Iran, which exerts tremendous political, social and economic influence in Iraq, and is considered to be the most significant foreign force in Baghdad, has made a critical tactical shift with regards to its foreign policy in Iraq, including the sectarian conflict, civil war, rise of ISIS and other affiliated extremist Sunni insurgencies in Iraq.
After eight years of Nouri al-Maliki in office, the Islamic Republic turned its back on one of its staunchest allies. With no political, economic and military support from the Islamic Republic, the end of Maliki’s political life seems to be in the pipeline. Although Maliki might protest against such a decision, his efforts are more likely to be fruitless without enjoying the Iranian leadership’s support on his side.
The major reason for abandoning Maliki is tactical with regards to the role of ISISMajid Rafizadeh
The Islamic Republic was influential in retaining Maliki’s power and his Shiite coalition and ensuring his second term in power. Nevertheless, the Iranian authorities – particularly the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well as Iran’s ministry of intelligence- ultimately came to the conclusion that it was time to make a tactical shift and leave behind their ally, Maliki.
Nevertheless, the key question is why the Islamic Republic made such a crucial shift in its foreign policy and abandoned Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki?
The underlying reason behind Tehran’s tactical shift
First of all, Iranian leaders’ decision to abandon the entrenched prime minister and endorse Haider al-Abadi might appear to be a pro-Western strategy, specifically in favor of the US current foreign policy towards the Iraqi crisis, sectarian conflict and civil war. However, it is critical to point out that the underlying factors behind Iran’s decision to turn its back on Maliki is distinct from those of Western ones.
There are several reasons behind Iran’s shift. The major reason for abandoning Maliki is tactical with regards to the role of ISIS.
In other words, one of the most critical security threats for the Islamic Republic is the rise of ISIS and the Sunni insurgency. In addition, Iran shares a 1,500 kilometer border with Iraq. This could be utilized as a significant platform by ISIS to infiltrate several Iranian cities near the border and cause political instability for the Iranian leadership.
Secondly, many of the Iranians who reside near the border are Sunnis. The Iranian authorities are concerned that the Iranian Sunnis might be sympathetic to the Iraqi Sunni insurgency and could potentially join their cause.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the senior officials of IRGC have come to the conclusion that Maliki could not effectively control and manage the sectarian conflict, civil war, rise of ISIS and other Sunni insurgency groups.
Thirdly, the Iranian authorities are concerned that this sectarian conflict might spill over to neighboring Iranian provinces with significant Arab populations, including Khuzestan and Ahvaz.
Fourth, it is crucial to point out that without the approval of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the senior cadre of the IRGC, it would have been relatively impossible to envision the nomination of Haider al-Abadi as new Iraqi Prime Minister.
Islamic Republic’s approval of Haider al-Abadi
The Islamic Republic’s approval of Haider al-Abadi has likely included a long process of bargaining, political pressure and negotiations between Iranian authorities and the Iraqis. As a result, from the perspectives of the Iranian leadership the prime minister nominee, Haider al-Abadi, does serve their national, security, geopolitical, strategic and ideological interests. In addition, from the perspective of the Islamic Republic, Abadi is the best alternative to Maliki, who can also serve as a credible and close ally to the Islamic Republic.
Otherwise, considering Iran’s political, social, religious, ideological, and economic influence in Iraq, the Islamic Republic would have not accepted a nomination of a new prime minister in Iraq if it did not serve its national interests. Abadi has already accepted Iran’s political assistance and role in re-stabilizing the country.
Finally, from the realms of military, economic cost and benefits and spending of political capital, Iranian authorities have made a pragmatic and calculative tactical shift. Beside economic, financial advisory and intelligence assistance, Iran has been investing its troops from the Quds force - an elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps- which have been operating on the ground in Iraq in order to quell the rise and operations of ISIS and other affiliated extremist insurgencies.
Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic’s assistance to the government of Nouri al-Maliki and the ruling Shiite coalition did not completely halt the rapid advancement of ISIS fighters. The sectarian conflict, civil war and territorial and military progress of ISIS appeared to ratchet up despite the presence of Iranian ground forces.
In other words, the government of Nouri al-Maliki became a costly burden on every level for Iran. Replacing Prime Minister Maliki with Haider al-Abadi is considered a pragmatic and more cost effective option for the Iranian leadership.
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 email@example.com.