Academic journal article Insight Turkey

Iran versus ISIL

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

Iran versus ISIL

Article excerpt

Despite its outward appearance, Iran's involvement in the war against ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) defies simple sectarian explanations. (1) While ISIL might be motivated by its hatred for all things Shi'a, Tehran has not always rushed to the aid of its coreligionists. Instead, its support has been selective and strategic. This is true again, as it confronts the ISIL. It does not have the guns, troops or air power to threaten Iranian territory. Nevertheless, it poses a multidimensional threat to its core interests. Tehran's response, therefore, is more about realpolitik than religion. Nevertheless, because of the sectarian divisions in the region, and the ideological schism with the United States there are deep contradictions within Iran's strategy for dealing with ISIL, and its long-term effectiveness is an open question.

Iranian Realpolitik

Despite the religious foundation of the state, Iranian support for its Shi'a neighbors has actually been quite checkered. After the Kuwait crisis in 1991, Tehran did not intervene when Saddam Hussein brutally put down a Shi'a rebellion in the south of Iraq. Similarly, Iran backed Armenia against predominantly Shi'a Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Iran also deferred to Russian interests and withdrew support from Shi'a militias during the Tajik civil war. Of course, Tehran has backed the Shi'a organization Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Shi'a groups scattered across the Persian Gulf. However, this support has always been consistent with Tehran's broader regional objectives and its national security interests.

Tehran's regional strategy is built around escaping western-led containment, deterring military attacks from either the U.S. or Israel, and insulating Iran's borders from regional instability. ISIL threatens this strategy on multiple levels. First of all, ISIL threatens Iran's regional alliance network. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Tehran has invested a great deal in cultivating ties with the more than 20 Shi'a political parties that make up the National Iraqi Alliance. Tehran helped put Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in power, and then played an instrumental role in having him removed and replaced by Haider al-Abadi when it became evident he was not the man to handle the ISIL situation. For a country as isolated as Iran, the importance of having a friendly government on the border cannot be overstated.

Even with Saddam Hussein out of the picture, Tehran would see a Sunni led Iraq as a political and military threat. The friendly Shi'a government in Baghdad has also been a bulwark against a potential American invasion of Iran. If ISIL succeeds in redrawing the Iraqi border much of this will be lost. Iran might still have a friendly Shi'a government in Baghdad, but it would not have the same strategic impact. There would be a new hostile "Caliphate" dangerously close to the Iranian border, and an independent Kurdish state that would make a likely ally for both Israel and the United States.

ISIL also threatens Iran's relationship with Bashar al-Assad and the Ba'thist regime in Syria. The civil war appears to be mired in a stalemate at the moment and the infighting between the various opposition groups has given the al-Assad regime some breathing room. However, ISIL represents a much more coherent and effective fighting force than the other opposition groups. After the seizure of Mosul, it is capable of funding its own operations and in possession of a significant cache of heavy weapons. If a new Caliphate is consolidated on the territory straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border it still might not be able to oust Bashar al-Assad from power, but it would mean the permanent dismemberment of Syria. Even if al-Assad remained in control of Damascus, he would be diminished as an ally. Moreover, the new Caliphate would create a barrier between Iran and Syria, cutting important supply lines that have been used to ship weapons to Syria and Hezbollah. …

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