For years, Iraqi Shiites have been immune to the Iranian copy of Shiism; the chemistry didn’t work. Iranians strained for years during the post-Saddam Hussein era to establish a solid footprint, but they always failed to reach their goals due to differences in mentality, ethnicity, the approach to political Islam and the de facto hostility that ruled the relationship between both nations. That is not to say Iran wasn’t influential, but that it failed all this time to win the hearts and minds of its fellow Shiites.
Iran backed and financed several groups in Iraq, and was the main ally of the former prime minister and now vice president, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Dawa party. The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was close to them, but not close enough to be their man in Iraq; he had his own way of thinking that agrees and deviates according to his interests. The same applies to many other prominent Iraqi leaders. That’s why there was no Iraqi copy of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This was until the Islamic State (IS) led by self-titled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi invaded Mosul and reached only tens of meters from the shrine of the two Askari Imams in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
"That was another day," an Iranian official with deep understanding of what’s going on in Iraq told me. "Hajj Qasem Soleimani [Quds Force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and his men showed that Iran cares for Iraq as a nation. Our iconic commander himself went there and fought with the Iraqi volunteers who celebrated his presence," the official said. "If it wasn’t for Hajj Qasem and his men, Daesh [IS] [would be] today destroying the shrines of the household of the Prophet Muhammad, and that’s why today is another day."
Iran started a widespread effort to enhance its political and religious influence in Iraq. Iranians were on the ground, there’s no denying, but there was also an Iraqi cleric, Sayed Hashem al-Haidari, who appeared in the political and military arena giving the Iranian path in the neighboring Arab country a strong local legitimacy. Haidari’s videos show him as another copy of Lebanese Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, with his fiery speeches, his charisma and his strong relations with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Haidari has been active during Ashoura, the holy Shiite annual season that commemorates the battle of Karbala that saw Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet, killed by the Umayyad army.
"It’s very similar to what happened in Bosnia," the official source told Al-Monitor, "Iran supported the Muslims against Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic, while the United States showed verbal support. It’s the same in Iraq. We are the ones fighting on the ground and that’s why the Iraqi forces, with the help of the volunteers and the peshmerga, were able to recapture several towns, while the airstrikes by the United States and its allies materialized nothing on the ground." According to the official, Iran’s participation in the battle with IS in Iraq is still within the framework of military experts and few hundred well trained officers on the ground, "but Iran is ready to enhance its presence if the Iraqi government requested, if the battle field needs such addition."
Al-Monitor learned from an Iraqi military source on the ground that dozens of highly trained Lebanese Hezbollah military experts arrived in Iraq to help in the military management of the battle. “They aren’t fighting, but they are helping with the tactics, as they are well experienced in such battles. They understand the mentality of the IS fighters more than anyone on the ground,” the source said. Yet, he ruled out the possibility, at least for now, that Hezbollah’s fighters would get involved directly in the war. “Iraqi fighters, the army and the volunteers are capable of ending this war by themselves,” he said.
Another senior Iranian official, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian, accused the US-led coalition of supporting IS. He told Al-Monitor that the Western countries aim to secure their interests in the region: "Iran on different occasions warned the United States and Western countries about the IS threats and the growing presence of terrorists in the sensitive Middle East region. These terrorist groups will continue their operations unless the United States and the West adopt a clear approach to fight terrorism.”
It’s true that Iranian officials show some suspicions over the US-led coalition’s role in Iraq and Syria, but they know well that cooperation with the coalition will help end the battle quicker. The same applies to Washington; therefore both nations were negotiating over the nuclear file with their eyes on Syria and Iraq, it’s maybe one reason why they resisted the de facto failure to arrive at a deal and decided to continue. Both reached a consensus that they don’t have the luxury to disengage at this moment.