Iran was caught off guard by the fall of Mosul just like the rest of the world was. Iraq immediately asked for foreign aid, and Iran was one of the few that responded. It mobilized its Shiite militia allies to provide more boots on the ground to combat the militants, it sent in several hundred advisers and enlisted Lebanese Hezbollah to do the same, delivered weapons including Su-25 jets, and is supposedly directing part of Baghdad’s security strategy. Tehran stepped into the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and has assumed an ever greater presence within the government since then.
Quds Force Commander Gen Suleimani has taken over part of the security portfolio for Baghdad since the fall of Mosul (PBS)
In June after insurgents took Mosul Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran was ready to defend Iraq. The first reports of that assistance was the arrival of anywhere from 150 to 2,000 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force in the country. Two of them have already been killed. The first was reported in June when Ali Reza Moshajari of the IRGC had a funeral. Iranian papers said he died in Karbala. Later in the month Colonel Kamal Shirkhani died in a mortar attack in Samarra, Salahaddin. Moshajari’s death had a bit of obfuscation surrounding it at first, likely because Iran did not want to admit that its men were fighting and dying in Iraq. Shirkhani’s funeral however showed that IRGC advisers were right at the frontlines with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). More important was the arrival of Quds Force commander General Qassim Suleimani who was said to have come to Iraq right after the Mosul debacle. Reports had him organizing a defensive strategy for Baghdad, based upon tactics he deployed in Syria where it’s said he played a similar role running part of the security portfolio for the Assad regime. The insurgent surge during the summer was a surprise to Tehran who immediately offered and began supplying assistance to Baghdad. The fact that Russia was the only other country willing to help at that time by selling weapons meant that Iran had a lot of space to operate in. The poor performance of the ISF probably meant that the Iraqi government was happy to receive Gen. Suleimani and his Quds Force.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards' pilots are likely flying the small batch of Su-25 jets Tehran delivered to Iraq (Aviationist)
Iran not only provided personnel, but equipment and intelligence as well. By mid-June Iran had drones flying out of Baghdad airport. The New York Times claimed that a control center was established at the Rasheed Air Base in the capital as well, while the IRGC was monitoring the insurgents’ communications. A steady stream of weapons and ammunition was being flown into Iraq at the same time. At the beginning of July a small batch of Su-25 attack jets was delivered. Iran tried to conceal their origins by sending them to Iraq at the same time a few were coming from Russia. The planes were actually Iraqi as Saddam Hussein had them flown to Iran in 1991 to try to save them during the Gulf War. Iran kept them and incorporated them into the IRGC’s air force. In fact, it was likely Iranians were flying the planes, as the Iraqis did not have the pilots for them. This was partially confirmed by the funeral for Colonel Shojaat Alamdari Mourjani on July 4. He was an Iranian pilot who died in Samarra. It’s not clear whether he was killed flying a mission or was just caught in a ground attack, but again it pointed to Iran’s presence at the front.
Funeral for IRGC pilot Col Mourjani who died in Samarra (AFP)
Tehran not only sent in its own men, but called on its Iraqi allies as well. That was the militias it helped create in Iraq and Syria. By June Hezbollah Brigades, the League of the Righteous, the Badr Organization, Faylaq Waad al-Sadiq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Njaba, Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada, Saraya Tali al-Khurasani, Afwaj al-Kafi and others were all fighting alongside the ISF across central Iraq. Many of these brought their fighters back from Syria to Iraq. Just like in Syria as well, these groups are operating under the orders of Gen. Suleimani. Quite a few of these groups had been fighting in Anbar and other parts of the country since January. Mosul increased their re-deployment. They helped bolster the ranks of the army and police after so many were lost in northern Iraq.
Finally, Iran brought in Lebanese Hezbollah to advise the Iraqi forces. Like Pres. Rouhani, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered to send fighters to Iraq after Mosul. He brought up defending the various Shiite shrines in the country from the Islamists, an argument made by other Iranian aligned groups for their intervention in Syria. The Christian Science Monitor had around 250 Lebanese advisers in Iraq by July. That month a Hezbollah commander Ibrahim Mohammed al-Haj died near Mosul. A deployment that far north showed that the Hezbollah advisers were taking part in the fighting just like their IRGC brethren. Iran used Hezbollah in Iraq before right after the U.S. invasion to help arm and train militias.
In Iraq’s time of need Iran was one of the few that answered the call for help. It provided men, material, intelligence, and its Iraqi and Lebanese allies to fight. Most importantly Gen Suleimani took over part of the security file for Baghdad. This follows the same pattern that occurred in Syria when the rebellion started there and Iran moved in to assist President Assad. The question is how much will this foreign aid help, and at what cost. In Syria the Iranians have stabilized the fighting and assured Assad stays in power, but there are large swaths of the country outside of the government’s control. This would not be satisfactory outcome for Iraq. Iran’s influence has exponentially increased in the country as well. Tehran has never wanted to directly rule Iraq, but it has always sought to take advantage of the opportunities provided it. The security collapse has presented just such a situation where it can expand its reach throughout the state’s apparatus something it will not likely give up when all things are said and done.
ABC/AP, “Hezbollah Commander who triggered the 2006 war Killed in Iraq,” 8/1/14
Abdullah, Dlashad, “Elite Iranian force enters Iraq via Kurdistan: official,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 7/31/14
Associated Press, “Iranian commanders on front line of Iraq’s fight,” 7/17/14
Blanford, Nicholas, “Why Hezbollah is playing a smaller role in this Iraqi conflict,” Christian Science Monitor, 7/16/14
Chulov, Martin, “Iran sends troops into Iraq to aid fight against Isis militants,” Guardian, 6/14/14
- “Iraq faces the abyss after its military melts away,” Guardian, 6/13/14
Daragahi, Borzou, “Iraq trains volunteers to fight Isis but many seen as ill-prepared,” Financial Times, 7/11/14
Dehghanpisheh, Babak, “Iran’s elite Guards fighting in Iraq to push back Islamic State,” Reuters, 8/3/14
Dempsey, Joseph, “Joseph Dempsey: Iraqi’s latest Su-25s come from Iran,” Military Balance Online, 7/2/14
Detmer, Jamie, “Hezbollah’s Widening War Spreads to Iraq,” Daily Beast, 8/1/14
Faqie, Nuwar, “Iranian forces arrive in Kirkuk,” Bas News, 6/22/14
Filkins, Dexter, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, 9/30/13
Fox News, “Iran reportedly sent military advisers, head of Quds Force to Iraq,” 6/26/14
Gordon, Michael and Schmitt, Eric, “Iran Secretly Sending Drones and Supplies Into Iraq, U.S. Officials Say,” New York Times, 6/25/14
Kakayi, Bestun, “Iranian Quds Force Opens Private Center to send Soldiers to Iraq,” Bas News, 6/20/14
Karim, Shaho, “BasNews gives detail about Iranian forces in Iraq,” Bas News, 6/15/14
Karimi, Faith and Smith-Spark, Laura, “Iran sends forces to Iraq as ISIS militants press forward, official says,” CNN, 6/13/14
Levitt, Matthew and Pollak, Nadav, “Hezbollah in Iraq: A Little Help Can Go a Long Way,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 6/25/14
Naharanet Newsdesk, “Iranian Pilot Killed Fighting in Iraq,” 7/5/14
Orleans, Alexander, “Echoes of Syria: Hezbollah reemerges in Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 8/1/14
Prothero, Mitchell, “Islamic State overwhelms Iraqi forces at Tikrit in major defeat,” McClatchy Newspapers, 7/18/14
Rosen, Armin, “Iraq Official Says Iran’s Military Mastermind Is In Charge,” Business Insider, 6/18/14
Salih, Hemin, “Iranian forces enter Kurdistan Region,” Bas News, 6/14/14
Smyth, Phillip, “Iranian Proxies Step Up Their Role in Iraq,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 6/13/14
Tomlinson, Hugh, “Iran’s special forces rush in to help floundering ally,” Times of London, 6/11/14