MESOP : THE SYMBIOSIS OF TEHRAN & ISIS – Islamic State and Islamic Republic: Curses & Causality

June 30, 2016 – By Hassan Mneimneh  – FIKRA FORUM

The “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s jihadist enemies have repeatedly accused the Islamic State of collusion with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The grounds for the accusation are seemingly multiple. ISIS operatives have been engaged in international deadly raids targeting a number of far-flung locales, yet so far Iran has been spared. An ISIS spokesman at one point claimed that avoiding attacks on Iran was at al-Qaeda leadership’s urging. But why would such a request continue to be honored long after the two terror organizations parted ways? And in whose interests is ISIS’s role as spoiler of the Syrian uprising against the regime?

ISIS has fought all Syrian opposition factions; notably the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusrah, diverting the groups from their main fight, depleting their resources, and in the process providing the regime a reprieve that enabled it to avoid what seemed to be an imminent collapse.

Why is ISIS intent on “liberating” lands in Yemen and Afghanistan already “liberated” by other jihadists? ISIS has subjected the successful jihadist projects of both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP) and the Taliban to attrition and potential failure by declaring the groups’ fighters infidels and vowing to eliminate them. And what is the justification for the ISIS-wrought devastation in Iraq’s Sunni regions through conquering or by continuing futile resistance in refusing to abandon a locale before reducing it to rubble? How can this deliberate destruction be seen as anything other than ethnic cleansing, designed to suit Iranian wishes and interests?

These are the questions that fuel ISIS’s jihadist critics. The accusation of collusion between the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic is not mitigated by ISIS’s excommunication of all Shiites, or by its large-scale massacres and systematic destruction of Shiite shrines in Iraq. Such actions are explained away as useful for both ISIS and Iran as propaganda. Tehran, they claim, is steeped in Persian supremacism that masquerades as Shiism and exhibits no real concern for Arab Shiites, whose tragic deaths are instead being used as emotional-charged recruitment propaganda.

However, jihadist critics of ISIS disagree over the intentionality of the Iranian-ISIS alignment. The majority tends to accept a deliberate conspiratorial arrangement between leaderships, while a minority opinion attributes the collusion to Iranian manipulation that deftly exploits ISIS’s lack of vision and expertise, or through the use of infiltrators.

ISIS supporters categorically dismiss these accusations. They dismiss such critics as either discredited Muslim Brothers rotting in jail or awaiting their death sentences, Randian pseudo-Muslims cynically seeking to subvert the content of Islam, or supporters of the “New Look” al-Qaeda, which has gone astray in seeking worldwide approval under the dysfunctional leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Regarding Sunni deaths in Syria, they claim that the appointed commander of al-Nusra spoiled the Syrian jihad by breaking his oath of allegiance to ISIS and pledging alliance to al-Qaeda, transforming the struggle into a fratricidal, intra-jihadist fight. As to for the devastation inflicted on the Sunnis of Iraq, ISIS apologists emphasize that devastation in Sunni Iraq predated the Islamic State’s takeover and continues in areas from which ISIS has retreated. According to this line of reasoning, ISIS is not concerned with the state of any one theater of jihad, but is instead focused on carrying out a holistic, global, aggressive jihad to impose Divine Law, by force when necessary.

ISIS supporters insist that the falsely-Islamic Persian-chauvinistic Iran is absolutely a target, even if not an imminent one. And although ISIS been accused of collusions with Iran, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, through the Islamic State’s eyes it faces all these and many other nations in an apocalyptic battle that will end only with the defeat of the West — heralded by the fall of its spiritual capital Rome.

From a non-jihadist perspective, there is no proof and weak circumstantial evidence that ISIS and Iran are engaged in a co-conspiracy. In 2014, a few days after a senior Iranian military official’s claim that a “Third Persian Empire” stretched through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, ISIS captured Mosul and large swaths of territory in Iraq. This dramatically curtailed Iran’s sphere of hegemony and negates the ally/vassal narrative. Though ISIS has yet to find a gap in the Iranian security shield that would enable an attack inside Iran, the group continues to inflict severe casualties on Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria. However, lack of direct collusion does not preclude the theory of causality or mutual benefits between the two entities.

After “Iraqi Government Forces” recaptured Tikrit from the grip of the Islamic State, Persian graffiti appeared on the walls: “Tikrit was conquered by the children of Ayatollah Khomeini”. These forces were recognizably not all “Government.” Most of the fighters were members of Iranian-backed “Popular Mobilization” militias, and its members began recasting the fall of Tikrit as a continuation of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Fighters also omitted the crucial contribution of U.S. air support from their narrative, refusing credit to the “Great Satan.”

Baghdad acknowledges its recourse to Tehran, emphasizing the reluctance of Iraq’s friends, Western as well as Arab, to provide urgently needed support to halt the ISIS offensive. In contrast, from Tehran’s perspective the ISIS blitzkrieg constituted a damaging setback to its image. Nevertheless, Iran gained a new opportunity to openly involve itself in Iraq, a departure from its previous use of clients and allies. Reciprocally, the excesses and abuses attributed to the “Popular Mobilization” forces provided ISIS with material to maintain its grip on the Sunni population remaining under its control.

Curses, insults, and verbal attacks characterize the exchanges between the Islamic Republic and the Islamic State, often drawing and expanding on earlier conflict imagery. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic State are bound by a causality loop. Without the Islamic Republic, there would not have been an Islamic State. It is not just that a Shiite irritant has awakened a latent Sunni radicalism; the two sides are engaged in a repeating cycle of fundamental and ideological mutual reinforcement. Acknowledgement of this reality has unfortunately been absent from discussions on how to curtail and eradicate the ISIS phenomenon.

Tehran apologists and bona-fide skeptics of the suggested linkage alike may instead acclaim that Saudi Arabia is responsible for fostering the original ideology on which ISIS thrives. Indeed, ISIS discourse often seems indistinguishable from that of the Saudi religious establishment. But while it is undeniable that ISIS has embraced the language of Sunni radicalism propagated by the Saudi Wahhabist clergy, much of ISIS’s ideological narrative is an almost direct borrow from the “Rulership of the Jurisprudent” school that dominates the Iranian religious establishment. Saudi and Iranian clergies are on par in their adoption of theoretical radicalism, despite Iran’s greater success in managing media critique of its radical stances. The difference lies in Iran’s success in applying said radicalism, providing an implicit inspirational model for the Islamic State. Both Islamic Republic and Islamic State are radical in their understanding of religious legacy, totalitarian in the treatment of the populations under their control, irredentist and expansionist in their claim to global jurisdiction, and millenarian in their expectations of the near future.

The similarities are not coincidental. They reflect the shared intellectual legacy of a truncated assimilation into modernity that remains at odds with some of its central elements — free thought, normative equality, and individualism. This legacy evolved for over a century before gaining a foothold as a ruling ideology in Iran. Its degeneration to sectarianism was the result of many factors, principally Iran’s attempt to develop and leverage custodianship over disparate and marginalized Shiite communities. While sectarianism was not pre-ordained, it offered Iran unprecedented influence. It simultaneously stirred up local enmities that fed into the sectarian counter-project, based on a shared intellectual legacy and a desire to match and ultimately surpass the Iranian challenge. The Islamic Republic set the course, and the Islamic State followed.

There are undoubtedly visible differences in the caliber of displayed radicalism and totalitarianism between Tehran and Raqqah. Capital punishment in Iran is common, but is no match to the normalization of horror in the Islamic State. Yet these are differences in practice, not theory. It is conceivable that an energized and diverse Iranian society may force the ruling clerical class to moderate its ideology, but Iran’s current trajectory trends towards a harsher response to demands of positive progressive change.

Similarly, both entities’ claims to religiously endowed leadership are universal rather than national. Iran’s “Supreme Guide” is presented as “Commander (or Custodian) of the Muslims,” while the Caliph in the Islamic State is labeled as “Commander of the faithful” within and without the borders of the Caliphate. Iran has fostered an undeclared yet well received narrative that circumscribes its custodianship to Muslim populations with affinity to Shiism, including communities historically distinct from Twelver Shiites such as the Zaydis of Yemen, and others until recently deemed heretical , such as the Nusayri-Alawis and Bektashi-Alevis. But the Iranian religious establishment vigorously pursues intra-Muslim proselytism—“istibsar”, or enlightenment—often directed at Sunni communities, especially Sufis, negatively affected by the tenets of Salafism. This suggests that the irredentist claim of custodianship of all Muslims openly stated by Ayatollah Khomeini has not been abandoned.

Religious irredentism translates into thinly veiled political and military expansionism. Iran as a polity seems to suffer from a split personality, torn between state building and revolution. The state of Iran presumably seeks to normalize ties with its neighbors and the international community. Revolutionary Iran is at enmity with much of the world and engaged in regional conquest. The contradictions are constantly visible: Iranian diplomats solemnly proclaim non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries while Iranian Revolutionary Guards boast of occupying capitals and states. Iran has effectively succeeded in occupying Lebanon, since Hezbollah has unequivocally declared its political, military, ideological, and religious allegiance to the Iranian Supreme Guide. Moreover, Iran appears occupied with ensuring the survival of the Damascus regime as an Iranian client. Attempts to apply the formula of totalitarian control through a local proxy are also visible in Yemen and Iraq, with admittedly lower expectations. The Islamic State may talk about abolishing regional borders, but the Islamic Republic is making this vision a reality.

The two groups are also driven by similar motivations. Both the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic, according to their respective supporters’ histories, are the penultimate chapters in the unfolding of the apocalyptic sequence. Each is expecting a millenarian savior figure, the Mahdi, agreeing on the name, role, and place in history, but diverging on the details of this apocalyptic figure. The Mahdi of the Islamic Republic is popularly thought to already be in periodic contact with the Supreme Guide to provide guidance in anticipation of the End Days. His archenemy, al-Sufyani, is widely believed to have already appeared in Syria, as predicted. Al-Yamani, an aid to al-Mahdi, is also rumored to have been found in Lebanon. These may or may not be the convictions of Iran’s clerics. Nor has the official Iranian government confirmed or denied these rumors. Nevertheless, they are part of the millenarian lore, invoked to mobilize Iraqi, Lebanese, and other Shiite youth to epic battles away from their homelands.

The Islamic State, on the other hand, has not yet declared the advent of the Mahdi. Nevertheless, its officially propagated exegesis is categorical in placing its rule as the “Truthful Promise of God.” ISIS controls Dabiq and al-A‘maq, localities expected to be central in the unfolding of the apocalypse. The global Sunni youth is thus summoned to join the millenarian state in Syria.

These two millenarian projects are each honing their individual definitions of the epochal enemy. Over the course of the previous century, Islamic millenarian readings had adjusted the weight of the traditions to elevate a monolithic collective of “Jews” to a primordial enmity. Both Republic and State have faithfully preserved this image, now supplemented by hatred for the United States. However, each of the two millenarian readings has also incrementally positioned the other—rebranded with pejorative designations to strip away “Muslimhood”—as the main focus of disparagement, laying the grounds for perpetual confrontation.

This shouldn’t be solace for those who may believe that an intra-Muslim feud would sap away the potential for Muslim aggressiveness externally. In addition to the suffering that this feud invariably produces in local communities, which through migration extends to the global community, the historical record demonstrates that accumulated hate and anger is easily redirected at new targets.

The situation is not susceptible to indifference, containment, or management. Still, these approaches, which may yield temporary relief at best, are certainly more effective than what some have explicitly or implicitly advocated in the wake of the P5+1 agreement: a strategic reliance on Iran to stabilize the region and positioning Iranian-backed Shiite radicalism as a manageable political expression versus an unbound and out of control Sunni radicalism. Failing to understand the causality that ties the two radical manifestations is tantamount to attempting to extinguish the fire of the Islamic State using Islamic Republic gasoline.

After years of neglect, responsibility for a pro-active policy falls particularly on the shoulders of the next U.S. administration. After years of neglect and a sequence of apologies for inaction, a policy that recognizes the causality and fundamental parallels between the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic is called for in order to halt the destructive momentum generated by the lethal symbiosis between these two entities.

Hassan Mneimneh is the Contributing Editor at Fikra Forum.