Much At Stake For Iran In Iraq Crisis

Much is at stake for Iran, as fighting continues in Iraq between government forces and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

Iran's major concern is that the weakening of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government will undermine its influence in its neighbour, which it has carefully cultivated since the overthrow of long-time Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Given that Iran's other Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has seen his authority eroded by a civil war since 2011, there is a possibility that Iran's only two Arab allies will be much more fragile than before.

Iraq matters to Iran because it is an immediate neighbour, and because the majority of its population is Shi'a, like in Iran. For several decades under Saddam Hussein and his predecessors, Iraq was dominated by its Sunni minority, and represented Iran's most formidable geopolitical rival in the Gulf region. The two countries fought a brutal war from 1980 to 1988 that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. After Saddam was overthrown by the US in 2003, Iran was able to expand its influence in Iraq, as the latter's Shi'a majority became politically dominant.

The fall of Saddam thus paved the way for Iran to develop a Shi'a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq, Syria (whose Assad regime hails from the Alawite Shi'a sect), and Lebanon (where Iran exerts influence via the Shi'a militant group Hizbullah). This Shi'a corridor is of tremendous geopolitical importance for Iran, as it enables Tehran to project power across the region, particularly for the purposes of containing or threatening Israel.

The Sunni-led uprisings in Syria and Iraq threaten to disrupt or substantially weaken Iran's Shi'a corridor. Syria has a Sunni majority (around 74% of the population), and any hypothetical future Sunni or Sunni-influenced regime is certain to be hostile towards Iran, especially given all the military assistance that Tehran has provided to the Assad regime. A de facto radical Sunni statelet run by ISIS and spanning parts of Syria and Iraq would also be antagonistic towards Iran. Therefore, Iran will fight to prevent such an outcome.

However, it is questionable whether Iran has the means to wage two simultaneous proxy wars in Syria and Iraq. Iran's main rival for regional influence is Saudi Arabia, which unofficially leads the Sunni camp. Tehran and Riyadh have also found themselves waging proxy struggles in Bahrain and Yemen, where Shi'as have become more politically assertive. Saudi Arabia has more funds than Iran, but Iran has more military experience.

Against this backdrop, Iran is continuing to pursue talks with the US over its nuclear programme as part of a broader and potentially historic rapprochement. Iranian and American interests appear to be overlapping in Iraq, where both oppose the rise of ISIS. We have even speculated in recent days about some form of informal cooperation between Tehran and Washington against ISIS. However, there are also considerable risks. As of Thursday, June 19, the White House appeared to be favouring the resignation of Nouri al-Maliki as a means of breaking the political deadlock in Iraq. There have been reports that the Obama administration perceives the premier's authoritarian governing style as a major factor behind the worsening of the crisis.

If Maliki is somehow eased out of office, and his successor is someone whom Iran disapproves of, then Tehran will be deeply resentful of Washington for 'orchestrating' such a political shift. This in turn could spoil the mood in future negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme.