Amidst the rising tensions in the Persian Gulf between the Iranian regime and the US following the shooting down of an American drone, many politicians and advocates against a possible US military response against the Islamic Republic have started voicing their traditional Iraqi war parallels. The idea that Iraq could not be stabilised following the US led invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 is, in fact, deeply flawed and does not necessarily provide a solution to the current crisis in the Gulf and wider Middle East.
In accordance with the just war theory the use of force in international relations should be considered as a last resort. Not every war has been a disaster; on the contrary some US interventions have been significant, for example saving Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims from Serbian butchery, the Gulf War and the humanitarian intervention to save the Kurds from Saddam’s destruction in 1991. Following the Gulf War, the international community led by the United States used all diplomatic options including sanctions to change Saddam’s behaviour. Saddam’s record showed that if he remained in power, he would be a dire threat to peace and stability in the region. Invading Iraq’s neighbours, the destruction of dozens of Kuwaiti oil wells as a tactic to damage the global economy combined with new emerging elements post 9/11 all made his tyranny a factor to be dealt with. What happened later in Iraq is a different topic.
But in order to understand the current expansionist policies of the Islamic Republic, the 2003 Iraqi invasion is crucial. With the removal of the Ba’athist regime, Iran’s expansionism took an active course in the wider Middle East. Iranian-educated Iraqi Shia leaders were put into action to gain political influence among the majority Shia population of Iraq. Seeing democracy promotion in Iraq as a major threat to its dictatorial system, the Iranian regime and its closest ally in the region, Assad, deliberately sought to prevent the establishment of American oriented, functioning democracy in Iraq. At the same time, both the Islamic Republic and Assad regime started exporting fighters, ammunition, weapons and IEDs, instructors and cash into Iraq for use against the coalition forces. Assad sent all the jihadist inmates in Syrian prisons to Iraq to fight the American forces from the west, while the Iranian regime sent Shia fighters from the east in order to disrupt the international efforts to stabilise Iraq via functioning democratic institutions.
At that time American officials, including then President Bush, openly accused both countries of shipping fighters into Iraq. As a result, the insurgency kept growing with highly sophisticated tactics and weapons. Moqtada Al Sadr’s famous Mahdi Army and its fight against the US forces in southern Iraq in 2004, the Badr brigade and other IRGC-linked Shia groups received military instructions and training from Iran’s Quds force. Back in 2006, former US ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad openly accused Iran of meddling in Iraq’s domestic politics by financing and training sectarian militias that sought violence. The Iranian regime actively promoted Shia politicians and before every elections Tehran’s favourite candidates paid visits to the Iranian capital to get support and instructions. According to Ambassador Khalilzad, Iran’s Iraq policy was double edged in that it supported both the insurgency and forging close ties with the Iraqi government. Iran’s post 2003 Iraqi goals consisted of keeping Shias in power and pushing the US-led coalition out of the country.
IRAN’S IRAQ POLICY TRIGGERED THE EMERGENCE OF ISIS
From 2011 Iran’s active meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and support for Shia militias in the violence against Iraq’s marginalised Sunni population further alienated Sunnis in Iraq. The sectarian policies of the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki worsened the situation after the withdrawal of US forces. Appointing only Shias to all major posts, hiring police and army officers from the Shia population and the government’s failure to disband pro-Iranian militias that committed violence against the Sunni population in mainly Sunni-populated regions created an atmosphere where the rise of ISIS was inevitable. The fact that Sunnis called the Iraqi army and police as well as the militias Safavids was a clear sign that marginalised segments of Iraqi society saw the Iraqi government’s polices as Iranian policies and the Islamic Republic as the successor of the Safavid Empire, trying to create a Shia majority state by force. The situation enabled the radical Islamic State of Iraq to take a foothold. It was considered the only option by the Sunni tribes in defending themselves from the government’s policies and Iranian influence. Systematic sectarian policies, marginalisation, violence and the existence of pro-Iranian militias were the key factors in ISIS’s swift operations in June 2014 that resulted in the fall of many Iraqi cities without resistance.