Members of the Iraqi security forces and volunteers, who have joined the security forces to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), shout slogans on the outskirts of the town of Udaim in Diyala province, June 22, 2014

July 15, 2014

Blame the U.S. for the Islamic State: The IRGC's View on Iraq

Members of the Iraqi security forces and volunteers, who have joined the security forces to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), shout slogans on the outskirts of the town of Udaim in Diyala province, June 22, 2014. Iran's supreme leader accused the United States on Sunday of trying to retake control of Iraq by exploiting sectarian rivalries, as Sunni insurgents drove toward Baghdad from new strongholds along the Syrian border. (Reuters)

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have united rhetorically around the assertion that the Islamic State recently proclaimed in Iraq is an invention and tool of the U.S. and its allies.  This assertion seems bizarre to many Americans, yet it has become a staple of Iranian discourse about Iraq and the region.  U.S. policy toward Iran and Iraq must grapple with this perception and with the propaganda it is now feeding.  There is no “reset” with Iran in the offing even if negotiations in Vienna go miraculously well.

The Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul and other areas of Iraq elicited a strong response from Iran’s leadership, which sees a significant threat to its own borders for the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Khamenei has proclaimed the Islamic State the product of an American plot aimed at exacerbating the Shi’a-Sunni conflict. Senior IRGC commanders, including Defense Minister (and IRGC Brigadier General) Hossein Dehghan, Parliamentarian Mohammad Ismail Kowsari (former IRGC commander and frequent spokesman for the extreme wing of the IRGC), Basij Commander IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, and others have echoed the Supreme Leader’s message and elaborated on it. They present a coherent worldview according to which the U.S. is working at the behest of Saudi and Zionist interests to undermine Iran’s position in the region.

Defense Minister Dehghan hammered the point home at the end of June:  “ISIL [the Islamic State] is the legitimate bond of America and regional reactionaries.” Kowsari added, “ISIL was formed by America and its allied countries in the region. They may have slight differences in some matters but America, the Zionists, and Saudi Arabia run ISIL.”  Naghdi embroidered: “The entrance of Guantanamo American-trained inmates into Iraq is America’s move to provoke a new sedition in Iraq.” Senior Iranian officials claim IS members are trained and funded Western operatives trying to overthrow Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

This narrative is nonsensical but important.  The officials presenting it are not random loud-mouths, but rather key figures in Iran’s defense establishment, and, of course, Iran’s Supreme Leader himself.  U.S. policy-makers must take seriously the fact that Iran’s senior military figures are uniting so strenuously behind the idea that America created and is running the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq.


Evolving threat perception

Khamenei has long been eager to see Washington’s hand behind every harm done to Iran’s interests.  He wondered in 1998 whether the Taliban’s murder of 11 Iranian diplomats might have been “a zealous crime on the road towards Afghanistan’s independence? Did they [Taliban] submit to a conspiracy designed by meddling Americans…?”

A few weeks ago he said:

What is seen today is that America is seeking Iraq’s domination…The enemy is investing in civil wars; Just as our Imam [Khomeini] said, ‘America [uses terrorists] against pure Mohammedian Islam.’ America, is seeking to take advantage of the ignorance and prejudice of powerless masses.

The Supreme Leader’s belief that the U.S. creates and uses terrorist networks, aligned with the overall Western agenda, to pursue its objectives has been consistent. The volume and extravagance of the claims that the U.S. created and supports al Qaeda in Iraq has grown. 


Unified command

The Supreme Leader and the IRGC commanders seem to believe that they are fighting the U.S. by fighting al Qaeda in Iraq.  They are crafting their regional strategy accordingly, and it is a strategy that is aimed not at defeating al Qaeda in partnership with America, but rather at defeating al Qaeda as part of a larger effort to defeat the U.S. and its allies.  Basij Commander Naghdi explained last week:

There are two important battlefields in the Revolution today: one is the enemy’s heavy attacks against the Iranian nation and the other is the effort to establish an Islamic model for the world…The activities of the American takfiri puppet groups [IS] are evident in Iraq; [America] seeks to create chaos and civil war in Iraq.

The IRGC is applying a framework in Iraq similar to the one it employed in Syria that is designed to prevent U.S. interference by strengthening Iran’s (Shi’a) partners. Although the IRGC strategy in Iraq is ostensibly aimed at combatting the Islamic State, it would be an error to see shared interests between the U.S. and Iran in this matter. 


Looking ahead

IRGC commanders have been relatively quiet in voicing their objection to ongoing nuclear negotiations under the strict guidance from the Supreme Leader. This vociferous anti-Americanism regarding Iraq comes at a very sensitive time in the negotiations and does not facilitate progress in Vienna.  The Guard may have seized upon a politically safe way to try to undermine negotiations it clearly opposes, which may explain some of the vehemence of its leaders’ statements.  It is nevertheless noteworthy that Iran’s commanders and Supreme Leader have forcefully and repeatedly rejected any grounds for interaction with the U.S. in Iraq despite Iran’s dire need for sanctions relief and Khamenei’s own apparent willingness to make nuclear concessions- albeit at a small (and possibly diminishing) scale.  Some in Washington may see an opportunity to flip the U.S. into closer partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran using the negotiations and supposed common interests in Iraq as the springboard.  Iran’s leader and commanders apparently see only another front on which to fight us.

This is the second post in the series titled "Iraq through the eyes of Iran's IRGC." Special thanks for the assistance from Iran intern Kimiya Haghighi.