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Military support?

David Eickhoff, Hans Spross / re June 13, 2014

The advance of Sunni insurgents in Iraq threatens Baghdad, but Tehran is also watching the situation with concern. Iran hopes the Maliki government can repel the rebels without setting off a widespread war.

A line of white cars manned with fighters dressed in black (Photo: AP)
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Tehran has pledged its support to the government in Bagdad following the rapid capture of several cities in northern Iraq, including the second-largest city, Mosul, by the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront violence, extremism and terrorism," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday (12.06.2014) on Iranian state television.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned "the killing of Iraqi citizens" and promised Bagdad "support" in the fight against terrorism. Neither Rouhani nor Zarif specified exactly what kind of support Iran would provide Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Troops along the Iranian border with Iraq's Kurdish regions have been put on alert, according to the Iranian news agency ILNA. Flights from Iran to Bagdad have been cancelled or redirected to the southern city of Najaf.

"Iran dos not want war between Shiites and Sunni"

The mainly Shiite Iran is concerned not only about its own security but also that of the Shiite population and some holy places in the light of the success of the ISIS fighters, who are led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Iran shares a 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) border with Iraq. Several important holy sites for Shia Muslims, including the city of Kerbala, are located in Iraqi.

A burned out car (Photo: REUTERS)
ISIS forces have captured Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq almost without a fightImage: Reuters

But the direct involvement of the Iranian military on Iraqi soil is unlikely, according to Iranian journalist and Middle East expert Mashallah Shamsolvaezin.

"It is a limited number of fighters that use guerilla tactics," he told DW of the ISIS terror group's strength.

ISIS has managed with relatively simple means to send the entire region in a state of shock, Shamsolvaezin said, adding that the weakness of the Iraqi army had been exploited by the rebels. Shamsolvaezin said he believes the offensive probably received tactical support from former military members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, which was neutralized by the Maliki government.

"The capturing of more cities is unlikely"

Although the advance of the terrorists affects the interests and the security of Iran, Shamsolvaezin said Iraq would have to make a formal request for Iran's support before Tehran would send any troops. Such an intervention would be labeled as a Shiite against Sunni war and the Iranian leadership wants to avoid a religious war. Shamsolvaezin added, however, that if it were to come to Iranian military involvement troops, including the special forces in the Revolutionary Guards, would be able to "to expel the ISIS fighters from Mosul within 24 hours."

Hassan Rouhani (Photo: Umit Bektas /REUTERS)
Iran's President Rouhani pledged support to Iraq in the fight against the jihadistsImage: Reuters

"From a strategic point of view, the ISIS troops lack air support and the connection the centers of command," he said, adding that the insurgents don't have the necessary transportation and communication capacities for an extended war. They also lack heavy artillery and an air force. The continued advance and capture of additional cities, as announced by the extremists, would therefore be a very difficult venture for the ISIS fighters.

There are considerations among the Iranian leadership to cooperate with the United States to help the government in Bagdad to fight the extremists, according to Reuters news agency.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama called ISIS a long-term, regional problem that could potentially pose a threat to the United States. While ruling out the deployment of ground troops, Obama said the US would consider military aid for Iraqi forces.