US, Iranian intervention in Iraq and the rise of ISIS

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif says US invasion on Iraq in 2003 allowed 'violent extremism' to rise in the country

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Pro-government Iraqi militias capture ISIS flag

Updated Feb 24, 2016

On August 10, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif slammed the trend of “violent extremism” sweeping the Middle East in a letter published in the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet newspaper ahead of his scheduled visit to the Turkish capital Ankara, which was later delayed due to apparent “scheduling problems.”

In the letter, Zarif bemoaned the role of foreign intervention in the region, particularly the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he blamed for the destabilisation of the country that paved the way for the ISIS militant group to emerge.

Both the US and Iran have played key roles in Iraq, supporting opposing proxies throughout the war. Behind the open conflict of interest between the two powers lies a hidden dialogue and collaboration in areas where their interests have overlapped in the region. 

Iraqis have long had to bear the brunt of the love-hate relationship between the US and Iran, with the country falling under the autocratic rule of former leader Saddam Hussein in 1979. With US support, Hussein led the country into war with Iran after revolution in Tehran severed the country's ties with Washington. 

However, as Hussein fell out of favour with the US, Tehran increasingly became a viable partner for Washington as the 2003 invasion sought to shift the balance of power in Iraq from the Sunni Baathists to the Shiites. Consequently, this shifting policy has had dire effects on Iraqi society, which today finds itself divided along sectarian lines.

“Political and military interventions in the Islamic world, particularly in the 2000s, caused many difficulties, provided fertile ground for extremist demagogues, allowed the most radical of them to dominate others and thus, the ground was paved for violent extremist groups to take shape,” Zarif said.

“There is now consensus that violent extremists have exploited the chaos in Iraq during the occupation of the country by the US,” he added.

“A group like ISIS, which feeds on turmoil and chaos, grew thanks to the instability and upheaval that emerged following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

The Iranian foreign minister’s criticism of the US came just one month after Iran agreed with the US, in addition to five other western powers as part of the P5+1 negotiations, to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of international sanctions which have long crippled its economy.

While the US and Iran seemingly continue to be at odds with one another in the Syria crisis, and Iran unwaveringly supporting the Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad and his regime, that the US seeks to oust, Washington and Tehran find themselves on the same side in their support of pro-government Shiite militias in Iraq in the fight against ISIS.

ISIS, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, took the US-backed Shiite-dominated government of Iraq by surprise last year when its militants - supported by Sunni tribes formerly loyal to Saddam Hussein’s old Baathist regime - seized the city of Mosul and declared a self-proclaimed “caliphate.”

Having previously enjoyed protection under Saddam Hussein, who was backed after seizing power in Iraq in 1979 to fight a war against Iran following the Iranian “Islamic Revolution” that was to last eight years and leave around a million people dead, the Sunnis of Iraq suddenly found themselves on the backfoot of the Shiite-dominated government that was to emerge after the removal of the Baathist regime by the US invasion in 2003.

Immediately after Saddam Hussein’s fall, Major General Qassem Suleimani, who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force  - which is in charge of Iran’s proxy operations outside Iran - ordered its Iraqi proxy Badr Brigade to assassinate Baathist leaders in Iraq. The Badr Brigade, however, avoided targeting US forces during the war.

Before that, Iran and the US had also been on the same page regarding the Taliban in Afghanistan. With dreams of spreading its Shiite “Islamic revolution” outside its borders to Shiite minorities in other countries, Iran saw the Sunni Taliban militants,  with US support defeated the Soviet Russians in 1989 as an obstacle to this. When the Taliban refused to surrender the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was blamed for the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US launched an invasion of the country.

According to a report published in the New Yorker in 2013, Ryan Crocker, a former senior US State Department official, was cited recalling the exchange of intelligence between  Washington and Tehran during the war in Afghanistan, despite relations between the two countries having officially been frozen in 1980 after US diplomatic staff were taken hostage in Iran. This cooperation led to the arrest of an Al Qaeda facilitator living in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad, who was later handed over to the new Afghan government and then to the US.

However, the cooperation was short-lived, with then-US President George W. Bush declaring Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” in January 2002. The New Yorker report stated that in 2003, Iran had resorted to sheltering Al Qaeda operatives who were plotting to attack US targets in Saudi Arabia, including a bombing attack on three residential compounds that killed nine Americans in Riyadh.

Al Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also briefly stayed in Iran after arriving in the country from Afghanistan in December 2001, before moving on to Iraq to form the Ansar al-Islam militant group, which took the battle to US troops in the north of the country. According to Jordanian intelligence, Iran had refused to extradite him over his alleged links to a plot to bomb the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman.

Ansar al Islam, whose troops Iran allegedly shielded and supported with logistical support during the US invasion of Iraq, later joined  ISIS ranks, having pledged allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in August 2014.

The ensuing war for the future of Iraq quickly turned into a battle between the US and Iran to bring the country under their own sphere of influence, with Qassem Suleimani allegedly ordering attacks on US troops. In December 2006, US forces conducted an operation on the compound of Iraqi Shiite politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim during which they arrested the Quds Force operations chief General Mohsen Chizari. Chirazi was turned over to the Iraqi authorities upon the demand of then-Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who later released him.

Iran gradually began asserting its control over Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated government, with Qassem Suleimani reigning in Prime Minister Maliki, who with Suleimani’s help secured a second term as prime minister in 2010 as head of a coalition government, despite pro-American candidate Ayad Allawi winning more votes. During his second term, Shiites became increasingly powerful in the Iraqi government. Sunnis, on the other hand, were increasingly marginalised.

Today, however, the US and Iran find themselves once again on the same side in Iraq, fighting against their common enemy ISIS. While a US-led coalition bombs ISIS positions from the air, the Iran-back pro-government Shiite militias allied with the Iraqi army - namely the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al Shaabi) - fight ISIS on the ground.

Author: Ertan Karpazli