Iran Monitors Fast-Moving Islamic Insurgency In Iraq

The U.S. has engaged Iran in talks on responding to the crisis in Iraq. Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute talks to Renee Montagne about the reaction in Iran to events across the border in Iraq.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We've been taking a look at different players in the Iraq crisis this week and today we turn to Iraq's neighbor, Iran. Both countries are predominantly Shiite. The militant extremist group that now controls much of western Iraq - ISIS - is made up of Sunnis. So Shiite Iran sees ISIS very much as a threat. And that puts Iran on the same side as the U.S. in this crisis. Randa Slim is a director at the Middle East Institute. She spent the last few days in Iran's capital, Tehran, talking to senior officials and academics. Good morning.

RANDA SLIM: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with how threatened Iran feels.

SLIM: I did not notice a sense of urgency. Some of the officials I talked with admitted that in the first 48 hours of ISIS advance towards Mosul, they were surprised by the speed with which ISIS advanced. But since then, they feel that the situation now is more under control.

MONTAGNE: Today on live TV, Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, went on to tell his country that Iran would not hesitate to protect Shiite holy sites in Iraq. And then said that many Iranians have already signed up to go to Iraq to defend those sites. What exactly does that mean?

SLIM: Iran is projecting itself as a Shiite power in the Arab Middle East. And I think it is also a threat to what they view are adept countries that are backing ISIS, saying that Iran will be ready to defend its interests in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Does that, though, mean Iranian boots on the ground?

SLIM: There are already reports of Iranian boots on the ground. They are not confirmed reports by the Iranian regime, but there have been enough stories coming out of Iran of having members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard already on the ground advising the Iraqi military in Mosul, in Baqubah - trying to help them regain the upper hand in the fight against ISIS.

MONTAGNE: It's worth saying Iran has been happy to have a Shiite-led government in neighboring Iraq these last years. It's worked quite closely with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the relationship isn't always easy. And in fact, this week, Iran's president urged Maliki to be more inclusive of Sunnis - very similar to what the U.S. has been saying.

SLIM: They believe a key prerequisite to preventing disintegration of Iraq is a political process that is inclusive of all the components of Iraqi society. Some of the officials expressed the view that they are not wedded to Nouri Maliki. But others expressed the view that, given the urgency of now, it's better not to talk about Maliki stepping down. And that, in fact, by allowing Maliki to step down, it's like they would be exceeding to one of the objectives that ISIS has stated, which is for Maliki to step down.

MONTAGNE: Having been in Tehran these last few days, I'm wondering if you know if Iranians have some discomfort with Iran working on the same side as the U.S. in this matter. I mean, it is a question of strange bedfellows here. There's certainly a certain amount of discomfort here in the U.S. about that.

SLIM: There are different voices on this issue. There is definitely the camp, presented by President Rouhani, who basically say that the United States and Iran share a common interest in fighting the extremists that ISIS presents. And that conditional collaboration between the two countries is possible. However, there are other voices that are against any kind of U.S. military intervention. Basically, indirectly saying that we worked hard to get Americans out of Iran and this is not the time to bring the Americans back into Iran.

MONTAGNE: Randa Slim is with the Middle East Institute. She spent the last few days in Tehran.

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