Among the recent articles was one in The Guardian which quoted Ali Alfoneh of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as saying that “the terrorist attacks in Paris came as manna from heaven for Tehran.” That is to say, by striking on European soil, ISIS has helped Iran to justify not only its expanding military presence in Syria, but also its unwavering commitment to the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The Guardian also emphasized that by contributing to the perception that Iran and the West are and ought to be focused on a common enemy in the region, the Paris attacks may give Iranian President Hassan Rouhani additional political leverage over the French government when he completes the European visit that was postponed by the attacks.
But in his interview with the British paper, Alfoneh went on to say that the seeming alliance of convenience between France and Iran in the wake of the attacks is likely to be short-lived. For one thing, although France has stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS, this does not mean that it has necessarily taken its eyes off the goal of removing the Iran-allied government, which is widely understood to be a contributing factor in the growth and perceived legitimacy of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.
The Guardian notes that a comparatively greater focus on ISIS is nothing new. The Western powers in general have always said that destroying the Sunni terrorist group is their main concern. But to date that has not prevented them from dropping their broader goals in the region.
This is effectively a mirror image of the Iranian approach to the conflict, as The Guardian points out that Iran is not only persisting in its defense of Assad, but also sees the preservation of that regime as being altogether more important than the defeat of ISIS. This, as the Guardian article makes clear, keeps Iranian and Western goals in opposition, despite Iran’s attempts to utilize ongoing international security conferences to convince the US and its allies to give in to Iranian preferences.
An editorial by J. Matthew McInnis of the American Enterprise Institute highlighted the very same differences in Iranian and Western “primary objectives.” He expressed apparent confidence that the West had not yet lost sight of this in the wake of the Paris attacks. And he further intimated that Iran’s own behavior was making it quite unlikely that the West would do so.
That is to say that Iran’s continuing efforts to alter Western policy in the region have closely coincided with a surge of anti-Western rhetoric from Iran’s hardline authorities. In recent days, these two trends have in fact overlapped directly, with Iranian officials stating that they believe French and European policies in Syria to be responsible for the attacks that struck Paris.
According to McInnis, this rhetoric effectively demonstrates that Iran is far from being an ideal partner in the fight against ISIS. Apart from highlighting Iranian unwillingness to cooperate in policy discussions over the appropriate response to the crisis, Iran’s short-sighted blame game “hampers Iran’s strategic thinking, and leads to ineffective policies.”
Other analysts appear to find it increasingly likely that these ineffective policies and rhetorical biases will not only prevent Iran from winning new allies in Syria, but may also drive its existing ally, Russia, away. Since Russia began bombings against anti-Assad rebels last month, the long-term strength of the Iranian-Russian alliance has become a topic of considerable speculation and debate.
Even the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is among those who have raised the possibility of Iranian and Russian interests diverging with respect to Syria. Consequently, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the US and some of its allies were increasingly focusing on the possibility of an Iran-Russia break as the possible groundwork for a political solution that involves the removal of the Assad regime.
Indications of Russia’s willingness to abide by such an agreement have been somewhat inconsistent, but the evidence appears to be trending in a positive direction for the US and Iran’s other adversaries.
On the one hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly said that it would not consider Assad’s ouster to be a precondition for a political solution. Furthermore, the overall level of Iranian-Russian cooperation has trended sharply upward since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s current term as president of Russia.
On the other hand, Putin himself reported agreed with US officials on the need for a transitional Syrian government when they spoke at a G-20 summit in Turkey. Russia has also been communicating with Iran’s Middle Eastern opponents, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Russian officials have reportedly told them that they would be willing to constrain Iran’s power in Syria under a negotiated settlement. These communications have been so positive that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even declared last week that Israel and Russia appeared to be “on the same page” with regard to the Syrian crisis.
The context for Russia’s possible reversal also points to another notable factor that may help to prevent Western nations from hastily embracing Iran as an ally in the wake of the Paris attacks. An editorial released on Thursday by Project Syndicate presented Iran’s regional policy in terms of the historical conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, which has led Iran’s Shiite theocracy to make persistent efforts to dominate the broader Middle East.
The article observed that Iran would use its renewed invitation to the Vienna security conference. But by the same token, Saudi Arabia will use its position at the conference to emphasize how the Iran-allied regime in Syria has helped to set the stage for expansion of ISIS within the region and across European borders. The Saudi leadership, according to this article, “will continue to work hard to ensure that Assad is removed from power and that the mayhem is finally brought to an end.”
As it stands, the US remains more likely to listen to the Saudis’ perspective than Iran’s, given past history. But an article in the Eurasia Review provided a different point of view on Thursday, essentially urging the Saudis to be careful in the way that they prosecute their proxy wars with Iran, lest they risk jeopardizing the larger project of encouraging the West to maintain prudent goals in the region.
That editorial pointed to various claims about the collateral damage done by Saudi bombing campaigns and other activities in Yemen. While there is no serious dispute about Iran’s motives in backing the Houthi there, namely to exploit easy sectarian divisions and gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, there is a significant chance that Iran could score propaganda points by making the Saudis look like the worse aggressor.
The challenge presented by all of these recent editorials, then, is to continue pursuing appropriate objectives in the Middle East, but to encourage all parties to do so in a measured way that does not allow Iran to exploit the situation in order to legitimize its own contrary objectives in the same conflicts.