Iran apparently was as surprised as the rest of the world by the dramatic offensive in Iraq last week that drove the Iraqi army from Mosul and Tikrit and left Sunni terrorists on the edge of Baghdad. Iran's intelligence services seem to have under estimated the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), just as their Western counterparts did.
But Iran is much better poised to recover and strike back, and will probably emerge as the big winner in the Iraq debacle, solidifying its dominance in Baghdad. The balance of power in the region will tilt further toward Iran.
In Iraq, geography, demography and history all favor Iran. Iran can easily send advisers, experts and special forces to Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq with little or no publicity. Reports that Qassim Suleimani, Quds Force (division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) commander, is already in Baghdad underscore how quickly Tehran can take action and how well-connected it is with the Nouri al-Maliki regime.
Tehran is also encouraging Iraq's Shiite militias to mobilize the 65% of Iraqis who are fellow Shiites to fight the ISIS terrorist blitzkrieg. For Tehran, it is a historic opportunity to expand its influence to the west among the largest population of Arab Shiites in the world.
The No. 2 in Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has said, "The Islamic Republic of Iran is like a lion that the ISIS terrorists can not play with. Just like they felt the sharp wrath of Iran in Syria, they will face it in Iraq." Iran sees ISIS as a sectarian boogeyman it can use to rally Shiite Arabs from Beirut to Basra.
It risks Sunni terror attacks inside Iran, but Tehran is ready to bear that cost. The deputy MOIS minister said that Iran has arrested 30 operatives in Iran recently and foiled several plots. Iran claims to have been fighting al-Qaeda since 1994, when Sunni terrorists detonated a bomb in the Shiite holy city of Mashhad. In fact, Iran's relationship with al-Qaeda has been a mix of hostility and tacit collusion for years.
The Iranians blame the rise of ISIS and its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on the 2003 US and British invasion. The irony, of course, is that the biggest beneficiary of former President George W. Bush's war has been Iran. The war removed Iran's deadly adversary Saddam Hussein, who had imposed the eight-year Iran-Iraq war on Iran. Iranians remember that Washington backed Saddam then and fought alongside Iraq in the Persian Gulf, sinking most of Iran's navy.
Iran will play lip service to the need to restore the territorial integrity of Iraq and reunify the nation. In fact, three states representing Iraq — Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni mini-states — is better for Tehran to manipulate than a strong Iraq. Then, the Shiites will have the upper hand, while remaining dependent on Tehran.
Iranian help also comes without demands for greater power-sharing by the Shiites with the other Iraqi sects like Washington demands. Tehran wants a pliable Shiite strongman, not a democrat.
Tehran has already tacitly welcomed US support for Maliki. US airstrikes would help soften up ISIS without giving Washington any enduring leverage in Baghdad. From Tehran's standpoint, the United States is a transitory player in Iraq, not a permanent part of the game.
Iran's regional enemies will be the losers. Saudi Arabia long ago lost the battle for influence in Iraq, but it will see its role further diminished with both a hostile ISIS and a hostile Iran splitting the pie on its northern border. If Iran emerges as the savior of Iraqi Shiites, the Shiites of Bahrain, Kuwait and the kingdom's eastern province will be further inclined to see Iran as their savior, too.
Since Israel defines Iran as its greatest regional rival, it is also a loser. Certainly, moderates in the Arab world will be increasingly squeezed between extreme Sunni groups and Shiite Iran. They will be less inclined to take conciliatory steps toward Israel that will be unpopular and dangerous. Jordan is the most vulnerable moderate state.
If Iran helps stop ISIS outside Baghdad, the impact will be felt in Syria. The Iranians and their Hezbollah allies will gain further credibility as the only force that is actually on the ground resisting al-Qaedaism. Tehran will have emerged as the leader of a block of Shiite-dominated states, each looking to Iran for critical security support.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not intend his Iraq blitz to serve Iranian interests, of course, but like his mentor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's extreme sectarian violence a decade ago, it probably will ultimately benefit Iran. Meanwhile, the entire region is a bloodbath of sectarian hatred that is easy to ignite and almost impossible to stop.