As fighters supported by Iran attempt to retake territory within Iraq from the Islamic State, the government in Tehran has unleashed a corresponding media and PR offensive to promote its role in the battle against the Sunni terror group and illustrate its influence.
While acknowledging that Iran has sent advisors to assist Iraqi security forces with logistics, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CNN on Thursday that his country has no "forces on the ground in Iraq" — an assertion at odds with recent reports of Iranian fighters participating in an operation to recover the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State.
Zarif wasn't shy about emphasizing Iran was "the first to come to assistance of the Iraqis," when the Islamic State — which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, and by its Arabic acronym Daesh — made sudden and widespread territorial gains in Iraq last summer and declared the creation of a dubious "caliphate" in the portions of Iraq and Syria that it has seized.
Leading that effort, both on the ground and in the world of social media, is Maj Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the normally secretive commander ofIran's elite special-ops intelligence outfit the Quds Force. He arrived in Erbil last summer and, uncharacteristically, soon began appearing in photographs alongside Kurdish peshmerga fighters and leaders of Iraq's Shia militias.
Pictures of Suleimani have circulated widely in the nebulous world of social media during the current campaign around Tikrit. One of the most widely shared photos shows the commander drinking tea with members of the Shia militias that have buttressed Iraqi forces in the area.
One of the most active militias in opposition to the Islamic State is the Badr Brigade, a force formed in Iran and reportedly still overseen by its intelligence services. Like other Shia militias, the Badr Brigade has been implicated in widespread atrocities during their largely unchecked engagement against the Islamic State and, collaterally or purposefully, in repression and killings of Iraq's Sunni Muslims.
Even as the US butts heads with Iran over its nuclear program, American officials have acknowledged Iran's role in helping to achieve a mutually beneficial defeat of the Islamic State.
"I think it's self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place, and it's confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact, its net effect is positive," Secretary of State Kerry told reporters in December. "But that's not something we're coordinating."
Suleimani, however, has a checkered past at best. He is believed to have plotted attacks against US interests in several countries, and during the US occupation of Iraq was accused of directing Shia militias and supplying them with explosives that killed hundreds of American troops.
As Iran's activities in Iraq raise questions about the expansion of its influence in the country, which was already established, the prominent part played by Suleimani has heightened a sense of unease among US officials.
The photographs of the general that have emerged on social media are difficult to verify, but appear to show him all over Iraq. With Iran suffering the severe economic effects of Western sanctions over its nuclear program and a steep drop in oil prices, Suleimani's public presence offers a familiar face to a beleaguered Iranian populace unsettled by the looming threat posed by the Islamic State.
For international observers, Tehran's PR effort is meant to project Iran as indispensable to the West's conflict against the Islamic State, and potentially bolster its standing as it continues to negotiate the terms of a controversial domestic nuclear program.
Iranian state-sponsored media has keenly covered the fighting in Iraq, but hasn't always done so accurately. A video recently published on the website of the Fars news agency is said to show Iraq's air force "pounding" Islamic State positions in Tikrit, but it is in fact a video that was originally posted to YouTube in 2013. With its original audio intact, it appears to have been shot by Americans.
Despite the evident manipulation of Iran's press reporting of the conflict in Iraq, the country is clearly heavily involved. It has launched airstrikes, deployed personnel, and seen deaths among high-ranking members of its military within the country. Just last month, Reza Hosseini Moghadem, a commander in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed while fighting with Islamic State militants in Samarra.
In the current offensive to retake Tikrit, Iran has employed drones, provided weaponry, and embedded members of its Revolutionary Guard with Iraqi battalions.
Hossein Askari, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, told VICE News that Iran offers military elements that the US either cannot or will not provide, such as intensive ground interventions.
"Iran has very good intelligence in the region," he said. "Its much more in the fabric of Iraq and Syria than the US is. It has much better human knowledge and their agents have been operating there for years. For the US and the West, they're at a disadvantage relative to Iran."
The US, for its part, has shied away from assisting in the attempt to recapture Tikrit, underscoring a de facto split between American- and Iranian-backed offensives by the Iraqi military.
The uneasy detente between the two countries in Iraq was tested this week by a controversial speech before the US Congress delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that sought to undermine support for a deal on Iran's nuclear program. Netanyahu emphasized Iran's threat to Israel, and argued that an agreement would turn the Middle East into a "nuclear tinderbox."
Suleimani, meanwhile, said recently that Iran and its allies in Iraq have the Islamic State on its last legs. In a speech last month to mark the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he told an audience in the Iranian province of Kerman that "we are sure these groups are nearing the end of their life."
The budding social media star downplayed the West's assistance in pushing back the Islamic State and criticized its bombing campaign in Syria, where Iran remains the principal backer of embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
"We have all witnessed in Syria that the measures they adopted did not produce any fruit," he said.
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