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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

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