By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
To help Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government battle militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Iran could potentially offer significant assistance through its powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which reportedly has been active in Iraq during the past decade, analysts say.
What Can Iran Offer?
Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East analyst with the nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), believes Iranian military assistance to Iraq would likely focus on several areas: advising, training, planning and coordination; information and intelligence; and supplying military materiel. "I suspect whatever assistance Iran provides at this time will be limited to these areas and kept mostly behind the scenes," Ostovar says.
Geneva-based researcher Farzan Sabet says Iran is likely to deny any military involvement in Iraq, even in the face of credible reports.
Sabet says Iran's preference for "a light footprint" has been confirmed on a number of occasions since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
"It has relied on small and discreet special operations and intelligence units which gather vital information and act as trainers and advisers to realize its goals," Sabet wrote in a June 30 piece analyzing Iran's potential military intervention in Iraq.
Reports suggest that Iran has already dispatched units of IRGC's elite Quds Force to help Maliki, amid denials by Iranian officials who say they are ready to send arms to Iraq if asked to do so.
Ostovar says the Quds Force detachment and other specialized IRGC units are likely to be relatively small -- in the hundreds.
He believes the role of the Quds Force in Iraq is likely to be similar to the role it has played in Syria, where through training and other measures it has helped Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad stay in power.
"Quds Force is probably helping at two main levels: the political level, helping garner support for Maliki among Shi'a militants and streamlining the response to [ISIL]; and the ground level, helping train, organize and coordinate irregular Shi’a forces."
Involving Shi'ite Militias
Mohsen Milani, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, believes that Iran will try to mobilize Shi'ite militia that have been dormant in recent years.
"It will surely try to regroup and rearm the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade (although many of its members have since joined the Iranian national security forces). It will probably also take the more controversial step of encouraging the Shi’a militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's powerful Mahdi Army to join the fight," Milani wrote in a June 22 analysis published at Foreignaffairs.com.
Milani added that Iran will turn to smaller Shi'ite insurgent groups to push them to join the fight against ISIL.
"Iran believes that the Sunni insurgency can only be defeated if Iraq's fractious Shi’a militias agree to cooperate," he wrote.
Ostovar says the Quds force is likely to coordinate the role of the Shi'a militant groups in the fight against ISIL and help train new recruits.
"Qods Force commanders have worked closely with Shi'a militant groups in the past and helped organize their involvement in Syria, so any effort in Iraq will likely be a continuing evolution of this relationship," Ostovar says.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said on July 2 that imagery analysis of a video released by the Iraqi authorities suggests that Iran has supplied Iraq with Sukhoi jets. The report said it wasn't clear whether the jets will be maintained and piloted by Iranian forces.
Ostovar says it is important to note that these jets are part of IRGC's air fleet.
"I highly doubt that the IRGC would just give them away. I also would be surprised if IRGC pilots were not acting at the very least as advisers and trainers for these aircraft," he told RFE/RL in an email.
Direct Confrontation With ISIL
Analysts believe that for now Iranian forces are not likely to get directly involved in the fight against ISIL.
Ostovar says Iran's calculations could change if ISIL manages to penetrate important Shi'ite shrines, or if ISIL fighters reach the Iranian border.
"If the latter happens, Iranian forces will likely confront [ISIL] directly as a matter of border and national security,” he says.
Sabet also believes that penetration of the Iranian border by ISIL's forces, or threats to Shi'a holy sites or Baghdad, may force Iran to engage in overt operations, including "a pursue-and-destroy mission into Iraqi territory."
Military Cooperation With The U.S.?
Ostovar says direct military coordination or collaboration in Iraq between the United States and Iran is highly unlikely.
"It is possible that, in their respective advisory and training roles, the missions of the U.S. and Iran might come to overlap at some point. However, neither the U.S. nor Iran’s Quds Force want to work with each other, " he says.
U.S. officials have ruled out military cooperation with Iran.
Last month, the spokesman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s parliament, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, said that Iran will never stand alongside the United States.
"America wants to achieve its political goals in Iraq through Iran, therefore Iran will never stand next to the U.S.," Hosseini was quoted as saying by Iranian media on June 24.
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