Iran Pursues Unchecked Intervention in Iraq and Elsewhere

The Post quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi as saying, “It is not acceptable at all if a country, under the pretext of combating terrorism or any other crimes, tries to violate the sovereignty” of another nation. The Iraqi government, which has been closely allied with Tehran since the tenure of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has apparently given its official blessing to an Iranian presence in the conflict against ISIL but has not actually requested assistance from Turkey. 

The problem with this, however, is that the Maliki government had used its alliance with Tehran in order to oversee the consolidation of power into the hands of a Shiite faction, and was subsequently blamed for widespread alienation of Sunni populations, sometimes involving sectarian violence. Iran and Iraq are the only Shiite majority countries in the region, and the Iranian involvement in its neighbor’s civil war has largely relied on the promotion and support of Shiite paramilitaries that have been accused of human rights abuses rivaling those of ISIL. In this context, there is clear danger that Baghdad’s direct appeals for help will only seek to defend the country’s Shiite power structure and may eschew the northern fighting forces belonging to the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. 

While this situation does not invalidate Qasemi’s complaint about violations of national sovereignty, it does suggest hypocrisy on Tehran’s part when it comes to such concerns. Many analysts have suggested that Iran’s involvement in the conflict against ISIL and against more moderate rebel groups is in itself a sort of violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, notwithstanding Baghdad’s alliance with the Iranian regime. The Iraqi forces’ growing reliance on their Shiite paramilitary allies threatens to make the regular army subordinate to Iranian proxies, some of which publicly swear allegiance to the Iranian supreme leader, over and above the leadership in Baghdad. 

Because of this, it is easy to see why other regional countries like Turkey may see it as important to counter Iranian influence over the conflict, and to help safeguard the interests of Sunni minorities and the moderate rebel groups that have grown out of them. Critics of such Iranian influence may point to the Iranian regime’s tendency to persecute religious minorities at home, and to its constitutional mandate to export the Shiite Islamic revolution beyond its own borders. 

Where Iraq is concerned, this export could be made easier by unchallenged Iranian influence over its Western neighbor. And this influence is not limited to the promotion of Shiite paramilitaries but also includes expanded contact among religious hardliners and the prospect of a more porous border between the countries. On Monday, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, published an article boasting that the country and its border police are “in constant cooperation” with Iraq and that Iran is “fully prepared to dispatch more than two million pilgrims” to Iraq during the Arbaeen religious holiday that will take place in November. 

Previously, Iranian and Iraqi authorities had expressed interest in waiving visa requirements for travel between the two countries. Publicly, these conversations refer to the regular transit of pilgrims to and from holy sites in Iraq. But such open-border policies would also make it easier for Iran to dispatch Shiite militants to Iraq or to send them through the country on their way to other battlefields or foreign missions. 

This remains a serious topic of concern for international policymakers and critics of the Iranian regime, especially in light of ongoing Iranian provocations toward the West and interventions into existing regional conflicts. Those activities could provide Western nations and the international community with additional incentive to disregard as hypocritical Iran’s criticisms of Turkish intervention in Iraq. 

That criticism, meanwhile, appears to be driven by Iranian hardliners such as the Revolutionary Guards. These figures have also been enforcing a major crackdown on domestic dissent and alleged manifestations of pro-Western sentiment. At the same time, the IRGC has been the main driving force behind dangerous close encounters with American vessels in the Persian Gulf. But their advocacy for a persistently aggressive foreign policy has not been noticeably challenged by the allegedly moderate faction led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, least of all in the 15 months since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers. 

Indeed, Iran News Update has pointed to numerous instances in which President Rouhani personally contributed to the regime’s anti-American propaganda or its provocative statements about Iran’s regional power. The comments on Turkish intervention have come to represent that latter trend, as Radio Free Europe reported that Rouhani himself had described Turkish activities as “very dangerous intervention” while also ignoring Iranian interventionism in the same conflict. 

And this report came just after Voice of America reported that Rouhani had personally weighed in on the American elections slated to take place on November 8. He described the two major party candidates as presenting a choice between “bad and worse” and went on to opine that “morality has no place” in the American political process. His televised speech on the topic comes in the wake of several apparent propaganda efforts focused on American politics, including the unprecedented airing on state media of the last two American presidential debates. State media has also aired the Netflix political drama “House of Cards,” leading some viewers to report that they believed its Machiavellian characters were accurate depictions of American politics. 

Rouhani’s active participation in these Iranian media narratives undermines the notion of his presidency as a moderate faction that can be trusted to deal with the West in good faith. And critics of current American policy toward Iran continue to argue that the White House is ignoring the accumulation of evidence for a persistent hardline bent in the Iranian leadership. 

One example of this criticism appeared on the website of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Monday. The article described US President Barack Obama as believing that at least some aspects of Iran’s global influence no longer pose a threat to American interests. The article focused in particular on Latin America, where the Iranians have established upwards of 80 cultural centers over the years, thus increasing the danger of a steady point of ingress for terrorist proxies like Hezbollah within the Western hemisphere. 

The article differed with the Obama administration by suggesting that Iran sees Latin America as fertile ground for radical influence, just as it does Iraq. Also like Iraq, at least one Latin American country, Cuba, has recently opened its doors to that radicalization. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies reports that the Cuban government made the rare move of allowing Iran to proselytize on its territory, via the opening of an Iranian cultural center at a time when there were no Shiite Muslims in the country. 

The White House’s alleged disregard of this expanded influence helps to sustain doubts about its willingness to challenge Iran’s imbalanced influence in Iraq. Furthermore, there have been various indications that the Obama administration sees Iran as a potential partner in the conflict with ISIL. But this mentality may change next year, under his successor. The National Council of Resistance of Iran pointed out on Tuesday that recently leaked e-mails have shown Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton expressing the view that “countering Iran and defeating ISIS are not distinct missions.”  

However, the same report notes that Clinton was persuaded by her campaign chairman to keep this view silent. This raises some doubt about whether she would shape policy in line with the sentiment. Meanwhile, her Republican adversary has been similarly unclear with regard to his plans for dealing with Iranian influence. On one hand, he has suggested that he would tear up the Iran nuclear agreement – something that might limit Iran’s economic prospects and thus constrain its ability to expand influence both regionally and globally. On the other hand, in the second debate, he seemed to praise Iran, Russia, and Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad for “killing ISIS,” this suggesting that he would share Obama’s perception of Iran as a potential partner.