VICE News is getting acquainted with the groups battling it out in Iraq in the Field Guide to Iraq's Fighting Factions. Part 1 looks into Team Sunni, while Part 2 examines Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This third installment investigates the relationships between Iraq, Iran, and the US.
Current fighting in the Middle East is the outgrowth of a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. One major complication in the battle to determine where the boundary between the two should lie is that the line of control runs across the existing border of Syria and Iraq.
Iran is the heart and soul of Team Shia. Unlike Team Sunni, the Shia team is comparatively monolithic — or at least doesn't break into large, powerful factions who are at each other's throats. While the Shia have been a long-established flavor of Islam, the modern story of the Shia really takes off in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution.
Before that, Saudi Arabia and Iran were both allied with the US, which kept them more or less in harness, tamping down on the natural rivalry of these Sunni and Shia powers across the Persian Gulf. The aim was to keep global oil supplies flowing (aside from the occasional OPEC embargo or the like) and keep the Soviets from making too much headway in the region through its client states Syria and Iraq.
This cozy little arrangement went straight to hell in a handbasket with the Iranian Revolution. Iran hopped right into the middle of Lebanon's ongoing civil war, backing Hezbollah who, to this day, functions as an autonomous government in southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein thought the revolution would make Iran vulnerable, and launched the long, savage Iran-Iraq War.
It's safe to say that opposition to the US is still major part of Iran's marketing brand as the most authentic flavor of Islam going.
In the interests of avoiding a multi-volume series on all the screwed-up and confusing things that have happened in the Middle East since 1979, let's note one thing and then skip ahead. During and immediately after the revolution, Iran really made a big deal of being an Islamic Republic, full of rule according to the Koran with all manner of theocratic trimmings.
One of the main ways that it attempted to make that branding stick was claiming that it was not only super Islamic, but was also saving Islam from its natural enemies Israel, the US, and the decadent West as a whole (and sometimes also the Soviet Union for good measure). Even to this day, 35 years later, "Death to America" is a fundamental ideological tenet of the revolution and crops up in every Friday prayer.
Whatever you feel about the particulars of the chant, it's safe to say that opposition to the US is still major part of Iran's marketing brand and self-identity as the most authentic flavor of Islam going.
In fact, for more than a decade after the revolution, the term "Shia" or "Shiite" was synonymous in western, particularly American, popular culture with the brand of Islam that generated terrorism, car bombs, hijackings, and the like. Up until 9/11, the general gut reaction was that if it involved a "bad" Muslim, it involved a Shia Muslim. Fortunately for the Shia, after years of trying, Osama bin Laden and his cohort finally succeeded in breaking up that association, so now the West has the considerably more enlightened position of recognizing that violent terrorists come from a diverse array of Muslim traditions.
Note in passing that where the US and the West kept Iran and Saudi Arabia relatively congenial for decades, the US alliance with Saudi Arabia was now a cause for Iranian scorn. Also, Saudi Arabia, as the "guardians" of Mecca and Medina (the Boardwalk and Park Place of Islamic holy sites) is an implicit challenge to Iranian claims of leading the Muslim world. Add the ethnic differences between Persians and Arabs, combined with a religious divide between Sunnis and Shia, and it's not hard to see how these countries ended up locked in perpetual struggle. About the only thing they could possibly find room for agreement on is their sentiment towards Israel, although they'd probably end up in a long, heated battle about was colder to Israel.
The only folks who seem to be doing well are extremists who have turned Syria into a Graduate School of Hard Knocks for Islamic fundamentalists with a penchant for violence.
Fast forward to today. Until recently, Iran was pretty happy fomenting rebellion and aiding Shia insurgents in otherwise nominally Sunni countries like Yemen and Bahrain. That was until the Arab Spring caught fire in Syria, turned that country into a morass of death and violence, and Iran found itself supporting the Syrian government. Syria has long been one of Iran's closest regional allies, because it is firmly anti-US, implacably hostile to Israel, and is run by the more-or-less Shia Alawaite sect.
That ugly war has been dragging on for a couple of years now. Iran has been backing Syria by pushing Hezbollah (the Iranian proxy in Lebanon) to send fighters, directly supplying the regime with money and weapons, and even sending its own troops to battle it out against both factions of Team Sunni (the establishment "good" Sunnis and the extremist "bad" Sunnis). Fighting in Syria has been essentially stalemated. The only folks who seem to be doing well are extremists who have effectively turned the Syrian battlefield into a Graduate School of Hard Knocks for Islamic fundamentalists with a penchant for violence. As a side note, countries all around the world will be reaping the bloody harvest of this particular phenomenon for decades to come. Right now, Syria is doing for future terrorists what Afghanistan did decades ago, but on a bigger scale.
Anyhow, there's been some speculation that Syria is turning into Iran's Vietnam. Ever since the US lost in Vietnam, the name has been a byword for long, drawn-out, quagmires that cost too much and too many lives, and ultimately end in failure. I don't know if Syria will really be an Iranian Vietnam, but it boils down to Iran and Saudi Arabia pouring money and weapons into the conflict and fighting down to the very last Syrian. Saudi Arabia has a bigger pocketbook than Iran, which is laboring under economic sanctions. But Iran has a very respectable intelligence network, an impressive covert and low-intensity warfighting capability, and can both intervene directly in a conflict or train and equip others who will go fight.
But add Iraq as another proxy battlefield and it gets crazy. Iraq is majority Shia, and Maliki hasn't been shy about asking the Iranians for help (even as he attempts to court the US). Iran has mostly been all about keeping Iraq on a short, Shia leash. Yet now that the fight has the potential for turning into a replay of Syria, Iran has been sending a lot mixed signals about what it can do and how much it can afford to do. On one hand, Iran is all in, on the other, maybe not entirely — maybe a sign that Iran knows it can't fight major simultaneous slugging matches in both Syria and Iraq.
The big problem facing Iran now, is that in its previous conflicts, it has been able to avoid really getting stuck in a clearly sectarian fight. Where there was sectarian character, Iran was able to assert that it was fighting pawns of Israel, the US, or some other sort of foreign interloper. But since this isn't a clear fight, and nobody in their right mind would believe that al Qaeda or ISIS are pawns of the West, especially since they're working so hard to undo the big US and Western project of trying to keep Iraq together. A goal which Iran shares.
This means even if Iran prevails in Iraq and/or Syria, it could still suffer major damage to its legitimacy and brand as the leading anti-US, anti-Israel Islamic power. If it ends up looking like a cheap, brutal sectarian power grab against the Sunni, it will be a major setback in the long, ongoing project to claim the leadership role in the Muslim world. But if that's bad, letting ISIS get away with re-establishing the caliphate is even worse. And if Iran has to join forces with the hated US to crush the caliphate under foot, then that's worst of all.
In the long term, there are probably a number of ways the clever gentlemen in Tehran might be able to make this work to Iran's advantage, but in the short and medium term, none of those ways are obvious.
Player: The US and the Western Allies
While there's a lot of talk about what the US is or isn't doing, the practical effect of these players right now may be pretty limited. It turns out that after all the domestic political opposition to the last decade of fighting in Iraq, the Western allies are a wee bit gun shy about getting dragged into more Middle East fighting. While there is certainly some proprietary interest and desire to avoid writing off the meager gains that were made in Iraq, the disinterest in more casualties trumps that.
Which is something of a pity. At the time of writing, the US and West are the only people really strongly vested in the fortunes of Team Iraq. As sad and depressing as it is, it turns out there's not a lot of strong local support for keeping Iraq together and getting Iraqis on the side of their country, rather than on the side of their sect or ethnic group.
The dirty little secret here is that in this fight, the US doesn't have to do very much at all to prevent Iraq from being overrun entirely.
Where this gets to be a problem is that nobody (outside of Team Sunni Extreme) is enthralled about creating a great big Team Sunni Extreme home base a.k.a. the caliphate. If Iraq breaks up, it doesn't mean the fighting will end — it just means that it will look a lot more like internal ethnic cleansing and genocide than a battle for control over the country, and the caliphate's battle for creation will be half won. The US and West also really don't like the idea of breaking up Iraq, in part because it opens the door for the Great Middle Eastern "Clarification." This is the possible decades-long ugly battle to sort out a century or more of ethnic, sectarian, political, and economic tensions that have been locked in place throughout the region.
There's an outside chance that Team Iraq might get a reprieve in the form of a new prime minister. If Iraq can pick someone who is intent on forging a real national coalition government, who can hold the country together in the interim, and who can do this without alienating any would-be foreign support, then things look a lot better for Team Iraq. But that's a mighty tall order and until then Western support most likely won't rise to the level of making sure Iraq wins, but merely making a visible effort to prevent Iraq from losing.
The dirty little secret here is that in this fight, the US doesn't have to do very much at all to prevent Iraq from being overrun entirely. In this kind of ethnic fight, there's an immensely huge advantage to holding territory in your own neighborhood and a giant penalty for taking new ground. Imagine an inner city given over to open warfare. People fighting in their own hood know who the outsiders are, the local terrain, the best little sniper nests, and all the microscopic details of life in their particular hood.
That's great for defense, but it means if you cross to the other side of the tracks and try taking territory the other guy enjoys all those defense advantages so it's a slow and brutal business. So the US and West don't necessarily need to do a lot or do it quickly. Outside powers can just stand on the sidelines and watch while Iraqis get blown up in cartloads, waiting until they're good and ready to intervene on their own terms.
This would all change quickly if the caliphate/ISIS folks could theoretically take Baghdad, but that's very unlikely unless a lot changes and quickly (and if they do, all bets are off).
One indicator to watch for on the ground will be if local, Iraqi Sunni militias start getting restive, start to turn on the caliphate, and begin trying to evict the forces commuting from Syria. If they start cooperating directly with the Iraqi Army to do so, then that's a really important sign that the people of Iraq have found something to bring them together under one banner.
The interests of the US and Iran in this fight are playing out right now in the political battle to pick the next Iraqi prime minister. That may take a few days (or much longer) to settle down and pan out, but is essentially a debate over the fate and future of the country, as one allied and beholden to either Iran or the US. Until that gets settled, the caliphate now sitting astride the old Syria-Iraq border isn't going anywhere soon.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan