Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned Wednesday that Iran is perpetuating conflict in Iraq to keep the country destabilized and more susceptible to Tehran’s influence. At the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies’ annual security conference, Ya’alon elaborated, “He who did not allow stability in Iraq since 2003 is Iran…From its [Iran’s] perspective, a strong Iraq runs counter to its own interests. From its perspective Iraq needs to be weak, bleeding.”
The defense chief also explained that while Iran funds and directs several Shia militias in Iraq to attack Sunni forces, at times it supports Sunnis fighting the United States, helping to create disarray and sectarian violence to oppose American efforts to create a secure, stable, and inclusive Iraqi state. These comments are an extension of Middle East analyst Michael Pregent’s recent argument that Iran needs Islamic State (ISIS) to stay to engrain itself further in Iraq and Syria.
As Ya’alon made his comments, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of Shia militias, several of which receive funding and direction from Tehran, were moving into Anbar Province in western Iraq, the country’s largest governorate, after ISIS took its capital Ramadi.
With thousands of Shia fighters readying their counterattack, there are already fears of Sunni-Shia sectarian violence exploding and the situation in Anbar deteriorating for other reasons despite the effort to pushback ISIS.
Several analysts, commentators, and US officials have already correctly argued that the presence of Shia militias in Iraq will only help Tehran gain greater influence over Baghdad, thereby causing any defeat of ISIS to bolster Iran, ultimately resulting in a larger geopolitical loss for the US. This idea focuses on Shia militias and Iranian troops pushing ISIS out of Iraq and having de facto control of the country.
The problem, however, as Ya’alon and Pregent illustrate, runs deeper. Because ISIS gives Iran justification to be heavily involved in Iraqi decision-making, Tehran will ensure that the Sunni jihadist group stays intact to keep Iraq in need of Iranian assistance, at least for the near future. Therefore, ISIS will continue to commit atrocities, destabilize the Middle East state system, and threaten the American homeland while Iran gains further control of Baghdad.
As a result, Iran’s goals in Iraq directly oppose those of the US, and Washington must adjust its current Iraqi policy and strategy to defeat ISIS to account for this fact. If America changes nothing in Iraq, then it will ensure that ISIS is defeated on Tehran’s terms and that Baghdad will be, for all intents and purposes, incorporated into an expanding Iranian empire.
To change this path, the US must, among other actions, greatly increase airstrikes to the point that ISIS personnel will fear going outside. Washington has restrained American airpower in part to avoid civilian casualties, but such reluctance to fight allows the Iranians to fill the vacuum and take on a greater role in the conflict.
Logically, if the Iranians are willing to put themselves or proxies on the ground in large numbers to fight alongside Iraqis and the US will not even provide sufficient airpower, then Baghdad will see Tehran as a more reliable, long-term partner against ISIS than Washington.
This does not mean that the US should send in large numbers of ground troops; it does, however, indicate that the US must utilize its immense air capabilities to conduct more robust strikes. Otherwise, the US is prolonging ISIS’s existence and helping Tehran’s ambitions. Using a Reagan quote, if such a result occurred, “History will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.”