Nonetheless, Michigan news network WILX reported that a group of supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran had carried on with a protest on Sunday afternoon in the city of Lansing. The demonstrators sought to draw attention to relationship between the Iranian regime and the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which claimed responsibility for the shootings and bombings that killed 133 people in central Paris, according to the latest figures.
The Lansing protest is likely a sign of things to come as the attention of Western media and policy comes to focus more sharply on ISIS, while the opponents of the Iranian regime attempt to prevent this from leading to a situation of Iranian-US collaboration. The prospects of such collaboration already appeared to increase during the past two weeks as the US and its Middle Eastern allies welcomed Iran into an international security conference on the Syrian Civil War.
Live Trading News reported on Saturday that the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would now be attending that conference in lieu of accompanying President Rouhani to Rome and Paris. This arguably highlights the newfound importance of the Syrian crisis as an aspect of the international conflict with ISIS. And the fear among critics of recent American relations with Tehran is that Western policymakers will now further scale back their opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order to secure assurances of collaboration from the Iranians.
This certainly seems to be something that officials in Tehran have been angling for, since they elected to attend the Vienna conference two weeks ago and again this week, but have steadfastly insisted that they will not compromise on the continuation of the Assad regime. This was reiterated again on Monday when Reuters reported that Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had encouraged Assad to stand for upcoming Syrian presidential elections.
But Reuters also noted that for the time being at least, the White House remains committed to ridding Syria of Assad as part of a political solution to the crisis. Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin reported agreed to the principle of a transition to an alternative government when he spoke with US officials at a recent G-20 summit in Turkey.
If Russia upholds these reports, it will be the fulfillment of a great deal of speculation about the limits of Moscow’s loyalties in the wake of its agreement to provide air support for Iranian-led military efforts on the ground in Syria. While there has been much talk over the past several months about the apparent expansion of a Russian-Iranian alliance, many analysts also felt that the interests of the two countries might diverge over economic competition and the relative benefits of retaining a sectarian leadership in Damascus. Whereas Iran’s Shiite theocracy benefits from Assad’s alienation of the Sunni majority, Russia is likely to be worried about upsetting its own Muslim populations as well as further justifying the ire of Western powers.
For this reason, there may be different prospects for Western cooperation with Moscow and with Tehran. But President Obama has seemed willing to reach out to both, as has at least one of his possible Democratic successors. CNN reported on Monday that Bernie Sanders delivered a speech while campaigning in Iowa in which he urged that the entire world, including Russia and Iran, must come together to solve the problem of ISIS.
Iran is technically fighting against the Islamic State, but its Shiite militias and Revolutionary Guards affiliates in Syria have been blamed for focusing much more of their attention on the moderate and Western-backed rebel groups fighting to oust Assad. So while Iran superficially appears to be a prospective ally, its critics have warned that the continued Iranian presence will buttress the brutal Assad regime and give greater legitimacy and additional recruiting tools to the Islamic State.
The Times of Israel reported on Monday that General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, the commander of Iran’s ground forces, said that the nation was anticipating ISIS incursions from its borders with Afghanistan and Iraq and would be taking measures to repel them. But some see this as being virtually the limit of Iranian operations against the Sunni militants, which is to say that Iran is striving to keep the group at bay but is not actively pursuing its destruction.
The Tower notes that Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations recently co-authored an editorial for Foreign Policy claiming that Iran’s “selective ISIS strategy” is primarily aimed at expanding Iranian power in the Middle East. And this is best accomplished by making sure that ISIS does not conquer Shiite lands, but maintains its hold of Sunni ones so as to encourage more Shiites to move into Iran’s orbit for both defensive and ideological purposes.
The Tower also notes that this notion was put forward by Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute in May. And it was endorsed by US Army General Jack Keane on Monday in a Wall Street Journal editorial. Keane stated flatly that Iran “doesn’t care about ISIS in Sunni areas,” and he accused the Obama administration of ignoring this fact for the sake of a policy that has placed the Iran nuclear deal above all would-be incentives to confront Tehran over its destructive regional policies.
It remains to be seen whether other Western nations will act otherwise. But it was immediately clear that France, at the least, was stepping up its military activity in opposition to the Islamic State. Agence France-Presse reported on Monday that France had conducted a series of airstrikes on the IS stronghold of Raqqa. The report quoted IS expert Charlie Winter as saying that these actions could be beneficial to the overall situation if they were based on sound intelligence and a deliberative, long-term strategy, but could be counterproductive if driven by vengeance alone.
That is to say, a strong desire to strike back at the Islamic State might make some Western policymakers single-minded about the matter, to the extent that they disregard other regional issues such as Iran’s ongoing commitment to anti-Western rhetoric and activities. The Times of Israel highlighted this issue in the context of the Paris terrorist attacks when it reported on Monday that conservative Iranian media had responded to the attacks by blaming French policy in the Middle East, and in some cases peddling familiar conspiracy theories about Western powers having created ISIS.