WASHINGTON, DC – With the spread of ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq – brought to new levels of terror by the rise of the Islamic State (IS) – Iran’s image as an island of stability in a conflict-ridden Middle East may be short-lived. Its government – already struggling to manage a decrepit economy and tricky nuclear negotiations with the international community – now faces serious questions over its Iraq policy and a “winner-takes-all” mindset that could eventually threaten Iran’s own national security.
Iran’s policy toward its western neighbor appears to have two main goals: preservation of influence there, and prevention of any spillover of Iraq’s ethnic conflicts into its own multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society. But, as Iran steps up military support for the Iraqi government, Iranian officials fear, quite reasonably, that intervention could suck the country into an open-ended sectarian civil war.
Iran took a big step in that direction following the fall of Mosul on June 10, when regular Iraqi army units disbanded and fled in the face of a few hundred IS fighters. With Iraq’s then-prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, losing his grip on the country, Iran quickly decided to send military advisers, drones, and, by some accounts, Iranian-piloted fighter jets.
This decision to intervene was unusually bold. Previously, Iran’s leaders have been circumspect about overt foreign intervention, preferring to operate through local proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. When the Afghan Taliban – another puritanical Sunni movement with a special hatred for Iran – overran the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and executed eight Iranian diplomats in August 1998, Iran massed 70,000 troops on the border and threatened to invade. But Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, after deliberating for a few days, decided that an invasion, though militarily feasible, was not worth the risks. More recently, Iran has denied supporting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, despite ample evidence to the contrary.