BEIRUT—The threat of Sunni extremists eclipsing the power of its Shiite-dominated Arab ally presents Iran with the biggest security and strategic challenge it has faced since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an offshoot of al Qaeda, rapidly gaining territory, Iran deployed Revolutionary Guards units to Iraq, according to Iranian security officials.
Iran has invested considerable financial, political and military resources over the past decade to ensure Iraq emerged from U.S. war as a strategic partner for the Islamic Republic and a strong Shiite-led state. The so-called Shiite crescent—stretching from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria—was forged largely as a result of this effort.
Two Guards’ units, dispatched from Iran’s western border provinces on Wednesday, were tasked with protecting Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, these security sources said.
The involvement of Iran would pose yet another security challenge for the White House, and raises the prospect of the U.S. and Iran fighting on the same side. The U.S. opposes Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but with Tehran is jointly supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
State Department officials on Thursday refused to outline what steps the Obama administration would take if Iranian forces entered Iraq.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said American diplomats who met with Iranian officials in Geneva this week to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program didn’t raise the issue of the Iraqi crisis.
“We’ve encouraged them to play a constructive role in Iraq,” Ms. Psaki said about the Iranians.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, reached by phone in London, said of the report that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were entering the fight: “Frankly I have no idea about that. I am in London now.”
Syria’s conflict has turned Iraq into an important operational base for Iran to aid another ally, the Assad regime, which is dominated by an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Shiite militia trained by Iran, weapons and cash have flowed from Iran to Syria via Iraq.
“Iraq is viewed as a vital priority in Iran’s foreign policy in the region and they go to any length to protect this interest,” said Roozbeh Miribrahimi, an independent Iran expert based in New York.
House Speaker John Boehner ripped the President for not doing more in recent days to prevent Sunni jihadist militants from taking control of key Iraqi cities, including Mosul and Tikrit. Insurgents have been advancing through Iraq’s heartland with their eyes set on Baghdad, the country’s capital.
“They are 100 miles from Baghdad,” said Boehner Thursday. “And what’s the president do? Taking a nap.”
“It’s not like we haven’t seen this problem coming for over a year,” he added.
Boehner believes the U.S. should provide “the equipment and technical assistance that the Iraqis have been asking for.” The U.S. has rebuffed requests by the Iraqi government to order airstrikes in extremist areas, according to The New York Times. The Obama Administration has been reluctant to engage the recent extremist uprising as the American public largely endorsed withdrawing the last of its troops from Iraq in 2011.
Boehner said he did not know “enough of the details” to comment on whether or not the U.S. should engage in airstrikes.
Some of Boehner’s Republican colleagues in the Senate were also critical of the Obama Administration on Thursday, none more so than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain told reporters that Obama’s entire national security team, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be replaced.
That coarsely worded threat further vindicated Iran’s view that the fight unfolding in Iraq is an existential sectarian battle between the two rival sects of Islam-Sunni and Shiite—and by default a proxy battle between their patrons Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“Until now we haven’t received any requests for help from Iraq. Iraq’s army is certainly capable in handling this,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afgham said Wednesday.
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani cut short a religious celebration on Thursday and said he had to attend an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Council about events in Iraq.
“We, as the Islamic Republic of Iran, won’t tolerate this violence and terrorism…. We will fight and battle violence and extremism and terrorism in the region and the world,” he said in a speech.
ISIS’s rapid territorial gains in the past few days appeared to have caught Iranian officials by surprise and opened a debate within the regime over whether Iran should publicly enter the battle.
Iran’s chief of police, Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam said the National Security Council would consider intervening in Iraq to “protect Shiite shrines and cities,” according to Iranian media.
In the short-term, analysts said the outcome of the crisis in Iraq will only strengthen and increase the influence of Iran and the Revolutionary Guards.