Iran’s Iraq Strategy: What Tehran is Really Up To

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 18, 2007

Reports that Iran is arming various factions in Iraq are about as surprising as claims that Mafia members have been seen in Las Vegas casinos. Iran has been meddling in its neighbors’ affairs for a long time, and not just in Iraq. Tehran has trained terrorist and guerrilla groups in Bosnia, Lebanon and Palestine, all of which are far from Iran.

So when U.S. military officials displayed explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons that they say Iran provided to Shiite militias in Iraq, we have to recognize that this was no big departure for the Iranians.

As President Bush and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged last week, finding Iranian arms in Iraq does not prove the more important, and harder to make, argument that Iran is ordering its Iraqi proxies to attack U.S. troops. It may seem absurd to give Iran the benefit of the doubt, in light of its sorry track record on nuclear proliferation and support for radicalism in general, but we can’t understand what Iran is up to without an appreciation for its broader Iraq strategy, which goes well beyond Tehran’s desire to undermine U.S. policy. Iranian leaders calculate that they will need formidable proxies should the United States leave, and indeed Iran will face many challenges in Iraq if U.S. forces depart.

So why would Iran arm Iraqis and perhaps direct attacks on U.S. forces? For most Iranians, Iraq is an emotional issue. They see the daily suffering of Iraqis, both from the chaos in Iraq in general and at the hands of Sunni suicide bombers. They empathize with their fellow Shiites in Iraq, with whom they have historic ties and shared religious traditions. Though they rejoice over the downfall of Saddam Hussein (Iran suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties in the bitter war of 1980-88, which Hussein launched against it) they blame the United States for the violence that has swept Iraq since Hussein fell.

Iran worries about the United States. When Ayatollah Khomeini took power in the 1979 Islamic revolution, he made anti-Americanism a core of the new regime’s foreign policy. The United States has been hostile ever since, even tilting toward Iraq during its war with Iran. The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, and have periodically confronted each other.

In the decade before 9/11, Iran structured its military forces to fight America, even when the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region was confined to the conservative oil states of the Arabian peninsula. Since 9/11, the United States has occupied Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, put significant forces in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and strengthened its security relationship with Pakistan. Iran perceives itself as surrounded. The United States has repeatedly made threats against the Iranian regime, has refused to surrender anti-regime Iranian terrorists found in Iraq, organized international economic pressure on the country, led a diplomatic effort to deny Iran the right to develop nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, and pointedly included military force against Iran as an option after dispatching two aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf region—hostile steps, in Iranian eyes, that reinforce paranoia.

Tehran does not want the secular and pro-Western Iraq that America dreams of, and it wants to ensure that the U.S. doctrine of preventive regime change is dead. So far, developments in Iraq have worked out in Iran’s favor—indeed, Iran appears to be the one state that is winning this war. Iraq is too weak to pose a military threat to Iran for years and perhaps decades to come. The democratic procedures that the United States imposed on Iraq put in power Shiite leaders who are far friendlier to Tehran than to Washington.

Iran is less nervous than it was in 2003, but it remains understandably anxious. The long-term role of U.S. forces and the future of the Shiite regime in Iraq are open questions. Instability in Iraq could lead to waves of refugees returning to Iran, as happened during the Iran-Iraq war, and could excite unrest among Iran’s Kurdish and Arab populations. Expecting an American withdrawal sooner or later, Iran wants to prepare for a postwar era by maximizing its influence now.

The United States focuses on how Iran’s arming of its Iraqi proxies hurts U.S. interests, but this is hardly Iran’s only concern. The Iraqi Shiite groups that have received arms may be more loyal to Iran after American forces depart. Even more important, they will be stronger than their Iraqi rivals. In Lebanon, Iran helped build Hezbollah from disparate small Shiite movements, welding it together against rivals in the Shiite community and, over time, making it stronger than non-Shiite groups. The goal is the same in Iraq.

Many Iranian leaders, particularly the president and the emerging conservative political elite, are profoundly anti-American. They want the United States to fail in Iraq and elsewhere, and they share an ideological bond with many radical Iraqi groups. So it is not surprising that Iran works with its closest Shiite proxies in Iraq, providing them with EFPs and other weapons that make them far more capable of fighting U.S. forces. Other Iranian elites have more complex feelings about the United States, though none is favorable, and Iranians want to bury the doctrine of regime change. Even if Iranians do not control the attacks, Iran knows that some of the people it trains and equips may at some point be involved in anti-American operations, thus keeping the heat on U.S. forces.

But Iran could easily be even more aggressive in Iraq. Tehran could provide sophisticated weapons to a wider range of Iraqi groups than it reportedly has so far. Iran’s Shiite proxies do at times attack American forces, but their principal targets are Sunni militias. They could kill a lot more Americans than they have. Iran could be encouraging them to convert relatively peaceful parts of Iraq into battlefields similar to the wildest parts of Anbar province.

Iraq’s Shiites are not Iran’s only interest. Tehran also has a long history of working with (and also against) various Kurdish groups. Iran recognizes theIraqi Kurds as the strongest and most organized military force in the country, and has cultivated good relations with Kurdish leaders. Iran has its own restive Kurdish population, and wants to ensure that its Kurds don’t use bases in Iraq or otherwise exploit the conflict to advance their own sectarian interests.

Iran also has a history of cultivating Sunnis when doing so seemed advantageous. It has reached out to a range of revolutionary Sunni groups and has good ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and other organizations whose ideology is closer to Osama Bin Laden’s than to Khomeini’s. The 9/11 commission found that Iran had engaged in low-level tactical cooperation with Sunni militants linked to al-Qaeda. And Tehran can be intensely practical. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran worked with Israel and the United States to gain much-needed weapons. Dealing with the Sunnis may follow a similar logic, though mutual suspicion will limit the extent of relations.

Ironically, Iran’s long-term position could weaken when the United States draws down its forces. At first, the U.S. withdrawal will expand the power vacuum and Iran will try to fill it, but the limited chaos Iran foments can easily become uncontrolled. Iran’s economic and military power is limited, and Iran’s theocratic model of governance has little appeal for most Iraqis. Even many Shiite militants have at times been hostile to Iran, and respected moderates such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani are careful to maintain their distance from Tehran. Sunnis already rage against perceived Iranian dominance.

In a postwar environment, Tehran will have lost a lever against U.S. pressure and may find itself both overextended and vulnerable in Iraq—a weakness that the United States might exploit in years to come.