ANKARA/WASHINGTON: Iran is wrestling with a complex array of historic alliances and enmities as it tries to develop a coherent response to the swift advance of hostile Sunni Muslim militants in neighboring Iraq.
Despairing of its protege Nouri Al Maliki, Tehran’s Shia clerical establishment has sent mixed messages on working with the Iraqi prime minister’s other sponsor, the United States, with which it shares a goal of averting the country’s break-up.
After decades competing with Washington’s Sunni Arab allies for influence, it hopes for relief from US sanctions by cutting a deal on its nuclear programme in the next few weeks and wants to avoid its defense of non-Sunni forces in Baghdad, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere fuelling a sectarian regional war.
“For Iran always, national interests have priority over religious divides,” said a senior official close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Our main concern now is to safeguard the Iranian nation’s interests.”
While steadfast in condemnation of the Sunni militants who vow to massacre Shias as heretics, Iran’s leadership has been at pains to stress a desire for coexistence with other sects — now a key element of its criticism of Shia premier Maliki.
“We have so far supported Maliki,” the official said. “But as his failure to form an inclusive government has led to a chaos in Iraq, our support will be conditional and limited.”
US President Barack Obama has urged Maliki to embrace the Sunni minority that lost influence when US troops overthrew Saddam Hussein — whom Washington had quietly backed against revolutionary Tehran in the long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Yet Tehran and Washington now seem unable to agree on how to achieve their shared aim of defeating the militants, pacifying moderate Sunnis and stabilizing Iraq, even if each has signalled that coordination with the other would help to map out a plan.
The result is that Iran, as much as the United States, is groping for a combined political and military strategy to push back the dash across northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), three weeks after it began on June 10.
“Iran’s goal in Iraq is to return to the status quo ante, which is a Shia-dominated, ideologically like-minded government whom Iran can rely upon as a junior partner,” said Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank in Washington.
“But the big question is: does such an individual exist who is palatable to both Iran, Sunni factions, the United States?”
That is not Iran’s only dilemma. Tehran ideally wants to block any expanded role for its US adversary in Iraq; and yet, hungry for US recognition as a regional political force, Tehran has signalled it may welcome a limited, quiet partnership with Washington in defending Baghdad.