Is Iran playing along sectarian lines in Iraq?

The instability and crisis in Iraq has provided two intriguing platforms for Iranian leaders

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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The instability and crisis in Iraq has provided two intriguing platforms for Iranian leaders. First of all, Tehran can utilize these developments as a means to establish itself as a legitimate, credible, regional power in assisting other conflict-inflicted states. In other words, Iran can replace American efforts in the region with informed and constructive policies that define Tehran as a benevolent regional power. The Islamic Republic can also take the path of investing in some religious and political groups while excluding others.

From the perspective of the Iranian leaders, since the U.S. has failed to constructively manage the civil war, crisis, along with the socio-political and socio-economic landscapes of Iraq, the Islamic Republic is in a position to potentially replace the U.S. as a regional hegemonic stance.

In order to utilize Iraq as a bulwark against other Sunni countries in the region, Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq increasingly highlights Tehran’s emphasis on investing in Shiite militia groups

Majid Rafizadeh

To some extent, one can make the argument that in fact, Iran has gained from American foreign policy gaffs, Iraq’s civil war, and the political instability. The spillover of the Syrian civil war into Iraq, has also ratcheted up Tehran’s geopolitical and security influence in Iraq.

In order for Tehran to emerge as a legitimate state actor and in order to win the popular vote of the ordinary people across the region (Sunni and Shiite) in the long term, it needs to carry out an inclusive and articulate foreign policy agenda which would represent the Islamic Republic as an objective arbitrator willing to listen to the demands of all sides and attempting to resolve conflicts constructively.

The question remains, will Iranian leaders grasp this opportunity and redefine its foreign policy and character?

Iran: The major gainer

Although the U.S. is spending a considerable amount of political capital, financial means and plans to send thousands of American troops to train Iraqi forces, the Islamic Republic is the state actor which increasingly shapes Iraq’s policies, controlling its security and military institutions, and exerting more political, economic, social and religious influence in Iraq.

According to Iranian Fars news agency, despite the West, and particularly American efforts, Iraq has recently signed an agreement with Iran to allow its forces to train Iraqi forces. After the agreement Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi stated “We assume Iran’s increased support for the Iraqi armed forces as a strategic necessity.” The killing of one of the high officials of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, which was attended by thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards including General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds forces, has revealed Tehran’s determination to ratchet up its influence in the political, security and strategic destiny of Iraq.

While the crisis and instability in Iraq continues, Tehran-Baghdad cooperation had been ratcheting up on several spectrums including security, training forces, institutional, financial and transportation. For example, this week, according to Fars News, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli stated that Iraq has requested Tehran to assist in the area of transportation, particularly the construction of Najaf-Karbala railway.

Iran: Ruler of all of the Shiites across the region?

The realities on the ground reveal that Iran’s regional foreign policy is concerned with exclusivity, ambiguities, political opportunism that capitalizes on the sectarian character (Shia-Sunni divide) of Iraq and other countries in the region including Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

In order to utilize Iraq as a bulwark against other Sunni countries in the region, Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq increasingly highlights Tehran’s emphasis on investing in Shiite militia groups, using the ruling Shiite coalition in Baghdad, and increasingly defining Iraq as Shitte versus Sunni.

The Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani stated “Shiite and Sunni leaders should be vigilant that Islam’s enemies not drag Muslims into civil wars which would play into the hands of terrorist groups like [ISIS], Boko Haram, the al-Nusra Front, Wahhabis and Salafists.” In addition, Deputy General Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Brigadier General Hussein Salami said “Iran will do anything to protect the unity of Iraq in fighting against ISIS militants.”

Nevertheless, Tehran’s financial and military investments in Iraq, the shaping of other countries through the sectarian lines such as directly strengthening Shiite groups (such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi proxy, Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, other militia groups in Syria) shows that Tehran has chosen a direction upon which it attempts to define itself as ruler of the Shiite population across the region rather than an objective arbiter.

The continuing civil war in Iraq provides a crucial platform for the Islamic Republic to project itself as a legitimate regional power to rely on, if it takes a uniting and inclusive position rather than an exclusive and sectarian one. Secondly, the civil war also provides a ripe platform to utilize political opportunism and manipulate the domestic developments. By increasingly shaping the domestic and foreign policy of Iraq, it appears that Iran has decided so far to invest in the second option.


Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. 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 protected].

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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