Iran's ISIS Trap

How Tehran Uses the Terrorist Group to Get Ahead

Soldiers with red carnations in the barrels of their guns take part in the Army Day military parade in Tehran, April 18, 2011. Caren Firouz / Reuters

The choice seems simple. On one side are regally attired mullahs, the type that have protected Persia’s pre-Islamic treasures and even tweet in English. On the other side is the Islamic State (ISIS), with its conquest, rape, and pillage. Muhammad-Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has made the pitch better than anyone. “The menace we’re facing—and I say we, because no one is spared—is embodied by the hooded men who are ravaging the cradle of civilization,” he warned, dangling out the possibility of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran against ISIS.

Beneath such expressions of concern, however, is a more cynical strategy. Iran is using ISIS’ ascendance in the Middle East to consolidate its power. The country is now the key ally keeping Iraq’s Shiites and the Alawite Bashar al-Assad regime standing against well-armed and tenacious Sunni jihadists. In those battles, Tehran will likely do just enough to make sure the Sunnis don’t conquer the Shia portions of Iraq and Assad’s enclave in Syria, but no more. Meanwhile, in ISIS’ wake, Tehran will strengthen its own radical Shia militias.

The result could be a permanent destabilization of the Arab heartland. That would be a major victory for the Islamic Republic, which has seen its fortunes rise as Egypt and Turkey have become mired in crises and as Saudi Arabia, Iran’s one remaining serious Sunni rival, has gotten bogged down in a war in Yemen.

Shiite fighters launch a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of al-Alam, March 8, 2015.
Shiite fighters launch a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of al-Alam, March 8, 2015. Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters
Iran’s model for operating abroad draws from its experiences in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when the regime amalgamated a variety of Shia parties into Hezbollah. Under Iranian guidance, Hezbollah targeted the United States, finally driving the country out of Lebanon by bombing the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. That attack remade Lebanon; ever since, Tehran has had a commanding voice in the country’s politics and Hezbollah has served as its terrorist proxy and its most destructive auxiliary force in the Arab world.

The Islamic Republic

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