On July 14, 2015, Iran and six world powers agreed to a landmark nuclear deal in Vienna. The controversial agreement, if ratified, will lift international sanctions on Iran in exchange for a credible Iranian commitment to end its quest for a nuclear bomb. Considering the extensive debate on the agreement's merits, the lack of attention paid to the deal's impact on Iraq is striking.
The Iran nuclear deal will likely affect Iraq more than any other country, due to Iran's extensive involvement in Iraq's internal affairs. My assessment is that the Iran deal will increase Iranian involvement in ways very destabilizing for Iraq. Iran will use its newly strengthened economic capabilities to foment sectarianism, foster disunity in Kurdistan, and fuel discord between the U.S. and Iraq over Iranian arms shipments
How the Iran nuclear deal will worsen Iraq's Sectarianism Problem
Iran's planned expansion of funds to the conservative Shia Badr Organization is the main way Iran will deepen sectarian cleavages within Iraq. The Badr Organization has played a prominent role in combatting ISIS in northern Iraq, but many Sunnis regard it as an agent of religious extremism. It has attracted considerable controversy for torturing and murdering Sunni units lacking proven linkages to the Islamic State.
The Badr Organization's increased power will also weaken U.S. efforts to place sectarian militias under the control of Iraq's national army. This centralization project requires the Iraqi government to be the leading force in the anti-ISIS campaign. However, the Iraqi military has been marred by corruption and weakened by Nouri Al-Maliki's policy of promoting Shia generals for personal loyalty rather than on merit. These weaknesses allowed the Badr Organization to exploit a power vacuum in northern Iraq in July 2014 and could consolidate long-term Iranian hegemony over that region.
On the international stage, Iranian funding to the Badr Organization could trigger a sectarian bidding war, as Sunni factions will seek Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support to neutralize Iranian aid to Shia groups. The UAE regards the Badr Organization as a terrorist group. Saudi Arabia is particularly motivated to support Sunni factions because of linkages between the Badr Organization and Yemeni rebels.
The sharpening of sectarian tensions and placement of Iraq at the center of the Saudi-Iran hegemonic struggle would profoundly destabilize the country. As Sunni Islamist groups in Iraq are fractured, GCC aid to counter Iran could unwittingly land in ISIS's coffers, which would be a tremendous setback for regional security.
How Iranian involvement will Destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan
After the Iran nuclear deal was reached, Bashar Al-Assad announced that Iran would increase military aid to his regime. Should this materialize, unrest amongst anti-Assad Kurdish nationalists in Syria will likely spike. Instability in Syria's Kurdish territories is likely to diffuse to Iraq, as the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), that dominates Iraqi Kurdistan, is aligned with Syrian rebel groups.
There is evidence that Iran has developed a divide-and-rule strategy to ensure unrest in Kurdistan does not harm its vital interests. Iran wants to keep Kurdish forces weakas it fears the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan might provoke unrest amongst Iranian Kurds.
Iran has expanded oil and gas pipeline linkages to Iraqi Kurdistan to build alliances amongst Kurdish elites and incentivize defections from the KDP. If some KDP elites enter the Iranian fold, Syrian Kurdish organizations might curtail their growing alliance with Iraqi Kurds against ISIS.
Trust levels between the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are starting from a low point, due to ideological divisions. Syrian Kurds, who are more left wing than Iraqi Kurds, disdain the KDP's conservatism and view the KDP as being too close with Turkey. Therefore, Iranian involvement could strain relations between both Kurdish factions beyond repair.
If Iran's involvement splinters the Iraqi Kurds into factions, Iraq's oil production could decline sharply as oil supplies are concentrated in Kurdish-majority areas. Declining revenues for the Iraqi government will significantly strengthen ISIS's relative position, triggering more violence in Iraq.
How the US-Iraq Dispute over Iranian Arms Shipments will Strengthen ISIS
Despite an international arms embargo on Iran, Iran has sold Iraq technologically advanced weaponry, including rockets and missiles. Nouri Al-Maliki purchased $195 million of Iranian arms in February 2014, after Obama allegedly rejected his pleas for U.S. military shipments to Iraq. Iraq increased its weapons purchases from Iran after ISIS conquered Mosul. Iranian arms and military vehicles were crucial in ending ISIS's occupation of Tikrit.
While the U.S. has agreed to lift sanctions on Iran and some senior U.S. officials have positively described Iran's anti-ISIS efforts, the U.S. has paradoxically opposed Iranian arms shipments to Iraq. The U.S. government's rationale for this position is that Iran's weapons are not benefiting Iraq's security. They are instead worsening sectarianism within Iraq, due to Iran's preference for arming Shia factions. U.S. policymakers are also concerned that Iraq is merely a transit point for Iranian arms to be exported to Syria, where they will benefit the Assad regime.
Consolidated Iranian hegemony over Iraq might cause Iraq to reject U.S. military assistance, as this aid will probably come with the caveat that Iraq needs to stop accepting Iranian arms shipments. Discord between Iran, Iraq and U.S. on arms supplies will highlight incoherencies in the West's anti-ISIS strategy and embolden ISIS to increase its aggression in Iraq.
The scale and nature of Iran's intervention in Iraq will have profound consequences for regional security and the struggle against ISIS. Unless the U.S. or the GCC provide large-scale assistance to fundamentally reshape the balance of power in Iraq, escalated Iranian involvement could push Iraq closer than ever to becoming a failed state.