is less than meets the eye in the possibility of Iran training Iraqi officers. “This just shows that the Iranians are going to compete with us for influence in Iraq because it’s important,” Ollivant said. “Because they got there early,” he added, “and they’re neighbors, they have an advantage.”
Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear facilities have brought Washington and Tehran into close contact since President Obama took office. ISIS supplied the “enemy of my enemy logic” that put the U.S. and Iran on the same side, but despite tacit cooperation in Iraq, no formal alliance exists in the common fight against ISIS. That leaves plenty of questions to be resolved between two powerful countries trying to influence the outcome of a war they are fighting through third parties.
“If I were Iranian intelligence, I’d be looking at this very carefully,” said Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s an interesting way for the MOIS [Iran’s ministry of intelligence] and Revolutionary Guards to get under the tents and learn all they can about U.S. training, force posture, and power projection.
“From the perspective of the Iraqi security services, I’d be betting on the Iranians,” Dubowitz said. “I’d be getting as much training and weaponry from the Americans while it’s on offer, but at the end of the day I’d be betting that Iranian boots are going to stay on the ground long after American boots.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with quotes from Douglas Ollivant, a former National Security Council official, on the consequences for American interests of a potential Iranian plan to train Iraqi soldiers.
A description of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies policy institute as “conservative” has been changed to reflect that the organization describes itself as non-partisan.