Iran, which bears tremendous political, social and economic influence in Iraq and is considered to be the most significant foreign force in Baghdad, has made a critical tactical shift with regards to its foreign policy towards the sectarian conflict, civil war, rise of the Islamic State, and other affiliated extremist Sunni insurgencies in Iraq.
After eight years of Nori Al Maliki governing in office, the Islamic Republic turned its back on one of its staunchest allies. With no political, economic, and military support from the Islamic Republic, the death of Nori Al Maliki's political life has predominantly been marked. Although Maliki might protest against such a decision, his efforts are more likely to be fruitless without enjoying the Iranian leadership on his side.
The Islamic Republic was influential in retaining Maliki's power and his Shiite coalition, ensuring his second term in power. Nevertheless, the Iranian authorities -- particularly the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the senior cadre of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well as Iran's ministry of intelligence -- ultimately came to the conclusion that it was time to make a tactical shift and leave behind their ally, Maliki.
Nevertheless, the key question is why the Islamic Republic made such a crucial shift in its foreign policy and abandoned Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki?
The Underlying Reason Behind Tehran's Tactical Shift
First of all, Iranian leaders' decision to abandon the former prime minister and endorse Haidar al Abadi might appear to be a pro-Western strategy, specifically in favor of the United States' current foreign policy towards the Iraqi crisis, sectarian conflict and civil war. However, it is critical to point out that the underlying factors behind Iran's decision to turn its back on Maliki is distinct from those of Western ones.
There exist several reasons behind Iran's shift. The major reason for abandoning Maliki is tactical with regards to the role of the Islamic State.
In other words, one of the most critical security threats for the Islamic Republic is the rise of the Islamic State and the Sunni insurgency. In addition, Iran shares a 1,500 kilometer border with Iraq. This could be utilized as a significant platform by the Islamic State to infiltrate several Iranian cities near the border and cause political instability for Iranian leadership. Secondly, many of the Iranians who reside near the border are Sunnis. The Iranian authorities are concerned that the Iranian Sunnis might be sympathetic to the Iraqi Sunni insurgency and potentially would join their objectives.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the senior officials of IRGC have came to the conclusion that Maliki could not effectively control and manage the sectarian conflict, civil war and rise of the Islamic State and other Sunni insurgency groups.
Thirdly, the Iranian authorities are concerned that this sectarian conflict might spill over to neighboring Iranian provinces, with significant Arab population, including Khuzestan and Ahvaz.
Fourth, it is crucial to point out that without the approval of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the senior cadre of IRGC, it would have been relatively impossible to envision the new appointment of Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi.
The Islamic Republic's approval of Haidar al Abadi has likely included a long process of bargaining, political pressure, and negotiations between Iranian authorities and the Iraqis. As a result, from the perspectives of the Iranian leadership, the newly appointed Prime Minister of Iraq, Haidar al Abadi, does serve their national, security, geopolitical, strategic and ideological interests. In addition, from the perspective of the Islamic Republic, Abadi is the best alternative to Maliki, who can also serve as credible and close ally to the Islamic Republic.
Otherwise, considering Iran's political, social, religious, ideological and economic influence in Iraq, the Islamic Republic would have not accepted an appointment of a new prime minister in Iraq if it did not serve its geopolitical, strategic, ideological and national interests. Abadi has already accepted Iran's assistance and has implied the significant of Iranian troops on the ground in Iraq.
Finally, from the realms of military, economic, cost and benefits, and spending of the political capital, Iranian authorities have made a pragmatic and calculative tactical shift. Beside economic, financial advisory, and intelligence assistance, Iran has been investing its troops from the Quds force -- an elite branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps -- which have been operating on the ground in Iraq in order to quell the rise and operations of the Islamic State and other affiliated extremist Sunni insurgencies.
Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic's military, economic, advisory, security, and intelligence assistance to the government of the Nori Al Maliki and the ruling Shiite coalition, did not completely halt the rapid advancement of the Islamic State's fighters. The sectarian conflict, civil war, and the territorial and military progress of the Islamic State appeared to ratchet up despite the presence of Iranian ground forces.
In other words, the government of Nori Al Maliki became a costly card (economically, militarily, and from security prisms) for Iran. Replacing the former prime minister Maliki with Haidar al Abadi is considered a pragmatic and more cost effective option for the Iranian leadership.
Majid Rafizadeh, an American scholar and political scientist, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He is originally from Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria.
A version of this post first appeared on Al Arabiya.
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