June 26, 2014

Iranian support to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki - why is anyone surprised?

Iranian-made Mohajer-4 reconnaissance drone in service with
 the Syrian Army over the southern suburbs of Damascus.

There has been recent reporting highlighting Iran's operation of reconnaissance drones (the Mohajer-4 as seen in Syria in the above video) over Iraq in support of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The timing is, of course, interesting - this comes at the same time that American reconnaissance aircraft - manned and unmanned - are also operating over Iraq. Both countries are collecting intelligence on the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS).

ISIS has mounted an impressive military campaign, moving in two short weeks from Syria, seizing a huge swath of western Iraq from the city of Mosul (al-Mawsil) in the north to the outskirts of Baghdad and virtually closing Iraq's borders with neighboring Syria and Jordan.

Iranian involvement in Iraq should come as no surprise. Iran has been active in Iraq for decades, especially following the end of Operation Desert Storm in which the Iraqi armed forces were defeated in short order by the U.S. military.

In the turmoil that followed the end of the liberation of Kuwait - the Shi'a uprising in the south and the Kurdish rebellion in the north - Iran moved to protect their Shi'a brethren in the south, and the Kurds in the north with whom they have enjoyed a good relationship. Iran provided safe haven to many Kurds during successive operations in the 1980s by Saddam Husayn that bordered on genocide.

Iran remained a key player in the northern part of Iraq, especially as the Kurds set up a de facto autonomous enclave, albeit split politically between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mas'ud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. Barzani is now the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the Kurdish autonomous region, and Talabani is the president of Iraq. The Kurds have resolved their internal differences and are focused on making their region successful politically and economically.

I served in the Kurdish areas of both the KDP and PUK in the 1990s, working closely with the senior leadership of both parties (especially the PUK). Both parties freely admitted to us that they closely cooperated with the Iranians. When I pressed the issue, the Kurds disclosed the fact that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had teams operating in the area.

It was hard for us Americans to complain about the presence of the IRGC, since we and the Turks (and maybe others - the Israelis?) were doing the exact same thing, all hoping to hasten the removal of the Saddam Husayn regime. In fact, I spent several nervous nights sleeping in the same guest house as my Iranian counterparts - we had an unspoken agreement to ignore each others' presence, although we all maintained a "weapons ready" posture.

After the American invasion in 2003, the IRGC was again busy, training Shi'a militias to attack American troops. It was the IRGC that provided the shaped charge known as the "explosively formed penetrator" - capable of effectively penetrating the armor on American vehicles. The Qods Force, the IRGC special operations force, were the key trainers of the militia of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr known as the jaysh al-mahdi, or JAM.

When the new Iraqi government was formed, Iran was there - lobbying for the election of long-time exile in Iran Nuri al-Maliki, their chosen leader for Iraq. Since the majority of Iraq is of the Shi'a sect, it was a foregone conclusion that the Shi'a would dominate the elected government. Since Iran is generally regarded as the protector and proponent of the world's Shi'a, it was also no surprise that their chosen candidate emerged as the new prime minister of Iraq.

The Iranians have never left. Their influence is felt throughout the Iraqi government agencies, including the office of the prime minister. Nuri al-Maliki is ofter referred to by the Sunnis as nuri al-irani - "Nuri the Iranian." His office has been derisively labeled by his opponents as al-sajad al-irani, "the Persian carpet."

Now here is a surprise: Iran has returned 130 Iraqi Air Force aircraft that Saddam Husayn had ordered flown to Iran to prevent their certain destruction at the hands of the US-led coalition air forces in 1991. Soon after the Operation Desert Storm air campaign began, it became patently clear to Saddam and his generals that unless he moved the aircraft to Iran, all of them would be systematically destroyed.

According to the Iraqi armed forces, the aircraft have been refurbished and equipped by Iran with "sophisticated weapons" to fight ISIS. Bringing aircraft that have been in storage for over 20 years back to operational status requires a lot of work. That to me demonstrates to me the importance Iran attaches to its relationship with the Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad.

Iranian support to, and strong influence over, the Iraqi government should come as no surprise. Flying drones, even to the point of flying them from an airfield in Baghdad, should also come as no surprise. The Iranians could actually be helpful in this regard. They can easily direct Muqtada al-Sadr to ratchet down his rhetoric about attacking any American adivsors that come to Iraq.

I think it would useful for the Obama Administration to make it crystal clear that we have no intentions of coordinating our military activities with the Iranians. Iran is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, they are the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism, they are Syria's key allies in their repression of their own population, they are the key patrons and suppliers of Hizballah, and despite their unbelievable claims to the contrary they are developing a nuclear weapon. These are not the people we should be working with.

All that said, the fact that Iran is attempting to keep itself in play as the Americans arrive back in Baghdad by continuing their ongoing support for what many believe is their puppet government in Iraq should not be a surprise. What would be a surprise is them not doing so.