The Complex

Tehran’s Boots on the Ground

When U.S. President Barack Obama makes his speech Wednesday night about taking on the Islamic State, he’s sure to mention the nine countries that have signed on to aid the United States in the fight. He’ll leave out the one country that has already sent forces into Iraq and Syria to help beat back the ...

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

When U.S. President Barack Obama makes his speech Wednesday night about taking on the Islamic State, he’s sure to mention the nine countries that have signed on to aid the United States in the fight. He’ll leave out the one country that has already sent forces into Iraq and Syria to help beat back the terrorist group: Iran.

Terrified at the prospect of giving the Sunni-led militants a permanent foothold inside Iraq, the Shiite government in Tehran is openly providing weapons, intelligence, and military advisors to Baghdad and the array of Shiite militias fighting alongside the beleaguered Iraqi military. Iran denies having combat troops inside Iraq, but a U.S. official familiar with the matter said that Iran has at times had hundreds of ground forces fighting alongside the Iraqi soldiers and militiamen.

Iran is also playing a significant role in Syria, where thousands of fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah — a powerful Shiite militia that is armed, trained, and equipped by Iran — have spent the past few years helping Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad in his brutal onslaught against the rebels hoping to unseat him. Hezbollah has stepped up its involvement in Syria in recent months because of the rise of the Islamic State, also called ISIL, which sees Shiites as apostates and has boasted of slaughtering 1,700 Shiite members of the Iraqi armed forces after they surrendered to the militants.

Tehran’s interventions in Iraq and Syria highlight the strange alliance that has emerged because of the Islamic State’s ongoing battlefield gains. Obama has called on Assad to step aside, but U.S. officials have privately welcomed the Syrian leader’s ongoing airstrikes against Islamic State targets within his borders. Relations between Washington and Moscow are icier than they’ve been in years, but Russia has sent Baghdad a dozen much-needed Su-25 ground-attack fighter jets, along with unspecified numbers of Russian military trainers. Meanwhile, Obama has American warplanes bombing targets in Iraq in unspoken support of the Iranian forces helping their Iraqi counterparts on the ground.

Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that top Iranian officials appear to have the "freedom and license" to operate inside Iraq and to help "shape the trajectory of the conflict and its priorities." Itani said that Iran maintains considerable influence inside its neighbor because, unlike the United States, it never withdrew its forces or disengaged from the country. On top of that, he said that Iran makes good use of proxy forces like Hezbollah. "Iran has plenty of practice in both Iraq and Syria," he said.

The extent of Iran’s involvement was also captured in a photo of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, on the ground in the Iraqi town of Amerli following a successful effort to break an Islamic State siege of the town and prevent the slaughter of its inhabitants. Although it was well known that Suleimani had traveled to Baghdad a handful of times in recent months, the photo hinted that he might be playing a more hands-on role and had helped direct operations straight from the battlefield.

The operation to free Amerli was an important victory against the Islamic State, but it was also noteworthy because of the team that formed to battle the militants. Iraqi security forces, Shiite militias, and Iranian operatives fought the Islamic State on the ground while U.S. air power took out Islamic State targets with a barrage of airstrikes.

The United States and Iran say they do not coordinate military action or share intelligence with each other and have no plans to do so.

"We have been clear that ISIL represents a threat not only to the United States, but also — and most immediately — to the entire region," Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said in an email to Foreign Policy. "We believe all countries, regardless of their differences, should work toward the goal of degrading and ultimately defeating ISIL."

Indeed, the United States and Iran could work together without formally coordinating their operations. In Amerli, for instance, the militias relayed their operational plans to the Iraqi commanders overseeing the fight, who in turn passed the information to the American officials running the air campaign there. "Any coordinating with the Shiite militias was not done by us — it would have been done by the ISF," a senior administration official told the New York Times in late August, using an acronym for the Iraqi military.

In Syria, top officials in Assad’s government, which has been kept in power partly through Iranian military assistance, have explicitly said they are willing to work with the United States, though the U.S. administration has again said it isn’t prepared to do so. Speaking to reporters in August, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the Syrian government is open to an alliance with Western countries and regional powers like Saudi Arabia, which has been working to unseat Assad but fears the Islamic State even more. "They are welcome," Moualem said when asked about mounting joint operations against the group with Washington and London.

Accurate numbers for both American and Iranian forces are difficult to come by. The Pentagon’s latest tally for U.S. troops in Iraq is 1,192. The Pentagon said it could not provide an estimate for Iranian forces, but they are believed to number in the several hundred.

Still, those numbers may misstate the two countries’ actual troop levels. "You don’t have a reliable estimate on the U.S. or the Iranians, because the numbers that we have do not include people who are involved in sensitive programs," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said the Iranian presence in Iraq has been "confined almost completely to advisors, arms transfers, support from [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] trainers, but you’ve not had any significant Iranian ground presence and you have not had Iranian ground units."

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the advisors from the Quds Force play a very important role in Iraq, "but they don’t have to send in troops to play that role," Cordesman added.

He points out that Washington’s aversion to deploying major land-combat units to Iraq is due to more than just U.S. war fatigue. Putting a large number of U.S. ground forces in Iraq could risk the appearance of taking sides in a sectarian conflict. David Petraeus, former commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said in a June speech that the United States cannot be "the air force for Shia militias or a Shia-on-Sunni Arab fight."

Iran does not share these kinds of concerns. On the contrary, it openly supports Shiite militias on the ground. In Syria, there is a much larger presence of Iranian paramilitary fighters taking on the Islamic State and other Sunni Islamist groups on behalf of Assad, plus teams of special forces providing training and intelligence to Syrian forces. There are also fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah on the ground in Syria, receiving support from Tehran. Meanwhile, Iran officially denies any involvement by its military in Syria.

Iran’s backing of Shiite militias in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria speaks to the fact that while the United States and Iran share tactical objectives, especially in Iraq, their longer-term strategic goals are very different.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen
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