Iran is encountering an unprecedented, inextricable and irresolvable challenge. Tehran is in a quagmire, stuck between choosing to spend its economic and military resources on either the Shiite-led government of Iraq or Syria.
As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will soon potentially be on Iran’s border, since Iran is bordered with a civil war-inflicted state the fragmented and fractured government in Iraq. With Tehran still spending its economic and military resources to keep the government of Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki in power, these developments are undoubtedly causing tremendous apprehension for the Iranian government and will weaken Iran’s long term regional stance.
Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria has become akin to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and IraqDr. Majid Rafizadeh
A close analogy can be made here between Iran and the United States: Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria has become akin to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq where the U.S. government spent trillions of dollars, ultimately contributing to its declining power in the region, its rising economic debt, and popular discontent against U.S. imperialism and interventions.
Being stuck between ISIS and Syria has definitely taken the Iranian government by surprise. The emerging geopolitical issues were not an issue the Islamic Republic was expecting to deal with so abruptly.
Iran, frightened of ISIS
The porous border between the Islamic Republic and Iraq is approximately 1,500 kilometers long and is not totally controlled by Iraqi forces.
According to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Pentagon, a recent classified military assessment conducted by U.S. military assessment teams, revealed that many factions of Iraq’s security forces are infiltrated by extremist groups as well as Shiite figures supported by the Islamic Republic.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria poses a great challenge to the Islamic Republic not only geopolitically and strategically, but also ideologically. Ideologically speaking, ISIS is opposed to the dominance of Shiite theology and Shiite-led governments, including those of Iraq and Iran.
For several years, the Islamic Republic did not view supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad as a huge undertaking. Iranian leaders, including the former head of Iran’s National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, frequently pointed out that the Iranian government would not allow the axis of resistance to be broken by any party. Accordingly, Syria is an “integral part” of this axis.
Iran has been assisting the Assad government financially, sending Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Quds forces to fight the Sunni rebel groups and to train the Syrian Armed Forces, lending Syria billions of dollars of credits and supplying oil. For Iranian leaders, keeping Assad in power justified geopolitically spending resources and providing manpower to Syria. The Islamic Republic has enough resources to handle Syria— and this is not a significant undertaking or responsibility for Iranian leaders— although Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei showed his frustration several times in recent speeches with Assad’s government not being capable of completely cracking down on rebel groups.
When it comes to Iraq, the Islamic Republic has sent several attack planes, Su-25 aircrafts, to the Shiite-led government of Maliki in order to assist the government’s fight against Sunni extremist rebel and insurgent groups. Iranian leaders have established a special control center at Al-Rashid airfield in Baghdad along with deploying a fleet of Ababil drones to an airfield near Baghdad. In addition, in order to intercept any electronic communications between ISIS fighters and commanders, the Islamic Republic has set up an intelligence unit at the same airfield. Reportedly, several thousands of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Forces have been sent to Iraq to assist Maliki’s forces. According to Radio Free Europe, the Iranian government later acknowledged that it had sent Su-25 aircrafts this month, to assist the Shiite Maliki government.
Although Iranian leaders deny that they have sent troops to Iraq to fight with extremists and insurgent groups, several of the troops from the elite branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps who operate overseas, including Alireza Moshajeri or the pilot Colonel Shoja'at Alamdari Mourjani, were reportedly killed fighting extremist groups in Iraq.
Iraq is not only geopolitically, strategically and economically crucial for the Islamic Republic, but Iraq’s Shiite holy sites are tremendous assets for the Iranian leaders’ Shiite constituents, ideological propaganda, and their hold on power.
Iran’s resources are being weathered and eroded
But the issue that Iranian leaders were not expecting was that soon they would have to take on another huge undertaking, facing the ISIS near its border, and be obliged to ensure Shiite dominance of Iraq’s political system with more efforts put in place.
How long is the Islamic Republic willing to spend its resources in Iraq and Syria? The Iraq and Syria crises do not appear to be ending anytime soon. While Iranian leaders seem to be determined to support the Shiite-led government of Maliki and the Alawite-led sate of Assad, these two countries are weathering and eroding Iran’s resources.
Although the Islamic Republic is rich in resources, Iran cannot (for a long time) afford and take on such a huge undertaking, spending unlimited amounts of economic and military resources to keep its strategic and geopolitical allies in power.
In other words, a continued erosion of economic and military resources will undoubtedly weaken Iran’s power in the region in the long term if the crises in Iraq and Syria persist.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.