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Iran and its Protégées
What if we understood al Qaeda and the Islamic State as protégées of Iran?
What if we understood al Qaeda and the Islamic State as protégées of Iran, rather than merely its rivals? At first glance, this might seem outlandish, given that al Qaeda and the Islamic State are Sunni militant groups while Iran is a Shiite theocracy, and each nominally regards the others as theological apostates. Because the suggestion of a familial lineage between these groups and Iran flies in the face of conventional wisdom, it is necessary to test the claim by looking for indications of mutual influence, shared values, and shared goals. For example, on June 10, 2016, Tallha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, suggested, “Iran is what the Islamic State will look like if it succeeds.” He pointed to similarities in behavior between Iran and its supposed protégée: Each had committed horrendous terrorist actions and human rights violations at home and abroad in the name of Islamist militancy. Similarities in behavior, however, may not be sufficient to demonstrate family ties.
U.S. cable traffic released by Wikileaks showed links between Tehran and al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State. A cable titled “Iraq war logs: Al Qaida’s new suicide bombing tactics,” dated November 17, 2006, and published in the Guardian on October 22, 2010, provided evidence that Tehran trained al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq to use suicide vests fitted with cameras. On March 9, 2016, the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York in Manhattan ordered Iran to pay compensation to September 11 victims for Tehran’s alleged role in aiding the al Qaeda hijackers.
The roots of these potential links go back to 1979. “The threat of violent Sunni Islamism was essentially nonexistent until 1979,” when Iran’s revolution became a symbol of the potential power of political Islam, Andrew Peek, an expert on terrorism in the Middle East, wrote in Foreign Affairs. Not coincidentally, Sunni extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca that same year. While their theological differences are real, Sunni and Shia militants both made their modern debut on the global stage that year, as violent Islamism became a new global presence.
The Islamists’ perspectives found fertile ground as radicalism prospered in soil fertilized with the blood of extremists in the post-Gulf War period. More recently, Iran’s efforts to spread its revolution to Iraq and Syria provided the oxygen for the rise of al Qaeda’s terrible descendant, the Islamic State. The Iranian regime has made indirect use of the Islamic State to bolster Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and to control Iraq by supporting sectarian killings by militias in places like Fallujah.
The conventional wisdom is that al Qaeda and the Islamic State are mortal enemies with Iran. But the conventional wisdom misses a deeper way in which the apparent enemies are mutually dependent and inspired by a common apocalyptic vision of Islam. They are mutually dependent as sometime adversaries who are all nonetheless sworn enemies of secular, Western values. The United States needs to defeat al Qaeda and the Islamic State, but not in a way that further empowers Iran and provides the seed for the next generation of this toxic family. Hence, President Barack Obama’s realpolitik acquiescence to Iran’s support for Shia proxies and the Revolutionary Guard in Iraq is exactly the wrong tonic.
The counterargument is that ousting Iran from Iraq might require reinsertion of U.S. ground forces, for which there is scant public support, and which would jeopardize relations with other world powers. Discussed below: options other than a massive ground force deployment.
According to Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the Iranian regime is seeking to overthrow a balance of power that has endured for some 1,400 years. Besides Christians and Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, Tehran’s targets include Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The Revolutionary Guard in Iraq, the Quds special forces, and Tehran’s proxies, like Hezbollah in Syria, spread the Islamist revolution of 1979 across borders. Thus, it is not a surprise that Riyadh views Tehran in an unfavorable light. The same has begun to hold true for the Lebanese and Hezbollah.
The Islamic State did not just rise up from hell. Its ascent derives from Assad’s killing of civilians. His primary sponsor is the regime in Tehran, according to Gen. Jack Keane, chair of the Institute for the Study of War. Iran is using the rise of the Islamic State to consolidate power in Syria, and to keep Iraq’s Shiites and Assad standing against well-armed and tenacious Sunni forces.
In May, leaked documents revealed Assad-Islamic State collusion stretching back to the start of the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime and Iran nurtured the rise of al Qaeda, and then the Islamic State, in Syria. After the group had matured fully, Damascus and Tehran offered themselves as partners to the United States in the Vienna talks on Syria. On the battlefield, however, Russian and Syrian warplanes continue to provide support, while maintaining plausible deniability, for the Islamic State, as it advanced on rebel-held areas. Meanwhile, the Islamic State and pro-Assad forces mainly refrained from attacking each other in an entente cordiale.
In July 2015, just before the United States adopted the nuclear deal with Iran, a pan-Arab daily, Al-Hayat, reported that Secretary of State John Kerry, during a trip to Russia, had posed the idea of setting up a Syrian “contact group” consisting of regional and international actors. Kerry would have included Doha, Istanbul, Moscow, Riyadh, Tehran, and Washington. Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in October that Washington had legitimized Iran’s local assets and means of projecting power by recognizing the country as a principal “stakeholder” in Syria.
Legitimizing Tehran as an interested party implicitly acknowledges its support for Hezbollah and interest in preserving a land bridge to Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon. Since 1997, the State Department has listed Hezbollah as a designated terrorist organization — yet the State Department advocated inclusion of Iran in a contact group.
“After many years of sanctions targeting, today Hezbollah is in its worst financial shape in decades…. And I can assure you that, alongside our international partners, we are working hard to put them out of business,” said Adam Szubin, acting U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, as quoted by Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury and now vice president for research at FDD.
But Hezbollah is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran. Tehran bargained for and received a humongous financial windfall of some $100 billion pursuant to last summer’s nuclear deal; with such money available to Hezbollah, Schanzer wisely comments that no entity is in a position to put it “out of business” anytime soon.
The conventional wisdom that Iran is an enemy of al Qaeda and the Islamic State because they have fought each other is partly correct. But this interpretation masks areas in which cooperation is also present. The three are like “frenemies,” actors that purport to be enemies but covertly perform friendly interactions on more than an occasional basis, as has been demonstrated above.
The counterargument also assumes that even if a new U.S. president were to see the need to oust Iran from Iraq, she or he might have to authorize ground combat forces to go into Iraq and Syria. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey suggests another way: Deter Iran while destroying al Qaeda and the Islamic State by rebuilding the CIA alignment with Sunni tribal chiefs in Anbar province.
In addition, a new political-military strategy needs to focus on the constellation of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, to keep them in check. How? Organize a coalition of Sunni Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, and the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq. Along with Iranian dissidents, such a coalition would increase costs to Tehran, its proxies, and Shiite militias for colluding with Islamist organizations in the destabilization of Iraq and Syria. And it would bring strategic clarity to an important but overlooked fact: America’s adversaries are militant Islamists of the Sunni and Shia variety, embodied in al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Iran.
Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images