In the continuing operation to reach Bagdad, ISIS militants are attempting to simultaneously carry out strikes on valuable Iraqi infrastructure, most specifically targeting Iraq’s energy installations. So, as of now, the jihadists are fighting for control of the country’s largest oil refinery situated in the city of Bayji north of Tikrit. Its capture would materially impede the fuel supply of the government army and of the entire capital. There are continuing clashes on all fronts in the country between jihadists, regular army troops and Shiite volunteers. In the course of the June 19 offensive, the humanitarian aid organization, Doctors without Borders came under fire in Tikrit, and at the same time, according to UN estimates, the humanitarian crisis has reached its highest level.
Commanders of ISIS units have already come to the conclusion that, the United States will not act quickly in carrying out airstrikes against militant bases and positions, despite the fact that Bagdad has made persistent requests for urgent military aid. “President Obama is focusing on his global strategy and not on prompt responses”, said sources from the American administration. The strengthening of security around its diplomatic mission in the capital and beginning the evacuation of personnel of oil companies, Washington has for now limited the provision of intelligence information to Bagdad gathered through unmanned aerial vehicle and military aircraft flying patrols over Iraqi airspace. At the same time, apparently under pressure from Saudi Arabia, supporters of the Sunni population in the country, the White House urged Prime Minister al-Maliki to resolve the political differences facing the country and not to carry out any reprisals against Sunni groups. While it is factual that the U.S. administration has not excluded direct military intervention in the Iraqi armed conflict, including the sending of troops from Afghanistan, that remains the most extreme option in the event of a total collapse of the Iraqi regime.
As of now Washington is limited by its decision to send military advisers to Iraq in order to strengthen Iraqi security forces, although there are currently 7.5 thousand American military instructors in the country. Apparently, we are talking about the category of advisers who will be in close proximity to Iraqi army commanders directly on the battlefield. This was announced on June 19 by President Barack Obama. However, in addition to that he stated that there are no plans to send U.S troops. “The U.S. is planning to send a small number of military advisers to Iraq, approximately 300, but U.S. troops will not return to combat in Iraq”, he said. At the same he did not rule out the possibility of military strikes against militants in Iraq. “It is still considered among the possible measures”, said the U.S. president. In addition, he said, “The United States will provide diplomatic support for stability in Iraq”. However, it is rather well known through many examples throughout history that, the first to arrive are military advisers, and after them, troops will follow.
At the moment the real foreign military presence in Iraq is supplied by Tehran, continuing in its efforts to provide assistance to N. al-Maliki in carrying out the mobilization of the Shiite population. Iranian President Rouhani warned that, “Iran will do anything in order to protect and defend the holy Shiite sites in Iraq”. Hezbollah militants were sent to Syria to allow Iraqi Shiites from the Mahdi Army to return to their country and begin fighting with Iraqi Sunnis. And regarding the creation of an alliance with Washington, Tehran prefers not to rush into anything. “Only after we achieve an agreement on the nuclear issue”, stated the Iranians themselves. Moreover, the head of Iran’s delegation at the talks in Vienna confirmed this to his counterpart from the United States in a discussion on the “fields”.
Iran is under the greatest threat because of the fact that the current armed conflict in Iraq is sectarian in nature. The Iranian leadership has already vowed to protect the Shiite government in Iraq, but for now the Iranians have not yet launched a massive open military intervention and have limited its assistance to special teams of Al-Quds from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in order to protect Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. And then it harshly criticized Saudi Arabia, which has openly warned against interference by foreign powers in Iraq.
In the meantime Sunni militants are inching closer to Bagdad. But in Tehran they consider it unlikely that the militants will be able to take the city. Any of the military success achieved by the militants in northern and central Iraq has been achieved thanks to the methods of classical guerrilla tactics, such as ambushes on individual Iraqi units. Such tactics forced Iraqi troops to abandon their positions. ISIS militants managed to easily capture large cities as Iraqi troops fled in a panic and thanks to the support of the local Sunni population and former soldiers of Saddam’s army. According to Iranian military forecasts, Iraqi government troops and Shiite self-defence units will never leave Baghdad nor will they surrender Shiite parts of the city to ISIS without fierce resistance, which apparently cannot suppress ISIS militants.
However, there are those in Tehran who understand, that if the events in Bagdad suddenly take a turn for the worse, Iran will be forced to openly intervene with military force. The extended Iran-Iraq land border provides Iran the possibility for this. However, this at the same time could be a weak point if ISIS militants were to be deployed for subversion type of action along the common border and even enter the territory of Iran. People in Iran well remember the events when Saddam Hussein launched his invasion in 1980, unleashing a brutal eight-year war that cost the lives of at least a million people. Therefore, the return to power of the Sunnis in Baghdad or the dismemberment of an Iraq into a Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish state would become a serious threat to Iran’s security. After all, a Sunni state would be supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other Arab monarchies.
For this reason, the Iranian government will do everything possible to prevent ISIS militants and their allied Sunni organizations from seizing power in Baghdad. Hence there is a focus on Tehran’s military intervention even before it happens. But Iranian leadership would like to garner outside support from the main players, most importantly from the United States. So, in actual fact, Tehran has already begun diplomatic preparations for a military invasion of Iraq. In a televised speech on June 18, President Rouhani said, “with regards to the Shiite shrines in the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Samarra, we declare that to the murderers and terrorists, the great Iranian people will not hesitate to protect these shrines”. In actual fact, the protection of Shiite shrines is just an excuse to justify their military intervention in the pretext of protecting Iraq’s Shiite population.
If Iran openly intervenes in order to protect the Shiite population of Iraq, the United States is confronted by a serious problem. On the one hand, they are interested in the short term plan for Tehran to support the Iraqi government and defeat ISIS militants. On the other hand, Washington is not eager to see Iranian interference in the Arab world. Strongly opposing it is Israel, not to mention Saudi Arabia and other gulf coast countries. After all, today it is Iraq, tomorrow, Syria, and then it may come down to defending Shiites and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and then to help the Shiites in parts of the Persian Gulf, including the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the event of a Shiite uprising against the cruel oppression by Sunni governments; and then the idea for the creation of Shiite crescent in the region under the leadership of Tehran.
And Washington will have to swallow such precedents in other regions. If Iran can defend Shiites in Iraq, then why can Russia not defend Russians and Russian speakers in republics of the former Soviet Union? Or why can China not protect the Chinese population in Southeast Asia and neighboring countries to restore their sovereignty by force in Taiwan? So the United States by inciting their “Arab wars”, which is now reaching as far as Iraq, has created a big geopolitical problem for themselves. After all, by supporting the intervention of Iran in Iraq, they will have to accept similar interventions elsewhere. This explains Obama’s hesitations. And the United States, in its short-term interests by accepting Iranian military intervention in Iraq, can, in the coming weeks, face some rather tough decisions with regards to Iraq. In any event, PAX AMERICANA is over.
Viktor Titov, PhD in History, a political observer on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.