Iran Is the Biggest Loser in Iraq

After all of its efforts to undermine the U.S. mission, Tehran now has a violent, semi-failed state right on its border. And it will have to deal with the financial fallout on its own.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Sen. John McCain has called for the heads of President Obama’s entire national-security staff for the debacle in Iraq. Papers and websites are filled with opinion pieces running some variation of the title “Who lost Iraq?

Other folks can debate and assign blame for “who lost Iraq.” But I’ll let you in on a little secret about who the biggest loser is, now that Iraq seems to be going up in flames (besides the long-suffering Iraqi people): the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Yes, because Iran’s security strategy for the past decade has been to (A) keep America off balance inside Iraq, while (B) making sure Baghdad doesn’t ever pose a threat like it did during the Iran-Iraq War. While the U.S. maintained its presence in Iraq and tried to keep the locals from cutting each others’ throats, the Iranians quietly not-so-quietly developed their massive networks within the country, raised proxies, and generally subverted our efforts.

Iran’s covert/overt effort to bleed the U.S. in Iraq was a massive, complex endeavor. During the American occupation, Iran bankrolled multiple lethal Shia proxy groups like Jaysh al-Mahdi, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Khataib Hezbollah that in turn killed American troops and rocketed the U.S. Embassy, sometimes multiple times a day. Tehran flooded the country with precision-engineered bombs, called Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs), able to penetrate American tanks, causing thousands of American and Iraqi casualties in the process. Furthermore, Tehran has bribed Iraqi generals and politicians to undermine American efforts, had its elite Quds Force operate within Iraq for years; and even may have a hand in a particularly gruesome murder of five U.S. servicemen in 2007.

Keeping its American adversary pinned down in the quicksand of Iraq’s ethno-sectarian conflict suited Tehran’s interests quite nicely, as long as the war didn’t spill across its 900-plus-mile border. But the Stars and Stripes don’t fly over military bases in Iraq and American taxpayers aren’t spending billions of dollars every month anymore—and so now Iran must deal with the continuing fallout alone.

When Iraq pulled back from a total civil war in 2008-2011, Tehran should have told its longtime friend, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that, even though he really wanted to crack down on those suspicious Sunni tribes in Anbar province once the Americans left, he should instead try to integrate them into Iraq’s government and security forces. With all that oil money gushing into Baghdad’s coffers and a few years of relative stability behind it, Maliki could have even developed Anbar’s infrastructure, too, in order to keep those tribes fat, happy—and co-opted. This was Saddam’s general strategy, and how he kept power for so long.

Tehran should have done this not because they particularly liked Sunni Iraqis, but rather because it’s in Iran’s critical national-security interest to keep their neighbor stable—and prosperous. After all, Iraq has quickly become one of Iran’s top trading partners, doing $12 billion in two-way trade in 2013. Tehran and Baghdad was also slated to open a 167-mile pipeline that would supply Iraq with three to four million cubic meters of natural gas per day, earning Iran some $3.7 billion annually.

On the other hand, upsetting and alienating a large percentage of the population such as the Sunnis is a recipe for disaster. As citizens of a multiethnic country that is only about 60 percent ethnic Persian, every Iranian instinctively understands this.

But either Iran didn’t provide this advice, or Maliki didn’t take it. Instead, he decided to take the rod against Sunni groups, like the Anbar Awakening councils that routed al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. And issue an arrest warrant for the Iraqi vice president, Sunni Tariq al-Hashimi, on terrorism charges in 2011. And ignore the endemic corruption in the country.

And so long-simmering tensions reemerged. This gave breathing room to al Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which lost its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006 to an American air strike, and then his successors Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri in 2010. Within the larger political backdrop, ISIS survived and grew into the menace that it is today.

Now, Iran is doing the best it can to salvage what it can. The Quds Force is on the ground battling ISIS, and presumably Tehran is rushing all manner of aid to a beleaguered Iraqi government. Longtime Quds Force chief Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani is reportedly in Baghdad, which indicates the severity of the crisis. Back at home, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said Iran will “fight and combat” terrorism after his country’s Supreme National Security Council on June 12th convened an emergency session to discuss Iraq’s predicament.

Still, Iran is now obliged to fight a two-front war against Sunni groups—one in Syria and now another in Iraq. Given that punishing international sanctions are crushing its economy over its nuclear-weapons program, it’s not like Tehran has infinite funds to spare for foreign adventures.

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Of course, Iran is willing to take on a lot of hardship to secure what it considers its national-security interests (say, its nuclear-weapons program), but opening up a new effort against Sunnis—with boots on the ground in Iraq—must be causing a lot of heartburn in Tehran.

If events continue to go south in a big way, the IRGC might be forced to choose between competing, compelling security priorities. It’s also still too early to tell, but every aid shipment to Baghdad might mean one fewer for Damascus.

What about the day after tomorrow? Even if ISIS is rolled back significantly in the next few weeks, the systemic problems that put Iraq into this current mess will still remain. The Iraqi army still won’t have effective leadership. The parliament will still be unable to govern—despite the severity of the crisis, it couldn’t even pass a declaration of a state of emergency after Mosul fell. The Sunnis will remain aggrieved. Corruption will still take its toll. And ISIS will now find new Iranian targets to hit.

One silver lining to ISIS’s menace to Iraqi society is that it might actually bring Iran and the U.S. closer together, at least on this battlefield. Who knows, Americans commanders might soon find themselves working with the exact same people who were killing and maiming American troops only a few years ago.

For instance, if elite Iranian troops battle ISIS on the ground, and the U.S. decided to provide air power to smite ISIS from the skies, it would make for a much more effective counteroffensive if the two forces coordinated their efforts. Few would have predicted a scenario where Iranian troops provided actionable intelligence to American commanders to destroy murderous jihadist militants, and vice versa. But war sometimes makes for strange bedfellows.

Nevertheless, Iran can only go so far to pacify Iraq with its own forces. The IRGC and its Shia proxies are reviled in Sunni-majority areas, and an effort to hold territory by these groups would eventually cause a major backlash among the population. So Iran would have to eventually withdraw, leaving a power vacuum, again, in those areas.

More broadly, many of the socio-economic and sectarian drivers that brought Iraq to this horrific juncture would remain in place after the shooting stopped. A semi-failed state containing thousands of virulently anti-Shia veteran fighters on its western border will remain a long-term national-security nightmare for Tehran.

But America shouldn’t gloat over Iran’s misfortunes too deeply. After all, just because Iran is the biggest loser in this current Iraqi crisis doesn’t mean America is winning this particular battle either.