Iran in Iraq: Implications for nuclear talks

Sam RatnerSam Ratner summarizes Iran's response to the ISIS offensive in Iraq and analyzes possible implications for nuclear negotiations. The effect will be felt, he argues, through Iranian domestic politics rather than directly in nuclear negotiations.

By Sam Ratner

Mere months after the start of groundbreaking bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program, Secretary Kerry last week hinted at a new avenue of communication between the two countries to coordinate a response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Though both governments have since repudiated the idea of coordinated action, the U.S. and Iran continue to face tough decisions over how to dislodge the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from northern and Western Iraq. Experts are divided on how those decisions will affect ongoing nuclear negotiations, if at all.

Iran was deeply involved in Iraq long before the current ISIS offensive and appears to be doubling down on its commitment to defending Iraq’s Shi'a. Its military and diplomatic efforts demonstrate the Islamic Republic’s strong interest in its western neighbor.

There are two arms of the Iranian government involved in Iraq—the civil state and the security state. Though both fall under the purview of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, they serve different constituencies within Iran and may have somewhat different goals in Iraq.

Clashes in Mosul
June 26, 2014 - Smoke rises during clashes between ISIS insurgent and Kurdish Peshmurga forces in Mosul. (Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The security state—the hardline Revolutionary Guards and its Quds Force—are at the front line of Iran’s response to ISIS. The Quds Force, “roughly analogous to a combined C.I.A. and Special Forces” and led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, has operated autonomously in Iraq for years, exercising considerable control over a panoply of Shi'a militias in the country. Indeed, in 2008, Suleimani texted U.S. Army General David Petraeus in 2008 to inform him that “I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq... the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who's going to replace him is a Quds Force member.” Suleimani is a close ally of embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, interceding on Maliki's behalf after disputed 2010 elections to keep him in power. In exchange, according to some reports, Maliki's government sets aside $20 million in oil revenues each day for the Quds Force. If Suleimani exerts as much control over Iran’s Iraq policy as he claimed in 2008, it is likely that the Quds Force will fight vociferously to maintain its investment in the status quo in Iraq. Reports already place Quds Force units and Suleimani himself in Iraq to coordinate a counteroffensive against ISIS.

Some elements of the security state have a conservative domestic agenda in addition to their regional interests. They have sought to use the crisis in Iraq to undermine Iranian moderates at home who seek better relations with the West. Ayatollah Khamenei himself framed the conflict in Iraq as being “between those who want Iraq to join the U.S. camp and those who seek and independent Iraq,” with Iran playing the role of guarantor of Iraqi independence.

The civil state—President Hassan Rouhani and his administration—is primarily concerned with Iran’s struggling economy. The crisis in Iraq could be a major impediment to Rouhani’s economic plan on two fronts. The first is trade: Iraq buys billions of dollars in Iranian exports and is scheduled to become a major purchaser of Iranian natural gas in the coming months. Iraq will be far less able to import and consume Iranian goods if the country becomes embroiled in a drawn-out war against ISIS.

More important to Rouhani is rolling back international sanctions against Iran and restoring economic relations with the West. The nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, his medium for accomplishing this goal, have come under fire from right-wing politicians and members of the security state. To this point, the Supreme Leader has protected Rouhani’s ability to conduct the negotiations as he wishes. If the ISIS threat grows and the security state regains the driver’s seat for Iran’s foreign policy, however, that protection may disappear, leaving Rouhani’s economic plan open to attack from the right.

Rouhani’s response to date has been largely rhetorical. Though he is not in control of Iran’s military deployments, he burnished his sectarian credentials by pledging to defend Shi’a holy sites in Iraq and “put the terrorists in their place.” Yet he also gave a nod to his favored strategy of pursuing Iranian interests through engagement with the West, suggesting at a press conference that Iran would be open to cooperation with the U.S. if America confronts “terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere.” Rouhani has long portrayed Iran as a bulwark against Sunni extremism and a natural ally in the West’s fight against Al Qaeda. Though Khamenei has spoken out against U.S. action in Iraq, coordination between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq would shift the issue back into Rouhani’s hands and away from his opponents in the security state. As he faces growing domestic dissent over nuclear negotiations, that may be Rouhani’s best-case scenario.

Though Iran and the U.S. agree that negotiations will remain focused solely on nuclear issues and sanctions relief, there is no doubt that events in Iraq will factor into the strategic calculus on both sides.  Iraq affects every stakeholder in the Iranian nuclear program and has the potential to alter the balance of power between them. Observers of the nuclear space should keep a close eye on developments in Iraq and the region.

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Further analysis on Iran in Iraq:

Sam Ratner is the project coordinator for Iran Matters. He tweets at @samratner.