The Iranian Defense Minister in Baghdad
Following the conquest of the city of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s largest province Anbar, (only about 130 kilometers from Baghdad and only about 410 kilometers east of the Jordanian border), Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan came for an urgent official visit in Iraq to meet with his Iraqi counterpart Khaled al-Obeidi, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi,1 the parliament speaker, members of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee and Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayad. During his meetings, Dehghan reiterated Iran’s support for the Iraqi people in their struggle against Takfiri [apostate] terrorist groups (ISIS) and its willingness to help resolve the ongoing security crisis.2 Dehghan said Iran will provide Iraq with training, arms and intelligence.3
Ali Akbar Velayati, international affairs adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said that “if the Iraqi government officially requests help from Iran in contending with them [ISIS], Iran will respond positively…. I believe that eventually Ramadi, like Tikrit, will be freed from the terrorists’ grip.”4
Until President Obama’s decision to withdraw most of U.S. forces from Iraq, Anbar was considered one of the main areas of U.S. influence there (following difficult battles in the city of Fallujah and numerous U.S. casualties). The conquest of Ramadi is seen as a severe blow – not as much to the U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS as to U.S. prestige in the region, which in any case has been in freefall. The city’s takeover by ISIS fighters has again proved the helplessness of the Iraqi security forces and particularly of the Iraqi army, which, trained and equipped by the United States, at the moment of truth fled the battlefield, leaving large amounts of equipment and weaponry behind.
Over the past few months Iran has played a central role in efforts to check and contain ISIS’s activity in Iraq. In parallel, Iran and Hizbullah’s involvement on the Syrian front, aimed at preserving President Bashar Assad’s regime, continues.
The Sunni Heartland
Iran’s Arabic-language television channel Al-Alam, which broadcasts to an Arab target audience, blamed the Sunni tribes and U.S. Iraq policy for not allowing the dispatch of Shiite fighters, mainly from the National Mobilization (NM) al-Hashdal-Watani umbrella organization, to Anbar Province – the Sunni heartland. Al-Alam claimed the U.S. and Sunni tribes bear responsibility for the city’s fall and the ongoing crisis in Iraq.5 The United States, for its part, expressed concern that the dispatch of Shiite fighters there would exacerbate Sunni-Shiite tensions.
A spokesperson for the Shiite NM said that Iran was planning to mount a large-scale offensive to liberate the city6 and had forces in the area of Habbaniyah (20 kilometers from Ramadi) and Fallujah. Iranian television reported the arrival of thousands of NM fighters from provinces adjacent to Anbar who were to take part in the anti-ISIS struggle.7
The reconquest of the city will necessitate cooperation between the Sunni tribes on the one hand, some of which support ISIS and are deeply suspicious of Iraq’s Shiite government and its patron Iran, and the NM on the other, which is mainly composed of Shiite forces. Those forces continue to receive massive assistance from Iran, including advisers as well as fighters from the Revolutionary Guard, weapons, and logistics. With Iran’s help, the NM freed the city of Saddam Hussein’s birth, Tikrit, from the hands of ISIS. The visit by the Iranian defense minister to Baghdad a short time after Ramadi’s fall to ISIS indicates that the Iraqi government intends, in coordination with Iran, to take rapid, decisive action to liberate the city. Prime Minister al-Abadi has been trying for some time to assemble a cross-sectarian military force.
NM forces’ participation in Ramadi’s liberation will likely lead to deepened Iranian involvement in Iraq and also in areas thought of as Sunni strongholds that border Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Iran continues to exploit the U.S. hesitancy over the war against ISIS as well as U.S. efforts to avoid serious conflict with Iran in the shadow of the nuclear talks. In contrast to the United States, which refrains from an extensive ground operation, Iran is sending more and more forces to Iraq for ground operations, some openly and some camouflaged as Iraqi forces.
The Broadening of the Conflict with Saudi Arabia
In an audio recording posted online on May 15, 2015,8 General Izat Ibrahim al-Douri, the evasive deputy of Saddam Hussein and senior Iraqi Baath Party figure, said regarding the presence of Shiite fighters in Nukhayb (a city in Anbar Province) that “Nukhayb constitutes a strategic point for Iran within Iraq, and one of the goals behind conquering it is to open a front against Saudi Arabia and link up with the fronts in Syria and Lebanon after the closing of the crossings from the north….What is occurring in Iraq is actually a Persian conquest.” Al Douri called on “Iraqis in Al-Anbar and Karbala to strongly fight the Persian criminal plan, which aims at swallowing Iraq.”
This growing Iranian involvement in Iraq will have ramifications for the fabric of Sunni-Shiite relations there, which are fragile in any case, and for the medium- to long-term possibilities of achieving Iraq’s rehabilitation and stabilization. It also further intensifies the Gulf States’ apprehensions about the depth of Iran’s involvement in the region, including in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, along with its ongoing subversion in the Gulf States. Last week’s Gulf State summit at Camp David, with the Saudi king and other leaders notably absent, did not allay their fears.
Iran is continuing its push to encircle Saudi Arabia and challenge its regional and international status in an effort to dominate the region. It is operating on the border of Yemen with Saudi Arabia and helping the Houthis fight the Saudi-led Arab coalition. In addition, Iranian naval forces are projecting power in the Red Sea near Saudi Arabia’s borders to the west, and now Iran is trying to gain a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s eastern border via the Sunni districts of Iraq, thus stepping up its arenas of confrontation with Saudi Arabia and the disintegrating Arab world.
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