Nobody talks about Iran anymore without talking about ISIS. Ever since the Al-Qaeda breakaway calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham occupied cities across northern Iraq in 2014, its ostentatious atrocities have nearly eclipsed — at least in Western imaginations — all the troubles of a troubled region. Having spread its terror from Iraq and Syria to France, ISIS now dominates western fears of Islamist militancy. It also makes post-revolutionary Iran — which western leaders have long deplored for its human rights abuses and support for terrorism — look moderate and conservative by comparison.
An ISIS column descends on northern Iraq. US failure to destroy such columns has fed popular conspiracy theories in Iran.
Iran, like the West, is an enemy of ISIS. In 2014, Iran was among the first countries to engage ISIS militarily, as Iranian Qods Force Commander Ghasem Suleimani, along with other Revolutionary Guards, directed and assisted Iraqi Shia militias in their defense of Iraq’s southern cities. Iran, whose population is overwhelmingly Shia, may also be a potential ISIS target, since ISIS has declared its genocidal hatred for Shia Muslims.
ISIS hopes to establish a Sunni theocracy – and eventually an empire or caliphate — to rival Iran’s Shia theocracy. And while tens of thousands of ISIS fighters are foreign jihadists from across Europe and the Greater Middle East, some ISIS military strategists are former Iraqi Ba’athist officers, which means Iran is likely to see ISIS as an old enemy as well as a new one.
What is less clear is whether Iran perceives the same level of threat from ISIS as the West does and whether Iran and the West have compatible objectives in opposing it.
“Tehran is not like Paris”
Following the ISIS attack on Paris on November 13, during which gunmen killed 130 people across the city, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killings “crimes against humanity.” He said that Iranians, too, have been victims of terrorism, and added, “We must use the opportunity presented by these crimes to coordinate internationally.” Since then, Iran has cited ISIS in the course of its own security operations. In the week after the Paris attacks, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said they had smashed a “terrorist cell” that had been recruiting for ISIS in the western city of Kermanshah. This month, Iran’s cyber police chief, Kamal Hadianfar, announced the arrest of 53 people who he said had run pro-ISIS websites.
But Iran, despite being close to ISIS-controlled territory, is more sheltered from the ISIS threat than its neighbors, or Europe.
“Remember, Iran is not as fragmented as most of its neighbors," says Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute. "Iran doesn’t have those same demographic cleavages that ISIS can tap into.” It would be very difficult, he says, given the range of security “filters” Iran enjoys, for ISIS to launch a Paris-style attack against Tehran. It might be possible, he says, for ISIS to gain a foothold among one of the radical Sunni insurgencies in Iran’s border regions, such as in Baluchistan in the southeast, but the threat would likely be minor. “It wouldn’t be inconceivable that a group that arises could declare itself loyal to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi,” Vatanka says, referring to ISIS’s caliph, or leader. “But it would never have much support, even among the most disillusioned Iranian Sunnis.”
Vatanka also has his doubts about Iran’s recent security operations. In Iran’s Sunni border regions, he says, terrorist attacks usually reflect geopolitical wrangling between Iran and rival states, rather than ideology. “My reading is that the Iranian state is vastly exaggerating the receptiveness of the Iranian Sunni population to the ISIS message. Why do they do it? The only answer I can come up with is that it gives Iran’s anti-ISIS image more credibility.”
As for the ISIS presence in neighboring Iraq, Iranian military and security forces insist Iran is safe. “They have always said their deterrence strategy is based on preventing the enemy from approaching Iranian frontiers,” says a London-based Iranian security expert who prefers not to be named. “They have always said, ‘We will not wait for the enemy to get inside our country.’ They have repeatedly said that the ‘red line’ for Iranian security and military forces is 40 km around the borders of the country and that if ISIS approaches within 40 km of the Iranian frontier, they will prevent the approach.”
Iranian state media, he says, actively promote and celebrate an atmosphere of domestic security. “After the recent Paris attacks, there was a set of interviews on Iranian state-run channels, and in many of them, people said, 'We are happy that we are safe because of the powerful monitoring and surveillance operations of our security forces.’ I myself was watching Iranian television, and a girl was responding to the questions of a TV reporter. She said that she is so happy that Tehran is not like Paris, because Paris is insecure, and Tehran is secure.”
Iran Blames the West
In September 2014, while Iran was helping Shia forces in southern Iraq to push ISIS north, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took the podium at the United Nations General Assembly and blamed western intervention in the Middle East for the rise of ISIS. He also implied that hostile, covert forces were behind the group. “Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hands of madmen, who now spare no one,” he said.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly in 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused unnamed intelligence agencies of "putting blades in the hands of madmen."
Now, suspicion of the West’s role in Iraq, and of western intentions against Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pervade Iran’s ISIS debate. State media outlets, the security expert says, often accuse US allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar of supporting ISIS against the Assad regime. While similar accusations are not alien to western media, Iranian media often go further, accusing the US itself of supporting ISIS and other jihadist groups.
One popular claim in Iranian state media is that the US could have stopped ISIS from taking northern Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, which remains under ISIS occupation. “They say that the Americans are responsible for not attacking ISIS,” the security expert says. “They say that there are a lot of photos of ISIS forces approaching Mosul with a column of armored vehicles in a line leading to Mosul. It was, according to Iranian media, very easy to destroy them with airplanes, but the Americans didn't move. So they accused them of deliberately doing nothing to prevent ISIS.”
Such views have gained immense traction, he says, and have changed Iran’s domestic political scene. “ISIS has provided a unique opportunity for the Iranian government, and for hardliners who say that Ayatollah Khamenei has been proved right when it comes to Iraq and Syria,” he says. But such views can also be found outside the state and its usual core of supporters. “I cannot say that only hardliners are blaming the West because of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Many Iranians, even secular Iranians who are opposed to the regime, are blaming the West for the operations of ISIS. It is an unprecedented subject on which many of the people and the government think the same way.”
ISIS or Assad?
“It's very difficult to counter conspiracy,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist now working at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC. “Conspiracy has its own life force in the Middle East, and it should never be underestimated. The confusing fact is that conspiracy can rest side by side, often in the same person, with fairly good analysis. So at one moment they could well know that Barack Obama had no intention of being more aggressively involved in the Middle East, they could welcome that, they could even mock it, and at the same time believe that if the Americans had wanted to stop ISIS, they could have interceded militarily against it.”
Iranian Qods Force commander Ghasem Suleimani (in white scarf) directed Iraqi Shia militias in their fight against ISIS. He is a popular figure in Iran, not only among hardliners.
Gerecht is the co-author of a recent Foreign Affairs article, Iran’s ISIS Trap, which argues that Iran has exploited the rise of ISIS for foreign policy gains. While there has been a long history of tension between the Iranian state and Iraq’s Shia population, he says, the ISIS threat has caused Iraqi Shias to take a more “avuncular” view of their powerful neighbor. In Syria, he says, ISIS has not been the driving force behind opposition to Assad, but the broader rebellion against Assad has amplified Iran’s influence within Assad’s regime. “Their position in Syria is certainly greater than it ever has been, and they have ridden the coattails of a sectarian clash, which they have amplified and encouraged.
The sectarian dimension of the civil war in Syria, meanwhile, has fuelled a level of fanaticism that may yet work to Iran’s advantage. “Obviously, the Iranians aren't going to say that the ferocious dictatorship of the Assad family is responsible for creating Sunni militancy,” Gerecht says. “They will just focus on the fact that ISIS now exists, and therefore, you choose, in their minds, the lesser of two evils.” In other words, Iran's argument is that if you oppose Assad, you support ISIS.
In Search of Holy Causes
While Iran’s whole official political spectrum may seem more concerned with making Assad look moderate than with any direct threat Iran faces from ISIS, the ISIS crisis reveals deep divisions within Iranian politics. “In the Iranian system, you have a clear-cut division as to who does what in foreign policy,” Vatanka says. While Rouhani may pronounce the official line on ISIS and Syria, his administration has been busy securing a nuclear deal with the West, attracting foreign investment, and breaking down foreign sanctions. “On the other hand, in areas where you have conflict, you see that the Revolutionary Guard generals are really in the driver's seat.”
Ever since Iran’s 2009 elections, after which the Revolutionary Guards crushed massive pro-democracy protests, Iran’s security forces have hoped to renew their public support at the expense of popular figures like Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif. “Diplomats cannot go and fight in Syria,” Vatanka says. “The Guards commanders can. In an era where the taboo of talking to the United States has broken down, the Guards need to find other things that they can grab onto and turn into their holy causes. What they are doing in Syria and Iraq is not just about taking the fight to ISIS. They are also saying, ‘Because of what we are doing, we are legitimate. We are the defenders of the Islamic Republic.’”