July 07, 2014
Iraq Through the Eyes of Iran's IRGC
The rapid advances in Iraq of the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham; formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq) have forced the U.S. to confront a complex reality. Iraqi Security Forces have been unable to stop the advances on their own, but President Obama is extremely reluctant to provide U.S. support. Some analysts argue that the U.S. should align with Iran against the common al Qaeda enemy, even suggesting that we should combine military efforts.
Iran’s efforts in Iraq are controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), especially Qods Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani. The feasibility of cooperation with Iran in Iraq depends in part on how the IRGC sees the problem. This post is the first in a series that will look at the Iraq crisis from the perspective of the IRGC.
Soleimani appears to have operational command of Iranian efforts in Iraq. According to American officials, he has spent considerable time in Baghdad and appears to be coordinating the efforts of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) with the mobilizing Shi’a militias and volunteers. Soleimani’s strategy in Iraq seems modelled on the one he used to help the Assad regime in Syria. It relies heavily on recruiting local sectarian para-militaries and mobilizing regional Shi’a proxies alongside the conventional armed forces of the threatened host-state. The Iranians have a name for such auxiliaries—basijis.
The Basij Resistance Force was formed in 1979 as a paramilitary unit charged with suppressing internal dissent. It supplied the fodder for the human-wave attacks led by the IRGC in the Iran-Iraq War. It is a symbol to the Iranian regime of the population mobilized to fight invaders, a sign of the people’s revolutionary fervor, and the willingness to “embrace martyrdom,” as the regime’s propaganda says, in defense of the Islamic Republic’s religious ideals. Iranian rhetoric has coalesced around the use of the term basij to describe Iraq’s Shi’a militias, and we can only understand the IRGC’s strategy through that prism.
Iran’s conventional military is weak and generally unable to project force beyond its borders through ordinary means. But Iran’s leaders have developed other ways of projecting power and influence. Supreme Leader Khamenei has expressed his confidence in the limited “advisory” role of his senior commanders in Iraq. In recent weeks, thousands of volunteers reportedly pledged their lives to defend the holy Shi’a shrines in Iraq marching alongside Iranian proxies: Iraqi Hezbollah and Jaish al-Mahdi. Former IRGC Hazrate-e Mohammad Rasullah Unit (Greater Tehran) Commander Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani put this Iraqi phenomenon in regional context:
Know that by establishing the Basij, the third child of the revolution is being born in Iraq after Syria and Lebanon… We fundamentally believe in total and popular defense. The people’s presence in the scene is the prescription for Resistance. When the people entered alongside the military in Syria, the situation suddenly turned in the favor of the Resistance. This is forming in Iraq.
Iraq is likely to prove an even more fertile ground for sectarian recruitment. The threat to the Seyyeda Zainab shrine in Damascus drew fighters from far afield—including many Iraqi Shi’a militias, which have now returned to Iraq to fight. The four holy Shi’a shrines in Iraq are even more religiously significant; the Islamic State’s threat to those shrines will likely mobilize many more would-be basijis to their defense.
IRGC leaders have something very specific in mind when they refer to Iraq’s Shi’a fighters as basijis. They are describing the phenomenon in terms not of the conflict in Iraq, but rather of the regional conflict and their strategy for fighting it. They intend to defeat the Islamic State, of course, and their interests coincide with the U.S. in that regard. But they embrace the sectarian mobilization of the Iraqi Shi’a community as part of a broader regional mobilization that they see tilting the balance of power in their favor and against the U.S. and its allies. Their enthusiastic embrace of regional sectarianism—despite their rhetorical denunciations of it—is even more dangerous for American interests, however, than their overt hostility toward the U.S. It signals IRGC support for a regional sectarian war that will continue to destabilize the Middle East and create fertile recruiting ground not only for their ersatz basijis, but for al Qaeda sympathizers as well. The U.S. cannot support a basiji strategy.