Since Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, presented his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative at the UN two years ago, Tehran has been rebranded as a champion against terrorism and in the process, the West was rebranded as the leading supporter of terrorism. This isn’t a question of truth but one of perception since one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and ISIS has made all terrorists, including those supported by Iran, look like “angels”.
Not a day goes by without some Iranian leader being quoted for championing the fight against terrorism or blaming the West for it. And what about Iran’s support for terrorist organization in the past, the present and the future? Irrelevant and baseless, say the Iranians because Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad etc…, all supported by Tehran, are not universally designated as terrorist organizations…like ISIS.
But apart from the Iranian rhetoric against ISIS, it is hard to find evidence of any direct major battles between Tehran and ISIS. Since ISIS began its rampage last year, Tehran has declared war on ISIS and repeatedly denigrated Western efforts to fight ISIS but it has had, strangely enough, little victories to show for its “war against ISIS”. Were Iran a small and weak country, one would think this normal but this runs contrary to the boasts that emanate daily from Iranian generals and leaders regarding the strength and power of the Iranian army and begs for one simple question: How exactly is Tehran really fighting ISIS?
Declare War on ISIS but Fight Enemies Instead
Tehran’s military involvement in Syria is shrouded in mystery, spins and counter-spins. Tehran is openly funding and supplying Assad’s in his civil war with an estimated $10 billion a year. But there is nothing open about Tehran’s military involvement in Syria: reports of thousands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah troops are confirmed and denied simultaneously by Tehran, Assad and Hezbollah itself. Iranian troops in Syria are tagged as “advisers” which include generals as highly ranked as Qods chief Qassem Suleimani himself but nobody really knows how many Iranian troops are on Syrian ground. All Tehran is willing to admit is that “less than 60” Iranian soldiers have died in Syria but the IRGC’s rumblings over the deaths of Iranian soldiers in Syria insinuates that there are many more casualties.
Even Tehran’s motives to support Assad are not really clear: Is it because Assad has been a traditional ally of Tehran? Is it because Assad is an Alawite which is closely related to Shiism? Is it because Assad is fighting rebels, including ISIS, who call for the downfall of Tehran? Perhaps the truth is a mixture of all of these as can be inferred from this quote by Iranian general Hamedani who was killed in Syria: “It is not Iranians who are paying the costs of Syria but actually Syrians who are paying the cost of Iran“.
The Iranians are always quick to threaten ISIS and to boast how quickly they can destroy ISIS but, there is always a “but”. Just this week, IRGC general Ahmed Reza Pourdestan again threatened to wipe ISIS out if they got within 25 kilometers of Iran’s borders. Why? Why not attack ISIS even if it is within 100 kilometer of even 500 kilometers of Iran’s borders?
There are no reports of any activity by Iranian tanks or jet fighters in Syria and there are nearly no reports of Iranian victories over ISIS in Syria or in Iraq. This can’t be because Tehran is afraid of being accused of meddling in Assad’s war because it certainly is. It can’t be because Tehran doesn’t have the resources nor the motive for a full-scale war to fight ISIS. So why aren’t Iranian jets bombing ISIS outposts and convoys as Tehran glowingly compliments Moscow for doing? Because Tehran isn’t really fighting ISIS in Syria or in Iraq: it is fighting Assad’s Sunni enemies in Syria and fighting Iranian dissidents in Iraq but ISIS is worth more to Tehran alive than dead.
ISIS Legitimizes Tehran’s Agendas and Actions
ISIS may be a global scourge but paradoxically, it has become a strategic key to legitimize the activities of Tehran’s regime: ISIS legitimizes Tehran’s military involvement in Syria and in Iraq, its meddling in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, legitimizes its support for Hezbollah, legitimizes its criticism of the West, legitimizes its proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, legitimizes Iran’s horrid human rights, legitimizes…anything. Why? Because the actions of the monsters in ISIS are so horrific that anything that Tehran has done in the past, present or future, seems to pale in comparison.
Tehran is very vocal in preaching to the West to follow Moscow’s lead in fighting Syrian rebels, including ISIS, but it is certainly not practicing what it preaches. If Tehran had truly decided to eradicate ISIS, it certainly could have since it is ideally situated geographically and boasts the largest army in the region. In fact, its latest arms deals with Russia will only make Tehran stronger militarily.
Last week, the UN passed two non-binding resolutions condemning Iran and Russia’s meddling in Syria’s civil war and the state of human rights in Iran. Tehran’s response? Iran’s foreign minister called these resolutions a “bitter joke“. Unfortunately, the “bitter joke” is at the expense of the West, the Syrian rebels, the Yemenite government, the Lebanese democracy and the Iranian people.
Even the massacre in Paris seemed to legitimize Tehran’s image as a champion against terrorism: Rouhani was one of the first world leaders to condole French President Holland but his condolences were quickly followed with justifications by Iranian leaders including Khamenei himself – Paris was responsible for the massacre since it wasn’t ready to fight ISIS and chose to pressure Assad instead…just as the US was responsible for 9/11. Some went even further to blame the West in using the massacre in Paris as a “tool” to introduce Western troops into Syria. But the biggest winners of the Paris massacre was definitely not ISIS but Tehran itself.
The paradox surrounding Tehran’s complex relationship with ISIS is neatly summed up in an article on this subject: “The stronger the perception of Islamic State as the ultimate evil, the more Iran has to gain from the situation“.