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Raqqa, Iran…or What Comes Next?

As the dead were being buried following June’s ISIS attack on Tehran, a new chorus could be heard by many in the Western media—that Iran was a paladin in the fight against Daesh, that it is a reliable partner in constructing a stable Middle East. This is dangerously misleading. Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq, shows how Iran is only aligned to itself and how its destabilising foreign policy creates the very conditions for the proliferation of terrorist organisations. Diana Esfandiary is one such apologist.

Esfandiary defines Iran as a key target for ISIS—a reflection of the group’s clear anti-Shia propaganda. The June attacks were the first on Iranian soil since Daesh established a territorial foothold across Iraq and Syria. Such figures are surprisingly low when compared to the multitude of attacks attributed to the group in Turkey and Saudi Arabia—the main regional Sunni powers. Characterising the rise of Daesh as part of the enduring conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, ignores the role the Islamic Republic of Iran played in creating instability and contributing to sectarian tensions in neighbouring Iraq. As part of Iran’s long-term strategy of capturing Baghdad and turning Iraq into a vassal state, the Ayatollah’s regime supported, already in 1999, the rise of Abu Musab Zarqawi’s Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad (JTJ), to undermine Saddam Hussein. The JTJ was the embryo of Daesh. Tehran contributed to its creation and its prominence. It provided military and logistical supplies and cover, as the organisation was fighting the US-led coalition. Iran’s goal was to undermine the new government in Baghdad and replace it with an Iran-friendly regime while exhausting US staying power.

Esfandiary wrongly applauds Iranian efforts to fight Daesh on the ground. The presence in Iraq of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by Major General Qasem Soleimani, is a decisive factor fomenting sectarianism and ISIS-driven extremism in Iraq’s Sunni majority provinces. Iran has used the IRG-trained Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) not to lead the fight against Daesh but to gain direct territorial control of those parts of Iraq where the current Tehran aligned Iraqi government does not enjoy popular support. Iran’s search for capillary control of Iraq, gained by controlling the Iraqi political and military apparatus, openly challenges Esfandiary’s vision according to which Daesh’s attack in Tehran is an attack on Iran’s “democracy” following Rouhani’s election win—despite that the elected president does not have real power, Iran simply does not share democratic values. 

Also, importantly, Iran opposes self-determination as seen in Soleimani’s role at preventing the expansion of Iraqi Kurdistan and the liberation of other areas of Iraq from Daesh, despite the prolonged civilian suffering. A more powerful and independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq would provoke the revival of self-determination aspirations of Iran’s Kurds which have been long repressed by Tehran. 

Esfandiary relates the scarcity of attacks on Iran’s soil to Iran’s anti-radicalisation programmes in the country’s West. Since its establishment in 1979, Iran has been a radical theocratic state which crushed all forms of internal opposition and dissent. That Daesh has successfully recruited many fighters from Iran’s Sunni minority should be unsurprising considering how the Ayatollahs use religion and the allegiance to the Shia clergy to ensure internal legitimacy and support. The danger represented by ISIS  has forced Shia communities across the MENA region to rely on Iran for protection; increasing the Iranian grip on those communities. Consequently, the Islamic Republic is currently promoting divisive and destabilising sectarianism in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen to increase its regional influence at the expenses of countries members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, (GCC). 

As opposing extremisms tend to reinforce one another, Iran’s sectarian foreign policy is contributing to the root causes which gave birth to ISIS. It is time for Iranian attempts to export its oppressive and sectarian model of state to be met by resistance and not rewarded by apologists seeking to rehabilitate one of the most oppressive regimes in modern history. 

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