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Iranian Policy toward the Iraqi and Syrian Crises

Tehran has had a longstanding alliance with Damascus over the past 35 years, and its relations with Baghdad have steadily improved since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This has resulted in close ties between Iran and these two key Arab states. However, this has all been called into question since the eruption of the Syrian revolt in 2011, and moreover, the recent rise of ISIS and its challenge to the Iraqi state. Iran has become heavily involved in both conflicts since it has much at stake. Jubin Goodarzi provides an overview of the evolving situation and focus on Iran’s policies, perspectives, interests, and options in the ongoing Syrian and Iraqi crises.

Date & Time

Oct. 21, 2014
12:00pm – 1:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Jubin Goodarzi, Deputy Head of the International Relations Department at Webster University Geneva, discussed the evolving ties between Iran, Syria, and Iraq, as well as Iranian policies and perspectives regarding the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq.

On October 21, 2014 the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted an event “Iranian Policy toward the Iraqi and Syrian Crises” with Goodarzi. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Goodarzi began by asserting that the destabilization of the Levant, the rise to prominence of ISIS, and the spillover of the conflict into Iraq should come as no surprise. Providing a brief history of politics and policies in the Middle East, he argued that the ideologies and approaches of regional authoritarian regimes and “shortsighted and ill-conceived actions” of outside powers have contributed to the region’s “current conundrum.”

As evidence of such ill-fated local policies and external actions, Goodarzi examined the root causes and consequences of the crises in Syria and Iraq. He tied the ongoing crisis in Syria to five sources: the 2011 Arab Spring, a lack of political liberalization within Syria, the deterioration of socioeconomic conditions in the country, Syria’s 2006-2011 drought and its devastating impact on 1.5 million Syrian farmers, and the covert efforts of Syria’s adversaries to undermine the Assad regime and break the Syrian-Iranian axis. Goodarzi explained that the Syrian conflict has since taken on domestic, regional, and international dimensions, morphing into a regional proxy war—a fact largely unacknowledged by the media until 2013.

Goodarzi next identified several root causes of Iraq’s crisis, including the consequences of 35 years of dictatorship and the subsequent atomization of society, the fallout of three wars, the impoverishing effects of 13 years of sanctions in the absence of a functioning state, the 2003 U.S. occupation of Iraq and its 2004 handover of power to the Iraqis, as well as the many failures of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Although the situation in Iraq stabilized from 2009 to 2011, ISIS and other Islamist groups grew as violence continued and foreign aid flowed post-Arab Spring, Goodarzi explained. By 2013, these groups had overrun significant territory.

Goodarzi subsequently highlighted Iraq’s pivotal importance to Iran, due to their bilateral trade ($12 billion in 2013) and Iraq’s ability to check Saudi Arabia and project power to the Levant. An ISIS victory in Iraq could be dangerous to Iran, according to Goodarzi, because it could encourage Sunni minorities in Iran to oppose Tehran, and destabilization in Iraq could spill over into Iran. As a result, Iran has provided various means of support to Baghdad and Irbil, including air support, arms and ammunition, technical and surveillance assistance, the deployment of the Iranian Army and specialist units, and strategic advice to Kurdish peshmerga units, as well as to the Iraqi Army and Shi’a militias.

Goodarzi claimed that while political and military settlements are not mutually exclusive, a political settlement is imperative for mitigating both the Syrian and Iraqi crises. Referring to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s January comment that Iran could “contribute from the sidelines” to peace talks, Goodarzi contended that Iran serves as a key regional actor and must be included in such debates. Any settlement dealing with Syria or Iraq should engage all parties involved in the conflict.

By Emily Parker, Middle East Program



Jubin Goodarzi

Professor of International Relations, Webster University, Geneva, Switzerland
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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