Across time and death: Iran and the ISIS challenge
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
The dust of the "Arab Spring" has settled. This "Spring" was initially seen as offering hope, both to the Arabs and the West, for change and the overthrow of despots; but that hope has faded amid a bloody and chaotic reality in large parts of the Arab world. The Arab masses who inundated city streets never dreamt that the historical process they set in motion would ultimately lead to the redrawing of the Middle East's borders, nor to the eruption of fierce conflicts dating back to the dawn of Islam that transcends borders and even continents, and are inflamed by radical new non-state elements from the world at large.
The Middle East's haunted past keeps casting a dark shadow over the region's future, threatening to return the region to the basic components that existed before the interventions of the Persian, Ottoman, and later, Western powers. Intervention reached its apogee with the drawing of artificial borders about a century ago in the European-designed Sikes-Picot Agreement. The new Arab nation-states failed to create a national civic identity transcending tribal and sectarian divisions, and continued to be governed, if covertly, along traditional tribal lines. Reflecting the old-new situation emerging in the region, the hashtags #SykesPicotOver and #KhalifaRestored have begun to appear in social networks discourse.
Several countries that seek regional hegemony, particularly Iran and Turkey, have sought to exploit the destruction of the old Arab order, fill the void, and shape the new order in accordance with their worldview which aims to eject the West and paint the region in Islamic colors. At least regarding Syria and Iraq, the United States has chosen to "lead from behind." It did not intervene in the Syrian war even when clear red lines were crossed that Washington itself had laid down concerning the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons; while in Iraq the US conducted "too little too late" airstrikes to contain ISIS murderous spree against the Yazidi minority.
Shiite Iran continues to give full backing to what remains of Assad's regime, with considerable assistance from the "Lebanese Hizbullah" and "Syrian Hizbullah." 1 Turkey and the Gulf states, for their part, keep generously aiding the Sunni opposition, which is partly composed of Al-Qaeda-linked groups, and encouraging radical jihadist elements from the Arab and the Western world to come and join the Syrian fray.
These states are well cognizant of the fierce, radical Sunni-jihadist winds now blowing in the region, as the jihadists strive (and sometimes also succeed) to breach and erase borders. These groups also want to be perceived, particularly since the recent successes in Iraq, as posing a threat to Iran's efforts to create a Shiite crescent stretching from Iran (and Bahrain) through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The Sunni jihadists now constitute a real threat to Iran's strategic assets in Syria and Lebanon and especially to its regional aspiration to restore Shiite supremacy. In his recent vast interview with Al-Akhbar, Hezbollah Secretary General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah emphasized the magnitude of ISIS ("this monster") threat to the region underlying that "everyone (in the region) should be worried".
The Syrian Melting Pot
The more the fighting has escalated, the more Syria has become a melting pot for these jihadist elements and for the emergence of radical organizations such as ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or al-Sham, "Greater Syria"), which has changed its name to the Islamic State since conquering considerable territory in northern Iraq (including Mosul) and westward. Previously, in April 2013, the group signaled its intentions by changing its name from ISI (Islamic state in Iraq) to ISIS as it extended its activity from Iraq to Syria and later to "The Islamic State."
These successes, which were accompanied by the spectacle of the helpless Iraqi army fleeing for its life, sparked surprise, shock, and awe in the regional and international systems (even among countries that abetted the opposition groups in Syria and enabled them to enter the country) and exposed another aspect of the failure of U.S. strategy in the region. It was only about two-and-a-half years ago that President Barack Obama, with the departure of American soldiers, described Iraq as "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant." But the notion of the "army of the Iraqi people" did not pass the test of reality. Such an army existed under the rule of Saddam Hussein (last of the pan-Arab "action heroes"), who, by dint of a murderous reign of terror involving ongoing violent repression of the Shiites, was able to maintain Iraq as a single geographic unit.
The civil war in Syria and the one in Lebanon were also marked by the army's dissolution into its sectarian components in a time of crisis.
The Syrian war, which has spilled over to Iraq, appears likely to revise the borders of the Middle East and alter the rules of the game that prevailed in recent decades within the network of interregional alliances and cooperation between regional and Western states. These pacts and relations are transforming amid the rapid and dramatic changes occurring in the region. New alliances could be short-term only (aimed at containing the ISIS threat, for example) and could stem from both strategic and pragmatic considerations, sometimes crossing the Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Persian, and Western-regional fault lines and sometimes adhering to those lines.
The Price of Neglect
Nouri al-Maliki, the former Shiite prime minister of Iraq who has close ties with Iran, has now paid the price for his long neglect and abuse of the Sunnis and for turning the Iraqi army from a professional body into a corrupt one where appointments were made based on personal connections or on a sectarian basis. On Tehran's advice, al-Maliki did not maintain dialogue with the Sunni tribes, and he forcefully repressed the Sunni protests that sometimes arose against his corrupt rule. Ties with the leaders of the Sunni tribes and the forces loyal to them, the Sahwat, were a main component of U.S. strategy in 2011 in the war against ISI – that was linked with Al-Qaeda, which, in turn, had by then lost most of its standing in Iraq. Although it took the United States a long time to understand the importance of the Iraqi network of tribal alliances and connections, once it did so it was able to eradicate Al-Qaeda from Iraq almost completely.
In satisfying his desire for revenge against the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein, al-Maliki managed to destroy the special and delicate fabric of trust with the heads of the Sunni tribes that the Americans had built up with great effort. For these tribes, al-Maliki's conduct reignited the flames of sectarian hatred.
He also dismantled the Sahwat militias instead of integrating them into the army, stripped the Sunnis of all significant political influence, and at the end of 2013 harshly repressed their protest in Ramadi and Fallujah.
All this led the embittered Sunnis into the arms of ISIS. The ongoing civil war in Syria opened a new window of opportunity for ISIS as it deployed its forces there, indeed to the detriment of Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, in Iraq, al-Maliki's tyrannical rule and alienation of the Sunnis, including the remnants of the Baath regime, gave ISIS an opportunity to return to the country on a large scale.
Many of the ISIS operatives come from the Sunni tribes of western Iraq. These tribes now joined forces with the surviving Baath circles, which were awaiting the right opportunity to return to the arena. Prominent among these Baath elements is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri (the hot-headed redhead who in Saddam's time served as vice-president and as chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, and was the "king of clubs" in Americans' "most wanted" cards during the liberation of Iraq). According to several reports, the Naqshbandi Army, which al-Douri heads, made a decisive contribution to ISIS's conquest of Mosul,2 and senior officials in this army along with Baath elements are helping to organize administrative control of the cities ISIS has conquered.
As its forces were leaving Iraq, the United States failed to secure an agreement on retaining a U.S. response force in the country. More recently, on the eve of the ISIS blitz in Iraq, Washington rebuffed al-Maliki's insistent pleas to bomb ISIS from the air. In sum, the U.S. strategy for the day after its departure from Iraq – building a strong and independent popular army, continuing to operate UAVs, and "leading from behind" – has collapsed completely. Obama, though having coined the term "leading from behind," has lost any significant influence over the main processes now affecting the Middle East.
It appears, however, that one of the main dangers stemming from ISIS's expansion and activities is the spread of global terror beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. Iran, too, is a target. Radical Islamic organizations throughout the Arab world (for instance, in Libya and Tunisia) have already expressed support for ISIS' activity. In Ma'an in southern Jordan, such organizations have even staged demonstrations extolling ISIS and its recent triumphs in Iraq. The demonstrators flaunted black ISIS flags and banners proclaiming, "Ma'an – Fallujah of Jordan."
ISIS's successes will likely bolster radical Islamic elements in moderate Arab countries such as Tunisia, where a slow, cautious democratic process has been in place since Ennahda, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, agreed to relinquish powers so as to facilitate that process. ISIS is also a melting pot for jihadists from the Western world, and their return to their countries of origin not only increases the risk of radicalization among Muslim communities but also the possibility of appalling terror attacks and suicide bombings not unlike the scenes of horror emanating from Iraq and Syria.
The Believers Are Returning
ISIS' dynamics have brought the danger to Iran's borders and jeopardizes its key interests, both political and Shiite-religious. A prime example is the spillover of ISIS suicide bombings into areas of Hizbullah influence in Lebanon and along Syrian- Lebanese border. Sunni elements are also threatening Shiite shrines; in Syria scores of Hizbullah operatives, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij fighters, and Shiite volunteers have already been killed defending the tomb of Zainab (daughter of Imam Ali and granddaughter of Muhammad). ISIS is now also threatening the main Shiite shrines of Iraq in Samarra, Najaf, and Karbala, where some of the major Shiite imams are buried. In Syria and recently in Lebanon , Hizbullah is fighting to prevent ISIS and other radical Sunni groups from infiltrating Lebanon and waging war against the Shiites on Lebanese soil.
In a gathering with the "Scouts of the Imam Al-Mahdi," Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke of the situation in Iraq and its regional implications. He said that Hizbullah's motto for the involvement in Syria was that "Zainab will not fall captive again [Zainab was captured by the army of Yazid after Imam Hussein was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 – the foundational Shiite myth], and we kept our word. As for Iraq, I say that our motto is that the days in which anyone could harm the shrines in Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra have ended."
Nasrallah also asserted that Hizbullah could provide five times more dead fighters for Iraq than those who fell defending Zainab's tomb in Syria, since the Iraqi shrines are more important, and that so long as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran itself continue to exist, no one could harm the Shiite holy places. "We are in the days when the appearance of the Mahdi is nearer than ever, and he, when he appears, will find thousands who are prepared to die under his flag." If Hizbullah were not fighting ISIS in Syria, Nasrallah declared, the battles would be occurring in Lebanon instead.
On the Border
More generally, Iran sees the expansion of ISIS's activity and influence as a threat to its national security. The front line Iran has drawn in Lebanon and Syria is contracting, and the defensive lines Hizbullah has laid down in Syria, at Iran's behest, against the infiltration of Lebanon by Al-Qaeda and ISIS elements have also been breached. Today Iran is already contending on its eastern border with the Sunni Jundallah organization, which has carried out attacks and kidnappings against IRGC forces in Iranian territory. And now Iran faces a new, determined, and experienced Sunni foe on its northwestern border, which also includes elements of the hated Baath that Iran remembers well from the days of the Iran-Iraq War. All this is occurring while Iran continues to fight the Kurdish opposition in these areas.
Protecting the Holy Places
There are contradictory reports on the degree of Iran's involvement in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Iran denied reports in the U.S. media that special Quds forces of the IRGC were sent to Iraq to combat ISIS and defend Baghdad, and that Quds commander Qasem Soleimani had visited Iraq several times in that context. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said he did not think Iranian military forces would act against ISIS in Iraq, though Iran was prepared to give as much help as necessary to fight terror. In any case, Iranian media confirmed that an IRGC operative from the Quds Force named Alireza Moshajeri, who fell in defense of Karbala, was the force's first casualty in battles with ISIS in Iraq. (See: http://harimshia.org/1393/03/26/50) His picture, along with a picture of the recruitment of Shiites to protect the shrines in Iraq, appears on a special website, http://harimshia.org that was created for recruitment and provides constant updates on the campaign in Iraq.
It should be emphasized that Iran has a regular, clandestine military presence in Iraq, mainly in the south but also in the northern Kurdish areas. During the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Iran was giving the Shiite terror groups assistance – among other things through advisers from Lebanese Hizbullah – in attacking American and coalition soldiers with advanced EFPs (explosively formed penetrators) that inflicted many casualties among the coalition forces.
Along with its military and subversive activities, Iran has hinted about possible coordination with the United States in dealing with the Iraqi crisis. During the nuclear talks in mid-June, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that even though the talks were focused on the nuclear issue, it was natural, in light of the grave situation in Iraq, for this issue to be raised as well. 9 President Rouhani also said, "All the countries must join together to deal with ISIS in Iraq…. The United States has not yet taken any action and we are waiting."
Attempting to convey reassuring messages, Iran called for the stabilization of the Iraqi government. It appears to have understood, however, in light of developments, that this would require its ally al-Maliki to give up his post as prime minister. At the same time, Rouhani asserted that Iran would strike hard at any terror groups operating along its borders. Ali Shamkhani, chairman of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), denied any possibility of cooperation with the United States, said that such notions constitute "psychological warfare" against Iran, and added that ISIS was America's handiwork.
One cannot expect help from those who act behind the scenes to create threats and instability in Iraq…. If the Iraqi government asks us to help, we will consider this in the context of Iran's international commitments. In any case the activity will be carried out through direct channels in Iraq without any involvement of a third party.
On the other hand, Rouhani's deputy chief of staff for political affairs, Hamid Abutalebi, tweeted that "the United States and Iran are the only ones that can resolve the crisis in Iraq through diplomatic channels."
The contradictory statements apparently reflect a dispute in the top Iranian echelon over the sensitive issue of the crisis at Iran's doorstep. Whereas Ali Shamkhani י who in the past was IRGC naval commander and defense minister under the Khatami government, opposes any cooperation with the United States, the political elite of the "new Iran" is trying to keep channels open.
Khamenei has been trying to downplay the Shiite-Sunni dimension of the developments in Iraq. As he tweeted: "What's happening in Iraq isn't a Sunni-Shia war, but a war by terrorism on opponents of terrorism, by West-lovers on fans of independence…. Today the dregs of Saddam's regime & a bunch of ignorant ppl [people] commit crimes in Iraq."
Iran sees ISIS as part of a broader campaign being waged in the Arab world with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which, Iran claims, are financing the organization's active in Syria and on Iran's eastern border. Mohammad Esmaili, member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, purported that the United States, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have been the most significant supporters of ISIS. The commander of Iran's Basij Organization, Mohammad Reza-Naqdi, alleged that ISIS' command is in the hands of the United States.
Iranian newspapers across the political spectrum voice similar views. The reformist Shargh wrote:
Recruitment for Protecting the Holy Places
Iranian media reported that various websites and groups were trying to recruit people to fight in Iraq and protect the Shiite shrines as part of a body called "The People's Headquarters to Defend the Sanctum of Shi'a," and that so far about 5,000 volunteers had joined. Other sites also published calls to volunteer for a war to protect the Shiite holy places of Iraq. For example, Imam Mahdi's Immolators Battalion issued a call to come to the defense of Samarra, saying this enterprise would have Khamenei's blessing. According to Majlis member Hussein Ali Shahriari, "The whole world must recognize that if a need arises, the Iranian youth and men will go to Iraq to protect the holy places and will not allow anyone to offend the shrines of the imams."
At the border with Iraq and on Iran's eastern border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran has boosted security measures and vigilance against the threat from radical Sunni elements and particularly ISIS. Iran's Border Police commander General Hossein Zolfaqari said that Iran would add another 160 inspection points to its borders by March 2015 (the end of the Iranian year), particularly along the northwestern border. He added that currently the border with Iraq is quiet.
The Tenth and Eleventh Imams (Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari) and some of their relatives are buried in a mosque in Samarra. This mosque was almost totally destroyed by attacks carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006 and 2007. The Shiite site Shia News reported that ISIS, during its takeover of parts of northwestern Iraq, had murdered two Shiite clerics and their family members who were in the course of a pilgrimage to Samarra.
Nuclear Weapons, Sunnis, Shiites
To Tehran's satisfaction, the crisis in Iraq and the threat of its spread to other adjacent areas has pushed the nuclear talks out of the spotlight. Although these negotiations are not directly connected with the Iraqi developments, their outcome will likely have a decisive impact on regional processes and equations. That pertains particularly to Iran's status in the regional system as the U.S. role declines, the growth of chaotic tendencies and instability, and the increasing importance of non-state terror elements.
Iran will try as in the past to leverage its influence and deep involvement in Iraq, along with its common interests with the West (and even with some of its regional adversaries) when it comes to containing ISIS's expansion southward in Iraq and westward to Jordan. The aim of this leverage will be to extract concessions on the nuclear issue. Iran previously adopted similar tactics, promising to rein in its support for terror against the coalition forces in Iraq as a quid pro quo for concessions and mitigations in earlier rounds of nuclear talks going back to 2003.
Meanwhile, the United States has lost almost all its cards and traditional allies in the region. One open question is whether it will also give up the Iranian nuclear card for a (hollow) promise from Tehran to help stabilize Iraq and contain ISIS. Such a move would endanger the United States' remaining assets in the region, particularly in the Persian Gulf, while further exacerbating the longstanding Sunni-Shiite struggle and putting it on the path of nuclear confrontation.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Foresight Prudence.