The Mosul offensive showcases that political rivalry and sectarian hostility particularly between the regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have been contributing to the longevity of religious extremism in Iraq and complicates the fight against the ISIS. So, what are the Iranian and Saudi interests in Mosul? What are the objectives that they seek there?
Iran and Saudi Arabia seeks a bigger role in Mosul in order to ensure a better position to influence the government in Baghdad as well as that in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomy. ISIS initiated its self-proclaimed caliphate from Al-Anbar, the largest Iraqi province and located on the Iraqi-Saudi border, which is no accident. The area is populated by Sunni Iraqis dissatisfied with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The rise and subsequent advance of ISIS was interpreted as an attack on the authority of the Shiite-led government, and Iraqi unity overall. Iranian support was inevitable for a Shiite government facing a growing Sunni threat. Saudi Arabia regarded the sectarian conflict in Iraq as a means to preserving a Sunni sphere of influence. The Independent described the Saudi role as “supporting the anti-Shia jihad”.
Mosul has become particularly important for each actor, as Iraq’s second largest city, because of its considerable oil fields, and location close to the nexus of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the Kurdish autonomy. Iraq is divided on three ethno-sectarian spheres – Kurdistan, Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iraq. Sunni and Shiite Iraq are somewhat more nebulous. Mosul will play an important role for Iran and Saudi Arabia as a crucial element in defining sectarian borders in Iraq.
The ongoing Mosul operation has impacted the relationship between Iran’s Shiite militias, and Saudi Arabia’s own Sunni proxy groups, including purportedly, ISIS itself. Because of the historical significance and large Sunni population of Mosul, Saudi Arabia may consider it a de facto capital for Sunni influence in Iraq. Iran similarly values Mosul because of its geostrategic significance in Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. Here again, Iranian and Saudi goals conflict as they both see Mosul as crucial to region-wide Shiite and Sunni spheres, respectively.
Mosul is also vital for land access to Syria for both Iranians and Saudis. From Saudi perspective, Sunni control of Mosul means fettering Iran’s path to the Mediterranean, which would potentially transform Iran’s presence in the Arab lands. The closest portion of Iranian-Iraqi border is under control of the Iraqi Kurdistan. So, the land route from Iran to Syria region has become much extended as it has to bypass Kurdistan-controlled parts of the Iraqi-Iranian border. Mosul would present the shortest route from Iran.
Another motivation for Iran in Mosul arises from its domestic consideration. The Kurdish autonomy in Iraq borders Iran for hundreds of miles. There are so-called informal Syrian Kurdistan, Turkish Kurdistan, and Iranian Kurdistan alongside with Iraqi Kurdistan. For Iran, the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq may represent a precedent for millions of Iranian Kurds, who are the third largest ethnicity in Iran after Persians and Azerbaijani Turks. Therefore, Iran eyes Mosul as leverage to influence Iraqi Kurdistan.
Moreover, Iran is not interested in federalization of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions because Iran itself is very diverse on ethnic and sectarian lines. Such federalization or decentralization might encourage a nightmare scenario for Tehran. Nevertheless, division of Iraq on ethnic-sectarian lines becomes increasingly inevitable. This represents another drive for Iranians to get as much as possible from Mosul.
Although Kurdistan is a Sunni-majority region, its relations with Saudi Arabia are much ambiguous and uneasy. So, Mosul is viewed also by Saudis as good leverage to influence Iraqi Kurds’ relations with Iran. Major Saudi interest is to create a kind of Sunni Arab buffer zone between Iran and Saudi Arabia including Mosul as essential to that. Also in case Iraq becomes federalized, Saudis would regard it as a reliable Sunni ally within that federation.
The domestic politics of both Iran and Saudi Arabia also has to do with proxies between the two nations. To secure domestic immunity against any external influence of secular, democratic or sectarian nature, they instrumentalize Sunni and Shiite ideologies respectively to maintain national unity and distract populations from domestic problems.
For the Iraqi state, Saudi and Iranian instrumentalization of the fight against ISIS in Mosul may present a bigger challenge than does ISIS itself. The defeat of ISIS simply will not end the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia and related sectarian groups inside Iraq. The interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia will persist.
This may facilitate the rise of other ISIS-like groups. Just as the post-Al-Qaeda period gave rise to the ISIS period, it is likely that the post-ISIS Iraq will be another turbulent period defined by transnational extremism, which might eventually penetrate into Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which are prone to ethnic and sectarian divisions.
Therefore, Riyadh and Tehran should consider rather reforming their respective domestic political systems than engaging in permanent proxies. Otherwise, not only a sustainable peace will remain out of reach for Iraq, but also Saudi Arabia and Iran themselves might be caught in a myriad of instability and tumultuous processes within their own borders.