On December 28, 2014, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced that General Hamad Tahgavi was killed by Islamic State (Isis) forces in Iraq. In a feature at IranWire, Reza Haghighat Nejad explained just what the announcement means; Iran is on the frontline of the fight against Isis, a terrorist threat singular in today’s web of non-state actors. While the US and allied nations carry out air strikes, Iranian forces are on the ground in Iraq, providing support to the Iraqi government and pushing back against Isis gains. Despite big talk from the US, Iran has taken the lead.
It’s not a reality that many in the West may be comfortable with, given Iran’s history and the dominant narrative surrounding the Islamic Republic’s hostile intentions. But a cursory look at Iran’s history with terrorism suggests that it was almost inevitable that when a threat of such magnitude arose, it was Iran that noticed first.
Iran’s relationship with terrorism, when seen through Western eyes, is murky at best. Even as Tehran has grappled with organisations such as the Mujahideen-e Khalq, assisted in toppling the Taliban and detained members of al-Qaida, the government has been funnelling money and training to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. In the black and white language with which we discuss “terrorism”, the nuance of national interest and perception of state legitimacy is lost and in the process Iran’s role in the global fight on terror diminished.
Iran’s recent history with terrorism began almost immediately after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned his back on groups that had risen up with his followers against the monarchy. One of those groups was the Mujahideen-e Khalq, led by the Rajavi family. Known as MEK or MKO, the organisation was driven into exile in Iraq by Khomeini, and it quickly set itself up as a government-in-exile from Camp Ashraf in southern Iraq. During the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, the group fought for Saddam Hussein, providing intelligence and carrying out attacks against Iran, a move that has won them the lasting enmity of the Iranian people.
Since then, MEK has been linked to a number of attacks in Iran, including assassinations, and was placed on the US list of terrorist organisations. But its time on the list was short-lived, as in 2001 the group renounced violence and began courting US officials with lavish banquets and campaign donations. In 2012, its investment paid off, as the US State Department removed the group from the list, opening the door to further cooperation. The move incensed Iran, who see the decision as an attempt to undermine the government and underline US desire to see a regime change in Tehran.
Allegations of aiding al-Qaida
While MEK was operating out of Iraq, Iran’s attention was also drawn to Afghanistan by the rise of the Taliban. Afghanistan and Iran already suffered a tense relationship after the 1979 revolution, but things deteriorated rapidly after the Taliban gained control of the country. In 1998, Iranian diplomats were taken hostage and executed by Taliban forces and in response Tehran began supporting the Northern Alliance. When US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Iran was able to use its existing relationship with the Northern Alliance to help usher in the Karzai government.
Despite its hand in toppling the Taliban and assisting the US in supporting the Northern Alliance, allegations of Iran working with al-Qaida have surfaced intermittently over the years. In perhaps the most damning example of possible cooperation, Foreign Affairs ran in 2012 a long-form feature by Seth Jones discussing Iran’s detention of many al-Qaida leaders under limited house arrest on Iranian soil. As of 2014, members of al-Qaida were still being held on Iranian soil. Many of those al-Qaida operatives in Iran entered the country following the US invasion of Afghanistan, and soon after they and their families were detained, monitored and limited in their activities.
Although a far cry from the kind of alliance anti-Iran lobbies in the US would suggest, even tense cohabitation between Iran and al-Qaida cuts to the core of one the international community’s largest concerns. Iran’s nuclear programme has been a source of international worry for more than 10 years, due in part to a lack of confidence in Iran’s willingness not to use nuclear weapons against enemies. Although a strong case can be made that the Iranian leadership is rational enough to see use of nuclear weapons as suicide, some fear small nuclear devices could be smuggled into the Gaza Strip or through Lebanon to target Israeli territory and civilians. That fear is underlined by Iran’s tenuous connection with al-Qaida, a group more lawless than Hamas or Hezbollah and seen as a greater threat to global security.
But Iran is far from accepting of al-Qaida style sectarian extremism, particularly when it threatens its territory or interests. In the wake of Isis’ sweep across Syria and Iraq, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attacked sectarianism in speeches and on social media, calling it a disease and false conflict. At his first UN appearance in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani made violent extremism a central focus of his speech. Citing the universal threat posed by radicalisation and stateless terrorism, Rouhani called for the creation of WAVE (A World Against Violent Extremism), a group to encourage collaborative efforts to curb terrorism.
Terrorism germinates in poverty, unemployment, discrimination, humiliation and injustice. And it grows in the culture of violence. - President Hassan Rouhani
Rouhani painted a very different picture of extremism than the one often discussed in the US and West. Rather than make the “fight” against terrorism a strictly military concern, Rouhani touched on the conditions that lead to radicalisation and create recruitment hotbeds for extremist organisations. It’s a point that is now being debated more widely, as more and more young men from around the world are drawn to Syria and Iraq by an upstart al-Qaida offshoot that is changing the face of extremism.
In the New Yorker, Robin Wright shared a telling anecdote from a conversation with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. While the author was interested primarily in the ground-breaking change of direction on nuclear policy and relations with the West, Zarif was intent on expressing concern about a small al-Qaida offshoot gaining ground in Syria. Isis, or Isil, was not on the public’s radar, but Iran had been tracking the group’s activity for some time and saw the threat the violent breakaway organisation posed to the region.
The focus on Isis isn’t a surprise. Iranian forces have been operating in Syria since the outbreak of the country’s civil war, supporting President Bashar al-Assad. As one of the most disciplined and well-armed groups fighting against the Assad regime, Isis posed a threat to Iranian troops and interests. When the group began expanding into Iraqi territory, where Iran is allied with the Shia government, the strength of the group became clear. Isis operations are centred not far from Iran, on the Syria-Iraq border, making it all the more imperative that Iranian intelligence stays on top of the group’s movements and activities.
Two-pronged response to Isis
Iran’s response to the spread of ISIS has been two-pronged. While forces have pushed back on Isis gains in Iraq, leaders have committed to supporting Iraq’s government to resolve ongoing issues that feed radicalisation. It’s an ambitious policy that has put Iran at odds with the US, as Iran feels heavy-handed tactics favoured by the US and allies will not impede the spread of extremism. Iran has put some of its best men in charge of crafting strategy, including General Taqavi and Major General Qassem Suleimani, leader of the elite Al Quds forces.
Today, Iran’s extensive involvement in curtailing Isis has drawn international attention. Many consider Iran a leader in the fight and feel the US response is dwarfed in comparison. Although reports surfaced last year that cooperation between the US and Iran may be the turning point in the fight against Isis, both countries have been at best ambivalent about working together.
We have serious doubts about the willingness and ability of the US to engage in a serious reaction to this menace across the board. - Foreign Minister Javad Zarif
Iranian and US officials have to toe a very fine line when coordinating the fight against Isis. Neither country wants to appear weak, making communication fraught with potential controversy. When President Obama wrote a letter to Khamenei, he was derided by many in both countries for the gesture. Hardliners on both sides continuously reject the notion that Iran and the US can collaborate in a meaningful way, even as operations on the ground continue to push them closer and closer to doing so. Meanwhile, ongoing nuclear negotiations inch along in the shadow of regional concerns, with both sides working hard not to appear too cooperative.
In addition to deeply ingrained mistrust between the US and Iran, the latter’s continued vocal and tactical support for groups labelled as terrorist organisations by the US is a significant hurdle to collaboration. Iran is a primary backer of Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, all of which regularly engage in conflict with Israel. Although considered by supporters as fighters for Palestinian liberation, most Western nations consider these groups terrorist threats to Israeli existence and regional interests.
Like many Middle Eastern states, Iran has long been outspoken in its support for a free Palestine. But unlike other states, it has backed that up by providing funding, weapons and training to hostile groups in Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Iran is also perceived as using its influence on Shia communities in Sunni-majority countries to further its own interests and challenging leadership. Although Iranian leaders advocate cross-sectarian cooperation, their track record of supporting minority opposition groups in countries like Bahrain and Iraq have won them the enmity of many Sunni governments. It’s a hostility that’s not often at the forefront of relations in the region, but makes collaboration and trust difficult.
Because of Iran’s support for groups like Hamas and its influence on Shia populations in foreign countries, many Western and Middle Eastern countries do not see Iran as a viable ally in the fight against terrorism. Tehran’s motives are seen as inherently hostile to countries like Saudi Arabia and the US regards Iran as a threat to regional interests.
Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians. - US Secretary of State John Kerry
By labelling Iran as a primary supporter of terrorism and writing it off as unreliable, states are painting with too broad a brush. Iran and the West have worked in concert to combat mutual threats in the past, including forcing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Claiming that support for a group like Hezbollah excludes Iran from reliably combating Isis is not only unproductive, but fails to recognise a critical opportunity to bring Iranian expertise and influence into the fold.
To further complicate matters, the fight against Isis is taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing Syrian civil war. For the West to cast its lot with Iran against Isis means taking out one of the only substantial threats to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Meanwhile, Israeli and Western allied forces continue to carry out air strikes against Assad’s forces and Iranians on the ground. These overlapping interests were illustrated in January when General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed in an Israeli air strike. Even as the West and Iran work in not-quite concert against Isis, traditional enmity and conflicting interests lead them nearer to direct confrontation.
One of the primary issues facing the “war on terror” and Iran’s role in combating terrorism is the lack of a universal definition of what constitutes a terrorist group. States like China have been able to capitalise on this ambiguity to label activist organizations as terrorist cells, while the insistence that terrorist groups exist outside of international law excludes states that use terrorist tactics. The act of turning a tactic into a distinct category of non-state actor is problematic in and of itself, but by drawing a hard line that fails to take into account varied state interests and the lack of universal consensus on what is or is not terrorism only leads to policy that is not flexible enough to respond to real-world threats.