x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iran seeks out unlikely alliances to resolve Iraq crisis

Iran's former president Hashemi Rafsanjani said in an interview published on Wednesday that Iran could 'cooperate' with Washington over the crisis in Iraq.

An Iraqi boy holds a picture of Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani as he attends a demonstration against the Islamic State – formerly known as the ISI – on the streets of Tehran on June 20, 2014. Maryam Rahmanian for The National
An Iraqi boy holds a picture of Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani as he attends a demonstration against the Islamic State – formerly known as the ISI – on the streets of Tehran on June 20, 2014. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

TEHRAN // Iran is pursuing a two-pronged strategy in Iraq by attempting to foster greater cooperation with GCC countries and the United States, while at the same time bolstering its military advisory role in Baghdad.

On Monday, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, began a tour of the UAE, Kuwait and Oman to discuss possible solutions for the crisis in Iraq.

While Shiite Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbours have different goals for the future of Iraq, analysts say all parties have an interest in defeating a group of Islamist militants who took over large areas of the country last month.

“There are three important reasons that Iraq and its developments are significantly important to Iran,” said Amir Mohebbian, a conservative political analyst and a professor at Islamic Azad University in Tehran. “It’s our neighbour, it’s a Muslim country and its stability means the stability of our region.”

In a meeting on Monday with Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr Amir Abdollahian highlighted the threat posed by the militants, known as the Islamic State, saying their gains could become a global issue if the international community did not take stronger action.

He also reiterated statements by Iranian officials that Tehran will support the Iraqi government in its fight to keep the country from splitting apart.

“It is essential to counter terrorism and extremism in the region. The hallmarks of the recent terrorist attacks in Iraq indicate that foreign elements are involved,” Mr Amir Abdollahian said.

In another sign of Tehran attempting to work with the international community, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said in an interview published on Wednesday that Iran could cooperate with Washington over the crisis in Iraq.

“We hold the same views on issues [related to Iraq] and if the need arises we are prepared to cooperate,” Mr Rafsanjani told the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun.

He cited intelligence sharing, and financial and technological assistance as areas in which Tehran and Washington could cooperate.

“Iran, Iraq and the United States have become involved in fighting terrorism. Eliminating terrorists is a common issue of interest and beneficial to all.”

But even as Tehran has reached out diplomatically, it has also reportedly sent members of its elite Revolutionary Guard to Iraq in an advisory role.

Tehran is seen as attempting to position itself to maintain its influence in the face of the militant onslaught that threatens to tear the country apart. About 250,000 Iraqi nationals live in Iran and last month many registered with Shiite militias to fight the Islamic State if called upon.

Mr Rafsanjani confirmed that members of the Revolutionary Guard – a military force with close ties to Iran suprem leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – were active in the Iraq crisis.

“We’ve been advising and will be advising on security issues,” he said.

When asked if Iran would send troops across the border, Mr Rafsanjani said: “Under the principles of the Iranian government, there will be no military intervention.”

Despite the diplomatic outreach, a key stumbling block to any possible cooperation between Tehran, Washington, and the GCC over Iraq is the future of the country’s prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki.

Accused of pursuing sectarian policies, Mr Al Maliki, a Shiite, has for years enjoyed the staunch support of Tehran.

While the US initially helped Mr Al Maliki become premier, his persecution of Sunnis and strongman-style policies are seen as instrumental in causing the current crisis and Washington wants him to give up his bid for a third term.

Tehran has refused to stop supporting another key regional allies, the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, who has met a Sunni-led insurection with brutal violence.

However, Mr Al Maliki might be different.

“Iran is interested in having an inclusive political process in Iraq,” Randa Slim, a director at the Washington-based Middle East Institude, told The National.

“Until now they thought Maliki could provide that. I think they are increasingly coming to see that Maliki is the single most important obstacle” to a forming a unified government in Iraq.

“In that respect, the Iranians and the Americans share interest” in seeing that process launched.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting by Justin Vela in Abu Dhabi and Agence France-Presse