Above: Iraq and Iran's defense ministers, upon signing MoU on 30DEC14 in Tehran
Following is a critique of "Iran's ISIS Policy" by Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai. Readers are encourage to first read the article HERE at Chahtam House, before returning to read this critique by Mark Pyruz. What follows are the writings of Esfandiary and Tabatabai in italicized blockquotes, followed by commentary by Mark Pyruz:
The rise of ISIS, and in particular the group’s advance into Iraq, initially caught Tehran off guard.This view is not entirely accurate. Iranian intelligence had been aware of the rise of Al-Qaeda linked forces and ISIL for some time, during their commitment in supporting the Syrian Arab Republic. What took the Iranians (and Americans) by surprise was the melting away of the Iraqi Army 2nd Division, which enabled ISIL motorized light infantry to make an extended dash down Highway 1.
The significance of the Iraqi strategic environment for Iran is such that Tehran is unlikely to maintain its current level of engagement in Syria should the crisis in Iraq worsen or endure because of competing priorities and resources.Given the current Iraqi mobilization, the U.S.-led coalition response and the Iran-led coalition response, it is unlikely the military situation in Iraq will significantly worsen.
As the new Prime Minister Maliki centralized power, he increased his reliance on Tehran, with which he had developed ties during his exile in Iran and Syria from 1979 until the fall of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq in 2003.This is not entirely accurate. The Maliki government made use of Iran as a counterweight to American influence, while the U.S. military remained an occupying force in Iraq.
The Islamic Republic’s foreign policy is known for being reactive. While it may be guided by broad strategic principles such as striving for regional supremacy, Tehran more often than not develops its position in response to a crisis.“Reactive” in this sense betrays the authors’ Western-based orientation. From the leadership perspective of Tehran, Iran’s foreign policy is based on issues of national sovereignty as well as regional interests. Where these issues compete with the established U.S.-led security order in the region, as well as where Iranian efforts support the so-called “resistance bloc” against Zionism, there exists friction and conflict.
Indeed, the gravity of the threat could provide an opportunity for Iran to act as a natural partner within the community of nations in pursuing order in the region against the group.Again, the authors’ are betraying a Western-based orientation or bias by their use of the term “community of nations.” Iranian leadership view of a “community of nations” is oriented toward the 120-nation NAM, not the U.S.-led regional security order. The authors’ intent is to portray “Iran’s ISIS policy,” so providing Western perceptions of Iran’s ISIS policy does not serve to provide an accurate rendering.
ISIS advances in Iraq have forced Iran to re-examine some of its established positions, such as systematically condemning US involvement in regional affairs. Indeed, from mid-July 2014 Tehran revoked its longstanding support for Maliki, made only minimal condemnations of American re-involvement in Iraq through air strikes on ISIS positions, and began to engage with its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, on mitigating the threats posed by ISIS.While Iran has been critical of much of U.S. policy in the region, this has not been systematic or reflexive. Case in point, Iranian support during the initial phase of OEF-A.
The Iranian population, however, inferred that the group had advanced into Iranian territory. ‘They have reached Kermanshah [a city in western Iran],’ said one young Iranian woman.Highly generalized conceptions based on anecdotal references serve to degrade a sense of objectivity and accuracy in the article.
Tehran argues that the creation of ISIS can be attributed to western policies in the region.The Iranian position is more elaborate than the authors would suggest. Interestingly enough, there is no clear mention of Wahhabism and support by Gulf States. There is also no mention of Iran’s view of ISIL and Al-Qaida-linked forces becoming resurgent during Western/Gulf States regime change efforts in Syria. A number of Western observers have in the past or now concede this view, as well.
From Tehran’s perspective, Iraq’s partition into three smaller states would shift power dynamics in the region and threaten regional stability. Iraq would no longer be a majority Shi’i state with a central government friendly to Iran; this would clearly diminish Iran’s area of influence.A more accurate rendering of Iran’s view on Iraq’s potential partition includes the realistic assessment that the Sunni component of Iraq would never be satisfied with the land-locked rump that is the northwestern segment of the country. This, more than a notion of self-interest, is a strategic assessment made by the Iranians, and in their view prohibitive towards establishing conflict resolution.
To preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity, Iran opted to arm proxy groups and provide political, military, economic and humanitarian aid to key stakeholders. These stakeholders are mainly Shi’i and Kurdish….Arming multiple groups allows Iran to maintain its influence in Iraq and pursue its goal of preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity, while downplaying the sectarian nature of the conflict by empowering both mainly Sunni Kurds on the one hand and Shi’i Arabs on the other.This is in no way unique to the Iranians. They’re backing the loyalist factions in what they view as the Iraqi and Syrian theaters of war against ISIL. Moreover, to properly gauge the Iranian policy towards ISIL, observers should recognize their view of the armed struggle in Syria and Iraq as two theaters of the same conflict.
Tehran’s strategy is to keep boots on the ground to a minimum and its participation as nearly invisible as possible….This initial strategy was similar to that pursued by Iran in Syria, where its goals were to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and keep Bashar al-Assad, who promoted Tehran’s interests, in power.For some reason, a number of Western observers neglect to point out that Iran and Syria are signatories to a mutual defense pact. As such, Iran is obligated in contributing towards the defense of Syria. Additionally, the author’s neglect to include the blow to the resistance bloc the loss of Syria would entail.
[D]irect Iranian involvement would run the risk of triggering a nationalist Iraqi reaction, including among Shi’is, perhaps leading to stronger calls for Iraq to be dissolved into three separate states based on ethnicity and religion. However, completely outsourcing Iraq’s security to such groups would put in jeopardy Iran’s strong position both in its neighbour country and in the wider region. Tehran therefore took an intermediate position, assisting the Iraqi central government as well as Shi’i and Kurdish groups.Again said, the Iranians are supporting the loyalist side in their perceived Iraqi theater of war against ISIL and Al-Qaida linked forces, just as they are in Syria. Also, the Iranians are understandably leery of large military footprints in foreign wars, as a result of their experience during the Iran-Iraq War and even the American experience during OIF. Forces loyal to Iraq do not suffer from a manpower shortage, and so utilizing Iraqis provides Iran’s own commitment with measured economy of force.
General Soleimani’s brief was to provide advice and assistance to Iran’s neighbour, while ensuring that the situation did not deteriorate. It was reported that following the arrival of 100 Quds Force members in mid-June, Soleimani planned to create a volunteer militia similar to the National Defence Force in Syria, to fight against ISIS alongside the weak and demoralized Iraqi army.By Iran’s own admission, Syria’s NDF is organizationally patterned after the Iranian Basij. It should further be pointed out the NDF is largely secular and includes large numbers of as Alawites, Christians, Druze and Armenians.
Tehran reportedly assisted the Kurdish counter-offensive by sending in Iranian army units. Unverified pictures of the counter-offensive include M60 tanks in Iranian camouflage patterns, most likely drawn from the Iranian 71st Mechanized Brigade at Abuzar Garrison and/or the 181st Armoured Brigade at Eslamabad Gharb.Those photos of NEZAJA M60A1 main battle tanks were snapped as they were taking up positions near Qasr-e Shirin, inside Iranian territory. They were not inside Iraq.
Tehran also sees itself as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. As such, it believes that if it were viewed as shifting away from its traditional revolutionary anti-western discourse and declared policy, it would lose a key constituency.Iran is the current President of the Non-Aligned Movement, which is a condition of leadership. “Revolutionary anti-western discourse” is not inherent in NAM, nor prevelant among its 120-nation membership.
On a practical level, the formation of the international coalition allows Iran to take a step back and let the Washington-led group of nations do the work to degrade ISIS.A number of Iranian military members including a general have been KIA’d in support of the Iraqi government against ISIL. They’re at or near the front lines, so how the author’s can declare that Iran can “step back and let the Washington-led group of nations do the work” just doesn’t conform to military reality.
Additionally, and distressing toward U.S.-led coalition efforts, a number of prominent Iraqi political and military leaders (including Salim al-Jabouri, Speaker of Parliament and a Sunni) have recently voiced criticism towards what they see as a lagging U.S. military commitment. This is made more troubling by the fact that the language used by these Iraqis mirrors criticism made by Iran's leadership.
Syria is a symbol and the means of Iranian influence in the region. Iran’s alliance with the Assad family enables it to extend its reach to the Mediterranean. For this reason, when civil war broke out in Syria, Tehran committed itself to funnel- ling money, equipment and military assistance to the government.Again said, the author’s neglect to provide the critical role Syria plays as a member of the resistance bloc. Instead, the portrayal is all about “Iranian influence.”
Iraq represents a different and more important challenge to Iran.[than Syria] …While many Iranians question Tehran’s engagement in Syria, they support involvement in Iraq to stop the spread of ISIS. Syria is considered an optional war: a crisis in which Iran can increase or decrease its involvement based on its policy preferences, not an existential issue. However, ISIS activities in Iraq pose a threat to Iran’s regional influence and, in the eyes of some, raise a genuine concern about sovereignty such as Iran has not had to face since 1988. Iran can live without Syria, but considers Iraq fundamental to its national security. Given competing defence priorities and finite resources, Tehran will not be able to continue to pursue its interests in Syria at the same level if it is mired in Iraq as well.From Iran’s leadership view as well as many Iranians inside Iran, the most imposing, current threat to Iranian sovereignty is not ISIL, but external efforts at infringing on its rights to a nuclear power program.
Iran’s economy of force in what it sees as the Syrian theater has been demonstrated prudent, with the same economy of force demostrated in the Iraqi theater. And, there are indications the U.S.-led coalition approach towards the Syrian Arab Republic is becoming more open to the idea that Assad and the Syrian Arab Republic serve a more effective function in countering ISIL and Al-Qaida-linked forces in Syria. This may not have been possible without the sustained Iranian commitment of years past.
[W]hile Iran’s strategy has evolved from ‘leading from behind’ to direct military assistance and tactical involvement, so far it has avoided committing large numbers of boots on the ground. Iran would prefer to avoid intervention on such a scale, because both its current resource distribution in the region and its domestic economic situation would not allow it to conduct such operations successfully in Iraq without endangering its position in the region.This conclusion provided by the authors’ has been previously addressed in this writer’s critique.