One of these came from Ali Younessi, a former Minister of Intelligence and Security and current special advisor to President Hassan Rouhani. On March 8, Younessi spoke about Iraq, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Tehran-backed Shiite militias are fighting the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, and he effectively described Iranian intentions of annexing its Western neighbor.
“At present, not only Iraq is under the influence of our civilization, but it is our identity, culture, center and capital,” Younessi said. “This is the case today and has been the case in the past because the geography of Iran and Iraq is inseparable and our culture is inseparable. Thus, we either have to fight each other or become one.”
Such commentary reflects many Western analysts concerns about Iran’s growing dominance of the conflict in Iraq, which is nonetheless being tolerated by the administration of US President Barack Obama. But even some persons from within that administration have acknowledged that the Iranian role increases the sectarian nature of the conflict and that the destruction of the Islamic State by Iran may simply open up a power vacuum to be filled by the latter.
Furthermore, this sectarian influence extends beyond Iraq, as Iranian officials are quick to acknowledge. Among those officials who comments were highlighted by the NCRI is Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, whose presence on the Iraqi battlefields has been openly advertised by Iran despite the fact that he is listed as foreign terrorist by several Western governments and banned from international travel by a UN resolution.
Suleimani is also known to have been operating in Syria, where Iran has been propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, fighting against both IS and moderate rebel groups, and fighting alongside Lebanon’s Hezbollah paramilitary, which is financed and directed by Tehran.
Speaking to Fars News Agency on March 11, Suleimani said of Iraq and Lebanon, “These regions are affected by the measures and the mindset of Islamic Republic of Iran.” And those measures and mindset are decidedly sectarian, as is attested by recent video of Suleimani in Iraq.
According to the Kurdish news site Rudaw, the YouTube clip depicted Iran’s leading foreign military operative offering religious advice to Iraqi fighters. He describes sectarian conflict against Sunnis as a “religious duty” and says to his followers, “Now in this situation we need experts in jihad. If you would be able to become experienced jihadists the next Iraqi generation would gain more from your experience.”
Suleimani’s dual religious and military roles suggest that the two dimensions of Iranian influence are virtually inseparable, and analysts warn that this political mindset is dangerous not only to Sunni powers in the region but also to representatives of those nations that are perceived as Judeo-Christian adversaries by Jihadists.
A report by NBC News regarding Suleimani’s control over Iraqi forces quotes Heritage Foundation Middle East analyst Jim Phillips as saying that Suleimani is responsible for American deaths in prior conflicts and for a variety of terrorist activities undertaken by Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
“His organization is drenched in American blood,” Phillips said of the Quds Force and Revolutionary Guards. “It’s infused with an anti-American philosophy and cooperation with him or his followers would not be on a sustainable basis. The U.S. would regret it.”
That same anti-American philosophy has the potential to spread from Tehran to various other areas of the Middle East, if Iranian official’s comments are any indication. According to the NCRI, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards General Ali Jafari said on March 11, “The advisory role of the Islamic Republic in Iraq and Syria with the assistance and advice of IRGC military commanders [is an achievement of the regime]. Today, not just Palestine and Lebanon, but the peoples of Iraq and Syria acknowledge the effective role of the Islamic Revolution.”
What’s more, Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi of Iran’s Council of Cultural Revolution declared the regime’s intention to continue striving to expand this role, saying, “According to the Quran, according to the constitution, according to unequivocal commands of the Imam and the leadership, according to our Sharia and revolutionary duty, and as our own national interests require, we need to create at a minimum a 100,000 strong jihadi and operational army for Islamic countries and territories that are raided by occupiers, such as is the case in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, probably Yemen and other countries of the sort.”