Iran is not a sectarian actor, but Tehran still needs to prove it. Its involvement in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a good opportunity to do so. Iran’s ability to constrain and control Shia militias in the ongoing offensive in Tikrit, Iraq, will determine how Iraqis, regional powers and the rest of the international community view Iran and its policies. If the widely shared fear of a backlash against Sunnis in Iraq materializes, Iran will continue to be a player in the sectarian game despite itself.
Iraq’s stability is an important concern for Iranians, who still remember the two countries’ devastating eight-year war in the 1980s. Iran sees ISIL as a grave threat in its backyard. After initial hesitation over the extent of the ISIL threat, Tehran has transformed the group’s menace into an opportunity. Tehran is providing the Iraqi army with ground assistance to fight ISIL while cementing influence and control over its neighbor.
Iran is now at the center of the attempt to take back Saddam Hussein’s predominantly Sunni hometown. Of the 30,000 Iraqi troops advancing into Tikrit, two-thirds are Shia. The fighters operate under the umbrella of the Hashd Al-Shaabi, or popular mobilization units. The units receive weapons, training, advice and intelligence from Iran. Tehran recently scaled up its involvement in Iraq by sending missiles to the Iraqi army.
“Iran and its proxies have been inside Iraq since 2004,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on March 3. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support in the form of artillery and other things.”
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been sent to Iraq to be the face of the public campaign against ISIL, overseeing the offensive from its eastern flank. Sending in commanders to supervise and lead local militias is a step up from Iranian involvement in Syria, which involves mainly the rank and file. Placing Iranian advisers in front-line positions in Iraq means that they potentially share a battlefield with anti-ISIL coalition forces.
The fear is that Iranian presence will inflame sectarian tensions and cement Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
“What is happening in Tikrit is exactly what we are worried about,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said last week. “Iran is taking over Iraq.”
But the question is no longer one of ceding ground to Iran. Tehran’s presence and influence in Iraq is a reality now. The risk, of course, is that if Tehran pushes the Shia agenda too strongly, it threatens to further split Iraq. In Tikrit, Sunni civilians and tribal leaders fear reprisals from advancing Shia militias for the ISIL-led massacre of 2014.
Iran is not a deliberate sectarian actor. Sectarianism does not suit its interests. For one, sectarian policies risk antagonizing its minorities at home. Sectarianism also undermines Tehran’s reputation in the Arab world. More important, Tehran wants to be viewed as the leader of all Muslims, not just Shias.
Iranian leaders have been quick to highlight their efforts to support all anti-extremist campaigns, no matter what minority or sect leads them. They point to Iranian backing of the Sunni government in Afghanistan and the Armenians against Azerbaijan as proof that their support is not restricted to Shia groups.
In Iraq, Tehran downplays the sectarian nature of the conflict and insists on Iraq’s territorial integrity. A partitioned Iraq would be a nightmare for Tehran. It would threaten its influence, regional stability and perhaps even Iranian national unity.
This means aiding and arming multiple groups, including the Iraqi army and Kurdish Sunnis. As part of the Iranian PR campaign, Soleimani made it a point of posing with all sects, including Iraqi fighters and members of the Kurdish, Sunni and Shia communities. In fact, Tehran’s support has been crucial to coordination efforts among the various groups fighting ISIL.
Cooperation between Shias and Sunnis is key to the success of the offensive against ISIL in Tikrit and beyond. Iran’s ability to encourage and coordinate such collaboration will be closely watched. But so far, it is riddled with difficulties. Efforts to boost recruitment in the Iraqi army have stalled, especially among Sunnis, and Shia militiamen in Tikrit insist on highlighting the religious motivation for fighting ISIL. In addition, Shia militias have been accused of violence against civilians — Sunnis in particular — and the destruction of property in the towns reclaimed from ISIL in the past few months. Their actions reflect poorly on Iran, which is seen as a co-perpetrator of these crimes.
It will be vital for Iran to keep a tight rein on the Shia militias involved in the Tikrit offensive. It is important that they treat civilians equally and with fairness after a potential victory. Iran’s ability to encourage the integration of the Shia militias into the Iraqi army will also be key. Tehran does not want to jeopardize Iraqi nationalism and unity. The army’s ability to operate as a single security force for all Iraqis will boost its legitimacy. This will improve the army’s chances of winning the hearts and minds of locals, especially Sunni tribes. The first step in that endeavor should be boosting recruitment into the Iraqi army, particularly among minority groups.
Iraq, its neighbors and the international coalition against ISIL will be closely watching the Iraqi offensive in Tikrit. So far, the operation appears to show no clear signs of sectarian violence. It is crucial for Tehran to ensure that the Shia militias involved in the battle act with restraint and are integrated into the Iraqi forces. This will help confirm that Iran is not a sectarian actor.