Why Iran, U.S. aren’t on quite the same side in fight against Islamic State
It might seem counter-intuitive to think that attacking the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, would damage Iran or Shi’ite interests in the Middle East. After all, Iran shares the West’s concerns about the radical Sunni group and is in a tacit alliance with the United States when it comes to defeating their common enemy. And yet, Iran fears it might end up being the loser in this battle.
The 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq opened a new political vista in favor of Iran — and Shi’ism — by replacing Sunni leaders, like Saddam Hussein, with Shi’ite politicians previously in exile in Iran, like Nouri al-Maliki.
This shift in the balance of power between Shi’ites and Sunnis led to the emergence of a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East with a majority Shi’ite population under Tehran’s sphere of influence.
Since Islamic State first emerged, The Islamic Republic of Iran believed the group was engineered by Arab states of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. On these grounds, it took it upon itself to fight against the extremist militants. When Islamic State occupied the province of Mosul, Iran wholeheartedly cooperated with the Iraqi Kurds as well as the Iraqi forces to contain further advancement of the Islamic State.
There is mounting evidence that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in turn, provided financial and military support to the opponents of the Assad regime. To achieve this aim, they did not hesitate to engage the most fundamentalist of Islamist groups, such as Al Qaeda’s affiliates Al Nusra and Islamic State.
Those backing Assad’s opponents believed the regime would not be able to withstand more than three months of conflict. This proved to be unfounded. After more than three years of civil war in Syria between the Assad government and an array of foreign forces, including the American assisted Free Syrian Army, and Al Qaeda’s affiliates such as Al Nusra and Islamic State, the Syrian regime remained in power.
Now, however, Saudi Arabia sees the Islamic State threat as a way to close the political rift with the United States, which has grown as a result of, among other things, the initiation of constructive dialogue between the United States and Iran.
Iran is concerned that the new coalition formed between the United States and Arab states like Saudi, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait against Islamic State may lead to the eventual downfall of the Assad regime and the destruction of the Shi’ite crescent by further strengthening the position of moderate anti-Assad groups like the Free Syrian Army.
In order to prevent the realization of this strategic objective, the Iranian government –which is not part of the coalition — continues in parallel to bring about the dismantlement and destruction of Islamic State.
Iran strongly believes that the security of the region is commensurate to the interest of the countries of the region and the interest of the Shi’ite minorities.
Iran could benefit from the coalition formed against Islamic State, which considers it as a threat to the regional security and particularly in areas with Shi’ite population.
However, it might risk losing its Syrian leverage of the Shi’ite crescent through the assumption of power by Sunnis in that country in order to be victorious against Islamic State.
For those watching the crescent and wondering what the future holds, not even the stars can tell.
PHOTO: Iraqi women walk past a poster depicting images of Shi’ite Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at al-Firdous Square in Baghdad February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad