by Arash Reisinezhad
Although Iraq’s regular army, along with U.S.-led coalition aircraft, eventually restored Baghdad’s control over Tikrit last week, major credit for the victory over the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS) belonged to Iraq’s eastern neighbor. It was the paramilitary Popular Mobilization forces (or Hashd al-Shaabi), led mostly by veteran Iranian commanders, that brought the fight to the militants. The victory effectively reaffirmed the Islamic Republic’s claim that “all roads lead to Tehran.” At the same time, however, the Popular Mobilization’s victories have put at risk Iran’s goal of reasserting its hegemony in the region.
During the battle over Tikrit, Ali Younesi, a top adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, provoked considerable controversy when he claimed that, “Iran today has become an empire like it used to be throughout its history, and its capital now is Baghdad. At the moment, Iraq is the bastion of our civilization. It is also our identity, culture and capital and this is true now as it was in the past.” He further asserted that “Iran and Iraq are geographically indivisible and the culture cannot be dismantled, so you either have to fight together or unite.” Though he later denied that he was calling for a resurrection of the Persian Empire, Younesi’s remarks expressed the government’s view that Iran’s regional sphere of influence is expanding steadily.
Iran’s influence in Iraq and beyond has been based heavily on its connections with various indigenous political movements and militant groups. In mid-February 2014, General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force (Sepah-e Qods), contended that Iran is the true leader of the Islamic world due to “two fundamental factors that only the Islamic Republic of Iran has: the support of revolutionary Islamic movements and the defense of the Islamic world against foreign threats.”
Regional primacy has been the norm, rather than an exception, for Iran throughout most of its 3,000-year history. Today, as Robert Kaplan noted in his 2012 book The Revenge of Geography, “Iran has brilliantly erected a postmodern military empire, the first of its kind: one without colonies and without the tanks, armor, and aircraft carriers that have been the usual accompaniments of power.” Iran’s ascendancy is also directly related to the specific geopolitics of the region. Rife with fragile states subject to all manner of internal divisions, the region has frequently witnessed the flourishing of non-state actors and militant groups. Within this context, Iran, as one of rare enduring nation-states of the region, has used this strategic environment and operational context to form and pursue its national interests.
That same context, however, poses risks for an Iran that seeks regional hegemony. As a middle-range power, Iran is prone to acting like an arrogant state. On the edge of Baghdad’s Firdaus Square—where the giant statue of Saddam Hussein once stood before U.S. soldiers hauled it down after the 2003 invasion—a large billboard depicts Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder. The replacement of Saddam’s statue with Khomeini’s billboard reflects the depth of change in Iraq and Tehran’s growing influence there in the post-2003 era. But the omnipresence of Iranian leaders’ photos and portraits in Iraq and other Arab countries clearly provokes Sunnis in the region, a situation exacerbated by IS’s surge into Iraq last year. In addition, the presence of Shia fighters in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, as well as the pending offensive in al-Anbar province may well increase sectarian tensions.
Indeed, relying on strategic ties with indigenous political/militant groups of the region cannot guarantee Iran’s hegemony. As Trita Parsi, the author of Treacherous Alliance told me, “Iran cannot lead the region with a weak-state system.” First, Iran is surrounded by a Sunni majority whose relationship with Shia is fraught, to say the least, and whose leadership has expressed deep suspicion of an Iran-led “Shia Crescent”’ in the region ever since the sectarian violence set off by Washington’s Iraq invasion and subsequent installation of a Shia-led government. In addition, as a revisionist state, Iran has effectively challenged the U.S.-backed Sunni-led regional security order, a policy that has deepened tensions between the Arab-Sunni regimes and the Shia theocracy in Tehran.
Moreover, the collapse of the state system that has prevailed in the region from the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement until the 2003 Iraq invasion could lead to the revival of a Sunni-dominated geopolitical order of the region at the expense of Iran’s regional ambitions. From this perspective, it could take a number of forms, from the remarkable recent assertion of Saudi-Wahhabi power across the region and the proliferation or expansion of al-Qaeda, IS or other Takfiri networks to the rise of a neo-Ottoman empire based in Ankara.
Next Steps for Iran
To negate the “Sunni Threat,” Iran clearly needs to take affirmative steps to mitigate the sectarianism that lies at the heart of much of the ongoing violence and conflict in the region. In that respect, the most important challenge for Iran is to establish an “inclusive” state in Iraq and extend that strategic policy to Syria, Lebanon, and, more recently, Yemen.
Iran has the ability to accomplish that mission. In contrast to its Shia, revolutionary rhetoric, Iran has enjoyed significant success in recruiting local warlords, such as Hadi al-Amiri, the chief commander of Iraq’s Badr Brigade, and the Yemeni Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Zaidi Shia movement Ansar-Allah (also known as Houthis). This marks the major difference between Iran and the US strategies after 2003. Although the Bush administration resorted to political figures, such as long-time exile Ahmad Chalabi, without any meaningful connection to key established actors on the ground, Iran supported local leaders with deep affinity networks. This strategy is what Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great applied in establishing and governing the Persian Empire, the world’s first multi-ethnic empire.
Now Iraq’s military leaders, along with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization forces, are vowing to take back Anbar province and the vast Sunni heartland, which has been the center of the radical Sunni resistance to both the U.S. occupation and the Shiite-dominated Baghdad regime. Within this context, the marginalized Sunni tribes are naturally suspicious, if not hostile. So much thus depends on Tehran’s ability to push Baghdad to adopt an inclusive policy and integrate Sunni discontents into the political decision-making processes in truly meaningful ways.
It is not easy to be optimistic about the Middle East at the moment. Fires are raging everywhere, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. But now that a nuclear accord between the P5+1 and Iran looks increasingly likely, hopes are high among realist policymakers who believe that Tehran is the key to reestablishing stability in the region. Nonetheless, the very logic of the Middle East’s geography and history dictates that a successful state-building process in Iraq and the region—and not a mere thaw in relations between Iran and the U.S.—will be the key factor in Iran’s consolidation of its position as a central regional power.
Arash Reisinezhad is a research fellow at the Middle East Center and PhD candidate at Florida International University, Miami. He earned his MA in political science from the University of Tehran.