In this respect, Iran is able to match one criticism for another, calling for Saudi Arabia to withdraw military support for Bahrain at the same time that Saudi Arabia is calling for Iran to withdraw from Syria. But pressure is mounting against Iran’s support for the Assad regime, especially since the US Congress voted to arm and train Syria’s moderate rebel groups. With US-led coalition against the Islamic State applying a strategy different from Iran’s, Iran now faces a more difficult battle as it tries to preserve the Assad regime at the same time that it fights IS.
In this situation, the Iranian regime is presumably fearful of the perception that it is losing control of Iraq and Syria. This is the perception that The Guardian presents in an article published Tuesday about Iran’s nascent public relations campaign in Iraq. It points out that whereas Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani’s presence had previously been kept largely a secret in Iraq, now he is regularly appearing in staged photo-ops at the site of victories against IS.
Indeed, Suleimani has personally claimed victory for his forces even in instances where the lion’s share of the fighting was done by Kurds, with significant help from US air support. These claims and the photographic representations of them help to give voice to the sentiments expressed by Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, who recently declared that the situation in Iraq would be entirely out of control if it weren’t for Iranian intervention.
Larijani also carried the regime’s public relations efforts to CNN, where he told the network’s Christiane Amanpour that Iran is right to lead the charge against IS, because it has “good experience” fighting terrorists and has had an effect on the conflict in Iraq already. But even while effectively acting as a complement to Qassem Suleimani’s photo ops, Larijani explicitly denies the Iranian self-promotion highlighted by The Guardian.
“We don’t really want to broadcast it; we don’t want to go to the media and talk about what we did for the Iraqis,” Larijani said. “But in practice, we defended them.” Larijani also praised his government for being particularly quick to provide that defense, but he did not acknowledge that one definite reason for that speed was that Iran initially sought to defend the exclusionary Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, before domestic and international pressure forced him to step down in favor of what is intended to be a multi-sectarian unity government.
Thus, Iran has long since lost control with respect to at least this one goal. But its public relations campaign is evidently aimed at simultaneously suppressing evidence of former loss of control, and pressuring other participants in the conflict to follow the Iranian lead. Toward this latter end, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his first speech after being released from the hospital following prostate surgery, repeated regime-endorsed conspiracy theories claiming that the Islamic State had been deliberately created by Western interests.
Al Arabiya quotes Khamenei as naming America, Zionism, and the “wicked government of Britain” as the forces striving to use IS to create sectarian divisions in the region in order to “fight against the Islamic Republic.” Khamenei did acknowledge that these same forces were now fighting IS, though he did not explain why, other than by saying “today, they have turned on them.” The Supreme Leader did not acknowledge the fact that far from using IS to fight Iran, many Western policymakers have suggested working together with the Islamic Republic. Previously, Khamenei himself had claimed to have rejected a request for coordination from the US State Department, although both sides have thus far denied plans for coordination.
Critics of the Obama administration have nonetheless worried that the US executive remains open to the possibility of such coordination. The Iranian public relations campaign may point to why this strikes such critics as a bad idea. Recent statements suggest that Iran is not eschewing antagonism against the West in favor of giving full attention to fighting the Islamic State. This raises question about Iran’s long term strategy with regard to both of those adversaries.