July 13, 2015 | The Canberra Times

Iran’s Very Active Posture Against IS in Iraq Finds No Match in Syria

Since her return from Tehran in April, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has argued that Iran can be a reliable partner in the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. At the Paris talks this month she called for Iran to be included in the coalition fighting IS.

But viewing Tehran as a potential ally in the fight against the IS is a mistake based on a misreading of Iran's core interests and the ideology that drives them. Iran cares only about its regional ambitions – and it will fight anyone standing in its way.

Though Tehran may view IS as a threat to its heartland, Iran has a long history of dialogue and co-operation with Sunni radicals. Even the most fanatically anti-Shiite groups have worked with Tehran on more than one occasion. Conventional wisdom assumes a bitter religious enmity between them and the Sunni radicals they are fighting in Iraq. In fact, Iran is unscrupulous in its choice of partners. What guides Tehran is not a rivalry against Sunni radicals over some transcendent truth. It is Iran's ambition for regional dominance, for which it will side with anyone that can advance its interest and clash with those who stand in the way.

It is no mystery that Iran supports the Sunni Hamas in its ongoing attrition war against Israel. The tunnel networks Hamas used last summer with considerable ingenuity and surprise to penetrate inside Israel bear the hallmarks of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and their engineering skills. Hamas' improving rocket arsenal also benefits from Iran's financial support and know-how. The Sunni-Shiite divide plays no role in the face of an ideological foe like Israel.

Nor are Iran's ties to Hamas an exception.

Documents captured by US special forces from Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, show that Shiite revolutionary Iran and al-Qaeda, the godfather of Sunni radicals, have had a longstanding relationship. Al-Qaeda learned the art of co-ordinated suicide operations while bin Laden was in Sudan in the 1990s, after Iran agreed to dispatch Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyeh, the mastermind of the Beirut marine barracks bombing in 1983 and of the AMIA Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires in 1994, to train bin Laden's jihadis. When, in 2001, the Taliban fell, Iran facilitated the transfer of many al-Qaeda leaders, including members of bin Laden's family, through Iran.

Iran's relationship with bin Laden's one-time hosts, the Afghan Taliban, was marred by atrocities the Taliban committed against ethnic Hazara, who are Shiite, in Western Afghanistan, and by the murder of nine Iranian diplomats, in 1998, in Mazar-e-Sharif. Nevertheless, Iran did not hesitate to supply the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan with weapons to fight Western forces.

A recent high-profile Taliban visit to Tehran, led by Tayeb Agha, head of the Taliban's political office in Qatar, offers another example of how easily and unscrupulously Iran can switch sides, based on its desire to advance its own causes, rather than the one Western leaders ascribe to its readiness to fight IS.

According to Tasnim News, the delegation met Iran's intelligence and security officials and discussed issues regarding the Muslim world, the region and Afghan immigrants. The visit was not a one-off: the Taliban repeatedly visited Iran in recent times, to meet Iranian intelligence and security officials and participate in the Islamic Awakening Conference.

The sight of Taliban officials in Tehran over the last year is a sign of growing tension between Iran and the newly elected Afghan government, which has a less favourable attitude toward the Islamic republic than its predecessor. Its recent decision to support Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen has no doubt left Tehran frustrated.

While the visit's public announcement may be the bitter fruit of Afghan support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the visit itself is not. Iran is watching Afghanistan closely to secure its interests after the Western military withdrawal. Tehran prefers a weak central government in Kabul so it can use the western part of the country as its backyard. It also wants to be recognised as the protector of Afghanistan's Shiites and Farsi-language speakers. As a result, Tehran supports the Taliban insurgency as it weakens the central government and divides the Pashtuns who are traditionally backed by Pakistan, Iran's neighbour and its rival in Afghanistan.

This duplicity is in full display vis-a-vis IS. Iran's very active posture against IS in Iraq finds no match in Syria, where Tehran and its proxy, Damascus, have until recently mostly avoided direct clashes with IS and allowed its forces to weaken and divide the fragmented Syrian opposition. In Iraq, IS threatens Iran's sphere of influence. In Syria, it helped weaken the enemies of Tehran's proxy in Damascus.

Australia and its Western allies should therefore resist the temptation of embracing Iran in the fight against Sunni radicals. Iran may fight them in Ramadi, but it will host them in Tehran if it becomes expedient, and it will support them on the plains of Syria if it is cost-effective in the pursuit of its strategic goals. Ultimately, what drives Tehran is not a principled opposition to Sunni radicals, but the ambition to dominate the region – we should not confuse one with the other.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies where Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow. Follow them on Twitter @eottolenghi and @SGhasseminejad


Afghanistan Iran Syria