Tehran and ISIS – It’s Complicated

iran and isis

The relationship between Tehran and ISIS is a complicated one:

  1. Iran consistently accuses the US/Saudis of creating ISIS and thus supporting terrorism.
    But in reality, ISIS was born out of the vacuum or power and stability in Syria and Iraq, a vacuum that was filled by Tehran.
  2. Iran and ISIS are enemies and are at war in the fields of Syria and Iraq.
    But fighting ISIS legitimizes Iran’s political and military involvement in Syria and Iraq which suits Tehran’s regional aspirations.
  3. Iran has taken the lead, as well as the costs and the glory, of fighting ISIS.
    But fighting ISIS has also forced Tehran to cooperate with the “Great Satan” and other regional enemies, a situation filled with tension and mistrust.
  4. ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has not yet targeted Iranian territory.
    But fighting ISIS may result in an invasion by ISIS of Iranian soil in the future.
  5. Both ISIS and Tehran’s raison d’aitre is to promote a global Islamic revolution, although one is Sunni and another is Shiite.
    But Khameini is constantly calling for a global unity of Muslims under Islam regardless of religious factions
  6. Tehran has a long history of promoting Islamist extremist/terrorist militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban etc… for its agenda so, why not ISIS?
    But Tehran modus operandi with terrorist militia is based on Tehran controlling the agenda and ISIS isn’t listening to Tehran.

Whatever the case may be, Tehran will continue to wage a tactical war against ISIS but underneath it all, ISIS may be serving Tehran’s regional and global strategy so well that if ISIS did not exist, Tehran would have had to invent it.

 

Iran Also Created ISIS

isis 1There is evidence that proves that leaders of ISIS were once supported by the US and Saudi Arabia in an effort to promote US interests in the Middle East but those ties were severed once ISIS “went rogue”. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria and the weakening of the Iraqi government, both of which are connected directly to Tehran, created the instability that ISIS required: there were enough disgruntled Syrians and Iraqis to join ISIS and enough weak areas in which wars could be waged. The fact that the US pulled out of Iraq only made it easier for both Iran and ISIS to march in.

 

ISIS is Iran’s Tactical Enemy and Strategic Ally

isis 5Tehran may be fighting ISIS in the battlefields in Syria and Iraq but without ISIS, Tehran’s military involvement in these countries might warrant a foreign military intervention just as its involvement in Yemen brought on a military reaction by Saudi Arabia.

There is growing criticism within and outside of Iran against the regime in Tehran for supporting Assad in his civil war. The cost of supporting Assad is believed to be approximately $10-$15 billion a year and now that Tehran is sending troops to Syria, the cost is bound to grow financially and in the loss of Iranian lives as well.

As to Iraq, Tehran is eager to bring Baghdad and has been supporting the Shiite factions there for the past few years. Baghdad is a key city in the vision for an Iranian empire as outlined by Rouhani’s chief adviser on Ethnic and Religious Minorities, Ali Younessi.

With Lebanon already under Iranian control, Syria and Iraq on the way, and Yemen and Afghanistan in its sights, Tehran can finally begin the process of building a regional empire.

In contrast, the US remains Tehran’s strategic enemy even if it is Tehran’s tactical ally against ISIS.

 

A Common Enemy Creates Strange Allies

isis 7When ISIS began its rampage last year (29th of June, 2014), the tone from Iran complacent: IRGC generals spoke about ISIS as an isolated issue with no real repercussions to Iran. But as ISIS stormed through Iraq, the same generals changed their tune: Tehran, as a regional leader and a friend of Baghdad and Damascus, would eradicate ISIS…in fact, Qods chief Suleimani claimed that only Iran could wipe ISIS off the map.

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 suddenly created a situation in which Western forces, specifically the US, were ready to fight beside the Iranian forces in the effort to eradicate ISIS. This strange coalition of enemies was fragile from the start and the Iranians wasted no time in criticizing the US for its “ineptitude” on the battle field.

 

Will ISIS Wage War on Tehran?

isis 3ISIS, even within its name, makes no territorial claims over Iran. And even if it did, it would seem pointless: ISIS is a Sunni movement which is trying to carve out a Sunni kingdom within Syria and Iraq and would never be welcome by the people of Iran who are Shiites.

Furthermore, ISIS is winning in Syria and Iraq because both of these countries lack any stability at this point in time while Iran’s regime is firmly entrenched with a powerful army. So, even in their wildest dreams, the leaders of ISIS probably do not view themselves entering triumphantly through the gates of Tehran. But they will probably find a way to bring the war to Iran on its borders with Iraq.

 

Two Sides of the Extremist Islamic Coin

isis 4Yes, ISIS is Sunni and Iran is Shiite. But both are striving for a world that will be Islamic and religious. They do not strive for a modern and updated version of Islam but want their citizens to be part of the ancient version of Islam based on Shaariah laws.

The chances of a unity between Iran and ISIS seems as close as a unity between Tehran and Riyadh but one must not forget Khamenei’s
fervent vision of a Global Islamic Awakening and his calls lately for unity among all Muslims of the world.

 

The Fine Line Between a Terrorist and a Freedom Fighter

isis 6The leaders in Tehran were quick to use ISIS in an effort to redefine terrorism: Rouhani’s first foreign policy initiative was to create WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) using ISIS as the clear definition of terrorism. Obviously, Rouhani conveniently forgot to mention Tehran’s ties with terrorist militia. Suddenly all the Iranian leaders placed themselves firmly and righteously against extremism, violence and terrorism.

But what about Tehran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban etc…What about Tehran’s support for the Houthis rebels in Yemen? What about Tehran fighting its wars in Syria and Iraq with Hezbollah and Taliban militia? And what about the atrocities carried out by these same militia in Syria and in Iraq?

Whether Tehran likes it or not, in many cases, ISIS and Tehran are very similar in many respects.

 

In reality, ISIS is really a localized problem – 10-15 thousand militia on a rampage in Iraq and Syria. But the horrors of ISIS and Tehran’s involvement in both these countries make the fight against ISIS a global one. Paradoxically, Iran needs ISIS as a way to free itself from its connection with terrorism and as a card of legitimacy to spread its military power over Iraq and Syria.

 

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Does Khamenei Unite or Divide?

khamenei unitesKhamenei is calling the Arab states and/or their Muslim citizens to unite under Islam against the West. The “and/or” part is crucial since he is not only calling on the leaders of Arab states who are already aligned with ideals of the Islamic brotherhood. The call is also meant to reach the ears of citizens of Arab states which are not aligned with Iran or its fervent Islamic government and in inciting them to rise up against their governments in the name of Islam.

That is why, on the one hand, Khamenei calls for Shiites and Sunnis to unite against the global arch enemy and “Great Satan”, the US,  while at the same time, he calls to relieve Iran’s regional arch enemy, and Sunni leader, Saudi Arabia, of control over Islam’s holy sites.

This isn’t a new call: Khomeini has been calling on his Muslim brothers to do so since 1979. Khamenei picked up the call under the guise of a “Global Islamic Awakening”. But the call for creating a unified Muslim front has escalated over the past few years due to the military, economic and political developments in the Middle East and the world.

 

Islam vs. “the West” vs. “the East”

west iran eastAlthough its very name implies it, this call is only nominally a religious one: Islam is not presented as an alternative to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or any other religion. Instead, it is presented as the solution to the multitude of problems that plague the citizens of Arab states, problems that are conveniently packaged as “the West”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “arrogant powers” etc…In fact, it isn’t really a solution but a means to unite any citizen of any state who sees himself/herself as victimized by “the West” either directly or through his/her government which is friendly with the West.

Many Arab states have gone through the Arab Spring only to find themselves free from the dictators who ruled them but torn of their national identities. Iraqis, Egyptians and Libyans initially celebrated ridding themselves of Saddam, Mubarak and Ghadaffi but they were soon disillusioned by the politicians and leaders who tried to fill the vacuum. In some countries, as in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the ruling families retained their powers while in others, such as in Syria and Yemen, the revolution escalated into a prolonged civil war.

Meanwhile, the North American and the Western European states are weakening. Whether this is as a result from economic and political mismanagement or from a lack of coherent national identity brought on by an influx of immigrants and a generation of citizens who take less pride in their national identity and have more solidarity with their global identity.

The weakness of the West is highlighted by the growing success of the Eastern superpowers like China, as a world economic leader, and Russia, as the historic opposer of the West. The leaders in China and Russia are far from heeding the call of Islamic unity but they all understand that this call is aimed at hurting the West, and specifically the US, in whose downfall they have a vested interest.

 

Shiites vs. Sunnis vs. “the Rest”

Spect_Sunni_Shia_SEKhamenei’s call to unify Muslims requires all Muslims to put aside their rival interpretations of Islam to fight the West. Unfortunately, the battles between the different factions of Islam echo the battles that were fought many centuries ago between the Christian states aligned under Catholicism against all the other Christian leaders who defied the Vatican. There and then in Europe, as today in the Middle East, the battles are fought not over religion but over the power that religion offers the leaders of the states.

Khamenei’s call to Islamic unity is extraordinary since Shiites represent at most 15% of the worlds’ Muslims and a unification of Islam by the Shiites would be a major victory for the minority faction. Were this call to originate from the Sunnis, as it did many centuries ago in the Islamic conquest of the Middles East and Northern Africa, the call to unity might have sounded more natural and less political.

Were the differences between Tehran and Sunni states only religious, there might have been an affinity to unite. But, much as in the case of Europe in the sixteenth century, religious differences only played a nominal part while the real reasons to heed the battle cry of a religious war could be found within the mindsets of the rulers themselves. The fight for the “ideal” form of Christianity was heavily overshadowed by England’s king Henry VIII’s wish to divorce and remarry and for his hot-cold relationships with France’s king Francis I and Spain’s emperor Charles V.

In the same manner, the Saudis are weary of Khamenei’s call not based on its religious merit but simply because Riyadh and Tehran are self-defined regional rivals. They listen to Zarif’s warnings that ISIS is an equal threat to Sunnis and Shiites with understanding, but are weary of Iran’s agenda to stir up horrified and scared Sunnis against their leaders.

 

The fact that the call for Islamic unity emerges from Khamenei places more emphasis on the particular interests of Iran than on the collective goal of Muslim states.

 

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Iran in Deep Denial About Gays

gay hanging

Listening to Iranian leaders on human rights can sound horrendous, such as when Iran’s human rights chief Mohammad Javad Larijani couldn’t find anything wrong with stoning people to death.

At other times, they can sound totally ludicrous such as when Iran’s judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani (yes, his brother) stated that gays are not persecuted in Iran while news of two more gay men were executed and while a movie about gay persecution in Iran hit the screens.

Both Larijani brothers, as well as their other successful brother, Ali Larijani (chairman of parliament), know one thing that a lot of Westerners still are not willing to understand: Iran’s state of human rights will never become better as long as the mullahs are in charge and no “moderate” president such as Rouhani can change that.