Iran is using the ongoing to offensive against the Islamic State to establish one its top priorities — control over the Middle East from its own borders to the Mediterranean Sea.
U.S.-backed forces participating in Operation Inherent Resolve have steadily increased their victories over the Islamic State in the past year, giving Iran an opportunity to create what is known as a “land bridge” to its allies in Syria and Lebanon. As U.S. victories increase, so too does Iranian influence.
“Advances by Iranian allies and proxies appear intended to help Iran establish a secure land corridor extending from Iran to Lebanon, enabling Iran to better supply its main regional ally, Lebanese Hezbollah, which supports pro-Iranian forces in Syria,” said the Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence firm, in a brief published Wednesday.
This land bridge serves a dual purpose: first, it allows Iran to provide Hezbollah with weapons and supplies without risking detection by Israel. Second, it expands Iran’s political influence across the Middle East.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened up a major opportunity for Iran. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a sworn Iranian enemy, and with him out of the way, the Islamic Republic could attempt to sow influence over Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim population. The rise of ISIS was even more favorable to the Iranian cause. Iraq’s decision to incorporate the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) into the Iraqi Security Forces in response to the ISIS juggernaut entrenched Iranian influence in the armed forces.
Indeed, the Iraqi commander of the PMUs has praised Iran’s role in supporting his forces. Iran has been happy to portray itself as a liberator.
“We thank (Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah) Seyed Ali Khamenei and (Secretary General of Hezbollah) Sayed Hassan Nasrallah for supporting us in the fight against Daesh,” said Popular Mobilization Committee head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Monday, as reported by Iranian government affiliated Tasnim News.
The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and Muhandis was convicted for helping plan the bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983.
Iran wasted no time sending Qassem Soleimani, the notorious leader of its Qods Force, to Iraq to aid in retaking the country from ISIS. Soleimani has not shied away from Iran’s gains since — in fact, he has publicly acknowledged that Iran’s support for proxy groups from the Palestinian territories to Iraq has increased its regional influence.
Like ISIS, Iran’s proxies intentional provoking sectarian conflict in order to seize power. As the Soufan Group noted, Iranian and Hezbollah-supported militias in Syria have intentionally pushed against ISIS in Sunni Muslim areas, driving out inhabitants. The PMUs in Iraq have also been a cause for concern. Sunni politicians in Iraq are apprehensive that the PMUs could ignite sectarian conflict in the early days after the end of an operation to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which has a Sunni majority.
PMU members had previously been accused of serious human rights abuses in other captured areas across Iraq. As a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed the PMUs would not be allowed to enter Mosul. However, PMU leaders pushed to be included in its liberation. Undeterred, their forces have a major presence around the city’s surrounding outskirts.
The liberation of Mosul on Saturday presents a potential flash point as the common fight against ISIS could be replaced with sectarian conflict. Arab countries across the region have already voiced their concern over Iran’s meddling in the Middle East, and the remnants of Iraq could only exacerbate that problem at a regional level. With a limited footprint in the region, the U.S. ability to prevent such a situation is extremely limited.
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