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In Iraq response, Iran and US could find rapprochement opportunity

As the US considers options and Iran reportedly deploys an elite unit to Iraq, will the two powers coordinate to protect their Baghdad interests?
Iranian Revolutionary Guards train near Qom in 2007 (AFP)

As the US considers its next move in besieged Iraq, Iran has reportedly deployed its Revolutionary Guard into the country, raising questions about whether Iraq could make bedfellows - or entrenched enemies - of long estranged US and Iran. 

Around 300 members of the Revolutionary Guard - which are Iran's "elite of the elite" equivalent to the US Navy Seals or British Special Air Service - were reportedly sent to Iraq over the past few days to protect Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf which Sunni militant fighters have claimed they will destroy, according to reports. 

Since Monday evening, when Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants first launched their offensive in Iraq's northern city of Mosul, the rogue fighters have gained significant territorial ground, taking control of Mosul and Tikrit and announcing that they are marching for the capital Baghdad.

Even before Iran's Revolutionary Guards crossed into Iraq - before Iran's Major General Qaseem Suleimani, as was widely reported, travelled to Iraq this week to discuss security concerns - Iran proxy groups have over recent months redeploying some of their forces fighting in Syria back to Iraq, according Phillip Smyth, researcher at the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics in an analysis this week for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

For Shiite-majority Iran, the battle underway in Iraq is part of a wider sectarian struggle also playing out in Syria and a continuation of a proxy war the country has had with Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia "for some years now", said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews.

"I think [the Iranians] see this as part of a broader struggle," Ansari said. "At the end of the day, they see the US behind all of this."

Yet ironically, the US and Iran may now finds themselves on the same side of a battle.

Despite their common interest in supporting Baghdad, the US State Department said on Friday the two countries, which held bilateral nuclear talks this week in Geneva, are not currently discussing the situation in Iraq.

While some analysts say two countries may use Iraq to continue their detente, others say the week-long stife in Iraq could be a rare opportunity for rapprochement.

"It's potentially a critical moment if the US can embrace it," said Hillary Mann Leverett, a senior lecturer at American University and a 25-year diplomat.

Leverett was one of a handful of US diplomats authorised to negotiate with Iranian officials after 9/11 in an effort to rout al-Qaeda and Taliban from Afghanistan. 

In the conversations that lasted until 2003, Iranians had the impression that US policy towards the Middle East might change in the wake of the 9/11 crisis and that there might be an easing of relations between the two countries.

"They were instead met with the Axis of Evil and a period of sanctions and threats to invade," she said on Friday.

A similar "cast of characters", including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who was then an undersecretary, are still on the Iranian side today. It's likely, Leverett said, the Iranians "would be interested and amenable to working with the US" to deescalate the current situation in Iraq.

Others paint the situation as one in which only Iran or the US will ultimately be able to help Iraq.

"My sources tell me Maliki believes he is in a desperate situation and wants and needs our support," retired four-star General Jack Keane, former US Army vice chief of staff, told Fox News on Friday. "If he doesn't get it in a way that will help him, he will certainly turn to Iran."

A senior Iraqi official quoted by the New York Times on Friday criticised the Obama administration for its response thusfar to the crisis and claimed his country might be forced to turn to Iran for help.

"If you're in an antique shop, there's a sign: 'If you broke it, you bought it,'" the official was quoted as saying. "I am not saying the Americans are responsible for everything, but they did not leave a well-trained army and they left us without any real air support, and the Obama administration really shares much of the blame."

But clearly the Iranians have influenced the current shape of Iraq as well, something that has raised US tensions: Suleimani, the Iranian commander who travelled to Iraq this week, was reportedly key in Maliki's continued leadership of the country following an embarassing turnout for his State of Law Coalition at the polls in 2010, according to The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins.

"Officials who had spent much of the previous decade trying to secure American interests in the country were outraged," Filkins wrote last month. 

"We lost four thousand five hundred Americans only to let the Iranian dicatate the outcome of the war? To result in strategic defeat?'" a former American diplomat told Filkins. 

Fast-forward three years to Iraq and, said David Pollock, Kaufman Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the US "are competing with Iran to be the ones who will come to the rescue."

“The US and Iran are not, as yet anyway, fighting on the same side here, although you could say they are fighting against a common enemy: the extreme jihadi terrorist," he added.

For Leverett, however, the US has few good options to help. The choice, she said on Friday, is between putting soldiers on the ground, which Obama has rejected, limited air strikes that will kill civilians or sending more military equipment that could end up with the hand's of ISIS.

One possible option, she said, would be to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, who she says have offered most of the weapons and funding for ISIS until two weeks ago, to calm the situation. But ISIS may already have enough independence from Saudi Arabia such that the US intervention would have limited leverage to improve the situation.

While the US can consider options, the close proximity of Mosul to Iran - it's closer than Baghdad - forces the country's hand, even if Maliki is not the most popular Shia figure in Iran, she said. The two hands paired together could be effective.

"In Iraq, there is real potential if the Obama administration would seize the moment to bring forth a teutonic shift, not just in Iraq, but in regional policy on the Middle East," Leverett said.

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