Despite already having demonstrated its centrality to the campaign to push the Islamic State (ISIL) out of Iraq, Iran was pointedly excluded from Monday’s conference in Paris to forge a military coalition against the extremist group. And Tehran was far from happy, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashing out against the Obama administration’s new war plans.
Khamenei decried the Paris conclave as a dangerous effort by the United States and Arab countries hostile to Iran to use the challenge of ISIL as an opportunity to promote an anti-Tehran agenda in Syria and throughout the region. “Iran sees this as an effort by Saudi Arabia and its allies, and the United States, to exert leverage and pressure on Iranian interests, to degrade or weaken Iranian influence in Syria,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council.
Khamenei called Secretary of State John Kerry a liar for saying in Paris that Iran had not been invited to join the coalition, listing numerous moments at which the U.S. had solicited Iranian involvement. “The West assembled a coalition of 40-50 countries against Syria and couldn’t do a damn thing,” Khamenei said, referring to Washington’s previous efforts to rally allies to oust Syria’s Assad regime, which remains a key ally of Iran.
While Kerry stressed that the U.S. would remain open to discussion with Iran, the administration faces an awkward challenge in balancing its awareness that Iranian cooperation is key to any prospect of successfully fighting ISIL in Iraq against the eagerness of Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies to roll back Tehran’s regional influence.
“Kerry’s remarks seemed to have irritated Khamenei greatly,” said Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, a senior academic research fellow at the Riyadh-based King Faisal Institute for Research and Islamic Studies. “It was like Iran was being singled out and deprived of the right to participate because the U.S. deemed it such. He probably wants to counter the notion that the U.S. even possesses such a prerogative in Iran's own backyard.”
Khamenei recently played a key role in achieving a major U.S. goal in Iraq – easing out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and securing his replacement by the more widely accepted Haydar al-Abadi, according to Sadeghi-Boroujerdi. Tehran certainly wields far more influence than Washington over Maliki and Abadi’s Dawa Party, and Khamenei has demonstrated pragmatism in encouraging a more inclusive approach by Abadi, who has with Iran’s approval – and also Washington’s and Riyadh’s – reined in Shia militias and reduced tensions with former Baathists and leading Sunnis.
“Abadi represents a ray of hope that demonstrates that all three sides [Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States] can engage in some tactical cooperating when their interests overlap,” says Marashi.
Even if the guest list in Paris suggested Iran had been excluded from the coalition against ISIL, the reality on the ground is more nuanced, according to several analysts and journalists in touch with U.S. and Iranian officials involved in bilateral discussions on the subject. “I think there is intelligence sharing between Iran and the U.S., there are deep contacts with key political players, there is coordination on the capture of ISIS fighters,” says Marashi, using another acronym for ISIL.
Iran is already involved in fighting ISIL inside Iraq, coordinating closely with the key Iraqi players on whom the U.S. will rely to fight the ground war – the Kurdistan regional government and the Baghdad government. Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, stepped into Iraq as soon as ISIL began its dramatic late-summer advance and helped repel the group’s fighters from the town of Amerli — a battle in which U.S. air strikes played an important role.
But even if Soleimani and the Revolutionary Guards may share U.S. and even Saudi goals in combating ISIL in Iraq, even any such tacit accord ends at the border with Syria, where Tehran and Riyadh back opposite sites in the three-year civil war — in keeping with their wider regional strategic rivalry. “Iran wants to ensure that key areas and towns that provide key logistical support to Hezbollah are guaranteed,” says Sadeghi-Boroujerdi. “There’s such a deep Saudi-Iranian divide over key regional stakes, but Iraq could be a venue where they could achieve some mutually beneficial small gains.”
Saudi Arabia, Kerry said in Paris, had threatened to pull out of the talks should Iran be invited, and rejects diplomatic rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear problem. Iran’s leaders have taken political risks at home to seek nuclear compromise with the U.S., and for them the prospect of another U.S. military foray into the region falls at an unwelcome time. Hence, Iran is flexing its muscles, not only with Khamenei’s rhetoric but also in demonstrating its willingness to fight ISIL on the ground.
Still, should the Paris coalition take steps that diminish the ISIL threat in Iraq, that would ultimately be welcomed by Iran, said Dina Esfandiary of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Iran has been bearing the burden largely alone so far, and whatever they do in Iraq means they can do less in Syria.”
For both Tehran and Riyadh, securing – or reversing – the post-2003 balance of power in the region is the deeper interest guiding their responses to ISIL. The U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Iran’s most dangerous enemy and turned Baghdad into a capital friendly to Tehran. “Iran wants to preserve its strategic depth following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq,” said Sadeghi-Boroujerdi. “But Saudi and the Arab Gulf states would no doubt like a return to pre-2003 or at least ensure that Iran does not cast such a significant shadow over Baghdad.”
Thus, Khamenei’s belligerent language on Monday. He had checked into a hospital for prostate surgery a week ago, assured that Soleimani was handling Iraq and that nuclear talks would soon resume in New York. He re-emerged into a world in which the Obama administration is initiating a new Middle East fight from the skies, abetted by Saudi Arabia, and excluding Iran from a place at the table. The U.S., Khamenei warned, was taking the ISIL crisis as an opportunity to push its way back into the region. “They should know,” he said, “that if they pursue such a course, they will face the same problems in Iraq that they faced ten years ago.”