BAGHDAD — When Iranian fighter jets struck extremist targets this week in Iraq, enforcing a self-declared buffer zone along the border, it was only the latest display of Tehran’s new willingness to conduct military operations openly on foreign battlefields rather than covertly and through proxies.
The shift stems in part from Iran’s deepening military role in Iraq in the war against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. But it also reflects a profound shift in Iran’s strategy, a new effort to exert Shiite influence around the region and counter Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia.
Analysts also say it follows a calculation that what Iran’s rulers see as a less-engaged United States will tolerate or even encourage their overt military activities.
While there is no direct coordination with the United States military in the region, there is what might be characterized as a de facto nonaggression pact, where the two sides stay out of each other’s way, as the Syrian government and the Americans do in managing airstrikes in Syria.
“We are flying missions over Iraq, we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said on Tuesday. “It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.”
Iran has offered weapons to the Lebanese army and supported the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen that have taken over the capital, Sanna, where on Wednesday a car bomb struck the Iranian ambassador’s residence.
In Syria, Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shiite militant movement, and the Iranian paramilitary Al Quds force, have kept President Bashar al-Assad in power. And in Iraq, Iran is cooperating at arm’s length with the United States, as the two rivals focus on fighting the Islamic State.
Iran’s once-elusive spymaster, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds force who has spent a career in the shadows orchestrating terrorist attacks — including some that killed American soldiers in Iraq — has emerged as a public figure, with pictures of the general on Iraq’s battlefields popping up on social media.
The apparent shift in Iran’s strategy has been most noticeable in Iraq, where even American officials acknowledge the decisive role of Iranian-backed militias, particularly in protecting Baghdad from an assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
While Iran’s growing military role has proved essential in repelling the advances of the Islamic State, American officials worry that it could ultimately destabilize Iraq by deepening sectarian divisions. Iraq’s Sunnis blame the Iranian-backed Shiite militias for sectarian abuses, and are reluctant to join with the Iraqi government in the fight against extremists because of Iran’s influence.
Admiral Kirby said: “Our message to Iran is the same today as it was when it started, and as it is to any neighbor in the region that is involved in the anti-ISIL activities. And that’s that we want nothing to be done that further inflames sectarian tensions in the country.”
He said the Iranian airstrikes, which he indirectly confirmed by saying he had, “no reason to believe” the reports about them were untrue appeared so far to be limited.
The airstrikes occurred at the end of November in Iraq’s eastern Diyala Province, where Iran’s territory is closest to Iraq’s battlefields, Hamid Reza Taraghi, an Iranian politician confirmed. He also confirmed the existence of the buffer zone, which he said was accepted by Iraqi authorities.
“We do not tolerate any threats within the buffer zone, and these targets were in the vicinity of the buffer zone,” said Mr. Taraghi. He claimed that dozens of extremist fighters had been killed in the operation.
The backdrop to Iran’s growing military role in Iraq is the American-led air campaign against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. The United States and Iran, once bitter enemies who fought a bloody shadow war in Iraq, now share the same goal – defeating the extremists. Often, it is a single Iraqi officer who is used as an intermediary between the Americans and Iranians, as they synchronize their efforts on the battlefield.
Working through intermediaries is not the most efficient way to conduct operations, and sometimes it can lead to awkward moments on the battlefield. Recently, for example, both coalition aircraft and jets from Mr. Assad’s forces bombed targets in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. In Syria, the United States and Iran are at odds over Mr. Assad, with Iran his most important supporter and the United States preferring that he leave power.
When the Islamic State stormed Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June and moved south toward Baghdad, President Obama took a measured approach, pushing for political changes before committing to military action. But Iran jumped right in. It was the first country to send weapons to the Kurds in the north, and moved quickly to protect Baghdad, working with militias it supported already.
“When Baghdad was threatened, the Iranians did not hesitate to help us, and did not hesitate to help the Kurds, when Erbil was threatened,” Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a recent television interview here, referring to the Kurdish capital in the north.
He contrasted that approach to that of the United States, saying the Iranians were “unlike the Americans, who hesitated to help us when Baghdad was in danger, and hesitated to help our security forces. And the reason Iran did not hesitate to help us was because they consider ISIS as a threat to them, not only to us.”
Ali Khedery, a former American official in Iraq who advised several ambassadors and generals, said, “For the Iranians, really, the gloves are off.”
Of the growing regional role of General Suleimani, who has a residence in the Green Zone, the fortified center of Baghdad that houses many government ministries, palaces and embassies, Mr. Khedery was blunt. “Suleimani is the leader of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” he said. “Iraq is not sovereign. It is led by Suleimani, and his boss Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” The ayatollah is Iran’s supreme leader.
The rivalry between the Iranian Shiite clerics and the Sunni leaders of Saudi Arabia has played out in any number of proxy contests around the region, especially in Syria and Iraq.
Normally, the United States and Iran are rivals, but the threat of the Islamic State has brought them closer to together. And, if the two sides can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, more normal relations could follow, including close cooperation against the Islamic State. That was the point Mr. Obama was making in a letter to Mr. Khamenei urging him to sign off on the nuclear deal last month.
But the letter, as well as an earlier one wishing the Iranian leader a speedy recovery from surgery, may have backfired, one analyst said.
“When Obama sends letters to our leader wishing him a speedy recovery, to us that is a sign of weakness,” said one Iranian journalist closely connected to the conservative Revolutionary Guards. “During meetings the letter is discussed and we conclude: ‘Obama needs a deal. He needs us.’ We would never write him such a letter.”
That perceived weakness may be encouraging Iran to project power in a more prominent and public way, analysts have said.
Shiite politicians in Iraq are hopeful that a nuclear deal would lead to greater coordination between the United States and Iran in the war here, though experts say there is no indication Iran would welcome direct coordination. Sunnis fear that such a deal would give Iran legitimacy on the world stage, and embolden them to exert even more influence here and across the region.
The Obama administration has made clear that while it welcomes Iran’s help in fighting the extremists, there is no actual coordination.
“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, it’s going to be – the net effect is positive,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday in Brussels, where he was attending meetings with other members of the coalition against the Islamic State. “But that’s not something that we’re coordinating.”
But some here wish the two would work together. In an interview this week, Hakim al-Zamili, an Iraqi politician and a Shiite militia leader, said, “If there were an honest coordination between U.S. and Iranian advisers, Iraq could have been liberated within a week.”
Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni lawmaker, said an agreement between the United States and Iran would be bad for Iraq. It would mean, he said, that, “the Americans are handing over Iraq to Iran.”