Iran Stands to Make Gains in Iraq and Syria Unless Constrained by the US

On Tuesday, The Iran Project quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, a leading foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as saying that the Islamic Republic has no role in the recent hostilities in and around the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. With US backing, Iraqi Kurdish forces had played an instrumental role in capturing the city from ISIL and holding it as the conflict with the Syrian-Iraqi terrorist group wound down. But with ISIL apparently on its last legs, Kirkuk has become one of several flashpoints in newly emerging conflicts as multiple parties strive to gain future strategic leverage by holding different areas of liberated territory.

Kirkuk’s strategic importance was greatly amplified in the wake of an independence referendum held in the Kurdish region of Iraq in September. The Iraqi national government has declared the overwhelmingly successful initiative unconstitutional and has urged the Kurdish regional government to disavow the results. The regional authorities have refused, giving rise to various issues that would need to be addressed if the Kurds attempted to push the independence initiative forward. Among these issues is the status of Kirkuk, which is ethnically mixed and technically outside of the boundaries of the Kurdish region but is also a source of dispute between the regional and national authorities.

Perhaps spurred on by the potential impact of Kurdish control over this oil-rich area on the independence efforts, Iraqi forces stormed Kirkuk on Monday and took control of surrounding bases and federal installations. The National Interest detailed this offensive the same day and also described the United States as being silent over the clashes as it remains stuck between its post-occupation support for the national government and its support for the Kurds during the war against ISIL.

The article went on to explain that this silence is likely to be at odds with American national security interests, chiefly because of the still-growing influence of the Iranian government over its counterpart in Baghdad. In fact, the Iranians have opposed calls by some Iraqi politicians for the dissolution of the Popular Mobilization Units, a coalition of mostly Iranian-backed Shiite militants. These forces were used in the conflict against ISIL and have now been largely absorbed into the Iraqi military itself.

Newsweek called attention to this fact on Tuesday as part of the argument that Iran stands to gain the most from the collapse of a US-led coalition in Iraq. This underscored the National Interest articles conclusions regarding the escalation of Iranian influence and its impact on American national security. It also further undermines Velayati’s attempt to distance Iran from current developments in Iraq. But his claim of Iranian non-interference was already thoroughly undermined by previous reporting on the role of Tehran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Syrian Civil War and in the development of the PMU, among other regional issues.

The National Interest points out that Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force, has paid at least two visits to Kurdistan in recent weeks, as well arriving there immediately before the Iraqi assault on Kirkuk. Thus, it is natural that, according to Newsweek, the Kurdish regional authority have pointedly blamed the IRGC for recent developments.

In an address to the nation on Friday regarding his administration’s Iran policy, US President Donald Trump singled out the IRGC as a target of his new, more assertive strategy. Citing their extensive contributions to terrorism and regional instability, Trump declared that he would be calling for a much more vigorous package of economic sanctions against agents and affiliates of the IRGC. Soon after, the Treasury Department acknowledged designation of the IRGC under an executive order passed by President George W. Bush in 2001 with the aim of making it easier to weaken the financial supports for terrorist actors.

But despite Trump’s focus on the IRGC, his administration has continued to maintain silence on the apparently Iran-backed efforts to undermine the Kurdish position in Iraq. Newsweek quoted the president himself as saying, in reference to the Kurds and the Iraqi army/PMU, “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. [But] we’re not taking sides.”

The persistence of Iranian influence poses a similar problem in Syria, where the US faces a somewhat different situation. The wind-down of the civil war in that country has coincided with the depletion of moderate rebel forces that the US had backed in their effort to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. American policymakers remain opposed to that government, but have largely been compelled to accept it as a political reality. The focus of US policy has now turned to supporting whatever forces it can against the deepening Iranian influence over that government and its military, which has also been all but supplanted by Shiite militias.

But Iranian state media has claimed victories in this as well as in the clashes in Iraq. Specifically, The Iran Project picked up the story on Tuesday of several Iranian victories against ISIL holdouts in the towns and villages around the city of Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria. This is important because Iranian control over this area would make the city a major link in a supply chain leading directly from Tehran, through Iraq, to Damascus and Beirut, the latter being the headquarters of the long-established Iranian terrorist proxy, Hezbollah.

Opponents of the Iranian regime have given the IRGC much of the credit for saving the Assad government from the brink of overthrow and subsequently taking control of Syrian territory on Iran’s behalf. Unlike in Iraq, the White House has no major incentive to sit on the fence between rival factions in Syria. So Trump and his foreign policy advisors can be expected to speak out more clearly about IRGC influence there, possibly also using its effects to argue for European participation in the American campaign against the IRGC. But it remains to be seen if the new sanctions will be sufficient to mitigate the paramilitary’s influence in the neighboring conflict zones.

Of course, multilateral sanctions will present better chances of success, and for the sake of encouraging them the White House appears to be striving to deemphasize the broadly popular Iran nuclear deal, which Trump decertified on Friday, in order to refocus attention on other areas of Iranian misbehavior. Meanwhile, some sources suggest that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is doing exactly the opposite, limiting his response to US sanctions against the IRGC in an effort to keep attention focused on the nuclear deal, thereby possibly undermining Trump’s efforts to build Western consensus on a broader regional policy.

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