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ISIS and Iran’s Regional Ambitions

But Iran, which had previously enjoyed the position of being the main power broker in Iraq and Syria, was faced with a real dilemma as other players entered the region to deal with the global threat of the Islamic State. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is an extremist group that has occupied stretches of land straddling Iraq and Syria and aims at establishing what it purports to be an Islamic Caliphate.

As the world readied itself to face the Islamic State in earnest, the Iranian regime attempted to lead the international community into believing that Iran and its allies would be crucial tin containing and eliminating the threat posed by the group. But Tehran’s agenda in reality was to reap the benefits of the international campaign — or at least avoid further losing its clout and influence in the region.

To the Iranian regime’s dismay, though, it was excluded from international conferences in Jeddah and Paris that were held to address the Islamic State issue, and its name was later left out from the U.S.-led coalition assembled in late September to fight the Islamic State. 

With the war against the Islamic State turning into an international concern, the Iranian regime has seen its power plummet in the region. 

In Iraq, it was only after former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a staunch ally of the Iranian regime, relinquished his bid for a third term as prime minister that the United States got directly involved in the war against the Islamic State by conducting air-strikes against the group’s positions. Maliki, who had ruled Iraq for eight years under the thumb of Iran, was largely blamed for allowing the Islamic State to grow and flourish by adopting harsh sectarian policies and marginalizing the Sunni community to the benefit of the Iranian regime. With Maliki gone and his key officials and officers being forced into retirement, Iran is hard pressed to maintain its influence over the country.

In Syria, Iran had supported the embattled President Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing conflict and had taken advantage of the rise of the Islamic State to weaken the moderate, secular rebel forces that sought to dislodge the Assad dictatorship. Now that the fight against the Islamic State has been extended to Syria, the prospects have turned grim for Assad. The coalition has so far refrained from involving Assad in the fight and has instead opted to align itself with the moderate Free Syrian Army, which aims at toppling the Assad regime and replacing it with a democratic state.

In a confidential report obtained from within the regime by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — the first party to expose the Iran’s illicit nuclear program and its meddling in the Middle East — the Iranian regime’s Supreme National Security Council has expressed worries about the outcome of the war against the Islamic State in Syria, which could eventually strengthen the Free Syrian Army and turn the tide against the Assad regime. The report states that Ali Khamenei, the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader, has made it clear to his subordinates that Syria and Assad’s regime are Iran’s red line, and must be preserved at all costs.

After being spurned by the international community, the Iranian regime has gone to great lengths to save face and maintain a measure of its influence. 

In his speech at the UN General Assembly, Hassan Rouhani, the president of the Iranian regime, incriminated external actors for the violence in the region and indirectly asserted that the Iranian regime must take the lead in fighting the Islamic State.

Khamenei, visibly irked by events, questioned the motives of the newly-formed coalition and blamed the U.S. and UK for giving rise to the Islamic State.

Also, the notorious commander of the Iranian regime’s terrorist Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, who otherwise avoids media attention and tries to remain a secretive and mysterious figure, has posed for photo-ops in Iraq’s Amerli and Kurdistan region in an attempt to publicize Iran’s efforts to fight the Islamic State, and pose as a game changer and influential figure in the ongoing battle. Suleimani has also ratcheted up the activity of his Quds Force and his terror network in Iraq under the shadow of the fight against the Islamic State; Iran-backed Shiite militias are taking advantage of the confusion engulfing Iraq to commit crimes against the Sunni community and further drive a wedge into the sectarian divide that has torn the country apart in past years.

By all accounts, the byproduct of the international campaign against the Islamic State will be the unraveling of the “Shiite empire” of the mullahs ruling Tehran. The next few months will be decisive for the Iranian regime, which sees a strategic defeat looming on the horizon as all of its red lines in the Middle East are being trampled. According to Iranian authorities, if the regime loses ground in countries like Iraq and Syria, its strategic depth and defensive line will eventually retreat to within Iran’s own borders, triggering a crisis that will eventually bring about the undoing and collapse of the ruling regime.

Iran will definitely try to turn the tide and curb the international coalition’s efforts to its advantage, as it did during the first and second Gulf Wars. The outcome of such a venture — if Iran manages to carry out the scheme — will be more bloodshed and sectarian violence, further complication of the situation, and the elongation of clashes and conflicts that are contributing to the overall chaos in the region.

Whether it will succeed in doing so will depend on how far the international community is committed to fighting terrorism and uprooting the threat of fundamentalism and extremism in the region, which is rooted in Tehran.

Making the wrong choice will definitely result in a regional disaster that will demand a much higher price by the international community to fix. The West should think twice before believing the mullahs will be willing to cooperate and share power in the Middle East.

Amir Basiri is an Iranian human rights activist and supporter of democratic regime change in Iran. Follow him on Twitter: @Amir_bas

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