Iran’s strategy against the Islamic State

Iran’s strategy for combatting the Islamic State has entailed a broad political and firm security response channelled through the governments in Damascus and Baghdad and local Shia groups.

Iran has three principal objectives with regard to the Islamic State (IS): to stop IS in its tracks and eventually defeat the group in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; to keep intact the territorial integrity of these states; and to ensure that IS itself and/or the international coalition deployed to defeat IS do not sweep away Iran’s allies in the region or have a negative impact on Tehran’s security strategy.

In contrast to other areas of Iran’s foreign policy, this position is uniformly held across Tehran’s decision-making organs and internal factions.

Iran’s strategy for reaching these goals does have a political dimension, but it has so far focused more on a firm security response channelled through the governments in Damascus and Baghdad and through local Shia groups. The gains made by IS have strengthened Iran’s convictions that extremist Sunni insurgents must be contained in Iraq and Syria and that this can only be achieved successfully through coordination with the Iraqi army and the Syrian security apparatus that is held together by President Bashar al-Assad.

IS threat: largely external and indirect

IS rejects and calls for the destruction of Shia Islam (practiced by more than 90 percent of Iranians) and the velayat e-faqih (rule of the jurists) system of governance adopted by the Iranian state. In spite of this, and unlike other countries in the region, Iran perceives the threat of IS as broadly external and indirect.

Iranian security branches have concluded that IS does not have the military capability to carry out its threats against Iran successfully, and, at least for now, have ruled out the possibility of substantive IS incursion across Iranian borders. However, one of the more immediate internal security issues for Iran is the use of its territory as a corridor for passage into Iraq by Sunni extremist insurgents based in Pakistan and Afghanistan who want to join IS forces.

A growing worry for Iran is the terrorist attacks targeting its southern Sistan and Baluchestan province by Sunni insurgent groups operating from neighbouring Pakistan. Since September, there has been a surge in attacks reported against Iranian security personnel in this region. These have raised concerns in Tehran that the Sunni extremist group Jaish al-Adl, based in Pakistan, could eventually become an IS affiliate on Iran’s doorstep. In response, President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has taken active steps to cooperate with Iran’s local Sunni leaders to draw Sunnis away from extremist sympathies.

However, in contrast to Iraq, Iranians are confident that their army will remain able and willing to combat IS and other Sunni extremist groups. They are also confident that internal radicalisation is unlikely, especially given that the Iranian government and clergy and the overwhelming majority of Iran’s population reject the ideologies practiced by the radical Sunni group. While Iran has its share of disgruntled Sunnis, Kurds, and other minority groups who have pressed for greater recognition of their rights and voiced their desire for independence, they are unlikely to collude with or feel sympathetic towards IS insurgents in the way that some Sunni tribes have done in Iraq. But if the risk of internal radicalisation by Sunni extremist ideology were to grow dramatically, Tehran would not hesitate to respond with immediate and overwhelming force.

A substantive yet indirect IS threat to Tehran is that the group’s expansion undermines Iran’s regional security interests. Iran is keen to safeguard the position of its allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in view of threats from the US, Israel, and more recently Saudi Arabia. Ease of access through Syria and Iraq, which has been weakened by increasing IS control of territory, is the conduit that Iran uses to maintain Hezbollah as an effective retaliatory shield against Israel.

The general threat of regional mayhem is also a worry for Iran. The disintegration of Syria and Iraq and the empowerment of separatist groups could encourage Iran’s minority groups to press harder for independence. Moreover, when viewed through a sectarian lens, a prolonged escalation of the violence propagated by IS in neighbouring Iraq and Syria does not bode well for Iran and its Shia allies in a Sunni-dominated Arab region.

Iran’s strategy

Iran’s executive and security branches have agreed on a unified position to actively support local and central forces in Iraq and Syria in trying to squeeze IS territories.

Military pushback: Shia militias and the Peshmerga

Iran is coordinating with and providing military assistance to Shia groups in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon that also wish to confront the threat posed by IS. The Mahdi Army, Kataib Hezbollah, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are among the major groups receiving training, intelligence, and arms to fight IS from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These groups have long been involved with insurgency warfare in the region and are ideologically tied to Iran as a Shia state. For example, when Iran’s army collapsed during the Iran-Iraq war under Saddam Hussein, the IRGC mobilised Shia militia groups in Iran and Iraq to fight back. The close relationships that Iran has formed with these volunteer militias and the vast experience it has built up over the years placed it in a strong position against IS from the beginning: it was the first and most fully operational actor on the ground in Iraq countering IS.

As a result of Iranian support and the expertise of these Shia militias, they have managed to cultivate intelligence on and a deep understanding of IS warfare. If IS carries out its threat to attack the Shia towns of Najaf and Karbala, for example, this would trigger a more intense response from Iran, which would likely involve a redoubling of assistance to its Shia allies.

Iran was also the first country to openly provide President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with arms to fight IS. Iran supplied weapons to the KRG’s Peshmerga forces with the blessing of Baghdad. While acknowledging that the Peshmerga are effective against IS, Iran worries that if it aligns itself too closely with Barzani, it may inadvertently support Kurdish aspirations for independence, which Iran opposes. Iran is concerned that its own Kurdish minorities will want either to carve out an independent state or to join one elsewhere. It is likely that Iran’s support to the Peshmerga has been made conditional on the KRG’s loyalty to Baghdad. Iran is also reported to have allowed large numbers of its own separatist Kurds to cross into Iraq to join the fight against IS, with no guarantees that they can return. 

Iran has deployed special security advisors and provided the Iraqi and Syrian armies with weaponry (including, reportedly, sending SU-25 jets to Iraq), intelligence, and logistics with which to combat IS. For the foreseeable future, the Iranian army will not be sent either into Syria or Iraq in an effort to avoid Iran being dragged into the IS quagmire. Instead, advisors and intelligence personnel from IRGC’s Quds Force have been embedded into the Iraqi army the same way as they have been in Syria.

A political track

Iran acknowledges that a military response alone cannot defeat IS without a corresponding political resolution of the sectarian divisions that have plagued Iraq and Syria. While Iran is hoping that a new, inclusive government in Baghdad may help to address Sunni grievances in Iraq, it has been unable to propose solutions acceptable to opposition groups in Syria.

Iran has generally been open to a more inclusive central government in Iraq, as long as the administration remains Shia-dominated and Tehran-friendly. The first step towards this was Tehran’s agreement to remove Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and to advise incoming Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the orientation of his new cabinet. As in Iraq, Tehran has been pushing for a national unity government in Syria that would draw in some elements of the opposition. In the short term at least, Tehran views Assad as the only figure able to keep the Syrian state apparatus intact, contain IS, and maintain Syria’s alliance with Iran. Although there is some dialogue between Tehran and the Syrian opposition, given the divisions over Assad’s future role, the prospect of an imminent breakthrough seems slight.

However, Iran’s military pushback in Iraq and Syria, viewed by many Sunnis as a Shia-led incursion against their interests, will have negative consequences for the long-term political track. Iran’s military role in these areas, similar to that of the West, has been used by IS as an ideological tool for recruitment.

Widening international engagement

Iran and Saudi Arabia (and other backers of Sunni opposition groups in Syria and Iraq) perceive IS as a common threat. These regional players have accused one another of causing the overspill of IS. Iran blames the Gulf states and Turkey for providing funding and logistics to IS. Saudi Arabia and others blame Iran for supporting the Assad regime, which has fuelled the IS sectarian onslaught. Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia, rival powers for dominance in the region, hope to use the current situation to tip the balance in their own favour.

Despite these stark divisions, new openings do exist for cooperation among regional actors. High-level political meetings have taken place between Iran and Turkey to discuss how cooperation on IS could take place. The visit of Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs to Saudi Arabia in late August and the first bilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of the two states on the sidelines of the 2014 United Nations General Assembly may have paved the way for the senior diplomatic engagement on IS that later took place. Importantly, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey were able to agree that Maliki should be removed. Tehran hopes that IS will force Riyadh to lower its ambitions for Syria and has indicated that it would be willing to exert more pressure on Assad to open the door to deal-making. However, despite the logic suggesting that the rise of IS would force Iran and Saudi Arabia to reach a grand bargain on Syria, neither side yet looks likely to make meaningful compromises in the near future.

It is firmly understood that the rise of IS presents new possibilities for regional engagement between the West and Iran – as underscored by President Barack Obama’s recent letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Western powers have long rejected substantive dialogue with Tehran on regional matters before the nuclear file was resolved, fearing this could spoil the nuclear negotiations or give Iran undue leverage. Defeating IS has now become a priority for the West, and new channels are therefore being opened in view of Iran’s prominent regional position.

Tehran has tacitly accepted US airstrikes targeting IS in Iraq. The West and Iran have reached a similar consensus on the need to arm the Peshmerga to fight IS in Iraq despite their differences in Syria. There has also been some tactical coordination between the US and Iran: US warplanes and Iranian-backed Shia and Kurdish groups coordinated their efforts through the Iraqi Security Forces in their siege against IS in the Iraqi town of Amerli in August and in the towns of Saadiya and Jalawa in November. Iran’s Quds Force now effectively leads troops on the ground with coordination of US-led air support. There was no hostile backlash in Iran against the US air strikes in Syria this September because both Tehran and Damascus were placed on notice – although the Iranian president tepidly asserted that such conduct could entice more individuals to join IS in Syria.

However, this has not been enough to push the West to include Iran as part of its official international coalition in fighting IS.In response to its exclusion from this coalition, Tehran has accused the West of partnering with the very regional actors who are responsible for the formation of IS and of fuelling the turbulence through its recent authorisation for funding to and training of the Free Syrian Army.

The US has talked about a long-term campaign targeting IS in Syria and Iraq. It is politically difficult for either Washington or Tehran to openly endorse the actions of the other or to actively cooperate against IS. Nevertheless, US and Iranian efforts in Iraq have been accepted by both sides as a necessary evil to weaken IS, although the same cannot be said for Syria. Iran’s role in the anti-IS front took centre stage during the bilateral meeting between President Hassan Rouhani and the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron on 24 September, the first meeting of its kind since 1979. This unprecedented encounter, coupled with the meeting between Rouhani and France’s President François Hollande a day earlier, was a symbolic gesture from the West that it sees Iran as a dominant regional stakeholder that must be engaged in the IS debate. The forms of engagement that may emerge between Iran and the West in the next phases of the offensive against IS in both Iraq and Syria will probably be judged against the background of how the nuclear negotiations develop.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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