Deadly duo: The Islamic Republic and the Islamic State
Beirut - Iranian security authorities reportedly hanged ten Sunni Muslims charged with plotting terrorist attacks across the Islamic Republic. The Iran Human Rights group, based in Norway, said the executions took place August 2nd in Rajaee Shahr prison in Karaj, west of Tehran, and that some of the men had confessed under torture.
The Iranian regime has made no official announcement on the reported executions but the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) on August 3rd issued a statement that a takfiri-Salafist group named Monotheism and Jihad had been rounded up and some members were sentenced to death.
The murky machinations of Iran’s vast security apparatus are difficult to penetrate at the best of times but it is likely that this group was the ten “takfiri Wahhabi terrorists” — read Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies — that Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said had been rounded up in June for plotting 50 bombings, including suicide attacks. That is one of several such plots the MOIS claims to have thwarted in recent months.
State television broadcast a 15-minute documentary on July 4th in which two men identified as militants linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) who had been arrested, explained that the plan was to attack 50 locations in Tehran and other major cities — outrageously ambitious, even for the many-tentacled ISIS.
Alavi said in May that another group of 20 takfiris had been rounded up. Yet, amid the frenzy of suicide bombings carried out by, or blamed on, ISIS across the region, there has been no successful jihadist attack in Iran.
That is even more astounding given the ferocity of the battles the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their Hezbollah allies are fighting against jihadists in Syria and Iraq and paying a heavy price in blood and treasure.
But in this complex conflict, centred on the festering power struggle between overwhelmingly Shia Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, there are many dark corners where battle lines are blurred and murky and unlikely partners come together for strategic purposes with plausible deniability.
Brigadier-General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, commander of the Iranian Army’s Ground Forces, on August 1st said ISIS has been recruiting potential bombing teams in Kermanshah province on Iran’s western border with Iraq, an ISIS stronghold.
Intrigue is the name of the game and it seems to transcend the historical schism between Shias and Sunnis when it helps achieve strategic objectives, which appears to be the case between Iran’s clerical regime and the jihadist organisations, that share a common animosity towards the United States.
There are other commonalities. The escalating tensions between Tehran and Riyadh encourage a partnership between the IRGC, the spearhead of Iran’s regional expansionism, and ISIS/al-Qaeda, which has its own fight with the House of Saud.
Whether this led to recent ISIS suicide bombings in the kingdom is not clear but Saudi Arabia’s long-neglected Shia minority, concentrated in the oil-rich eastern province, provides a springboard for further mayhem fuelled by such an outwardly unlikely alliance.
In early 2009, Saudi Arabia unveiled its “most wanted” terrorist list with 85 names. Eighty-three were Saudi nationals and 41 were marked “currently in Iran”, including Abdullah al-Qarawi, leader of al-Qaeda’s Arabian Gulf operations.
There have long been suspicions that Iran’s leaders, dedicated to preserving the world’s only Shia-ruled state, have a strategic arrangement with jihadists who by any definition are their sworn enemies.
Analyst Hassan Mneimneh of the Fikra Forum, attached to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, observed in a June 4th essay that in the multisided Syrian war, for instance: “ISIS has fought all Syrian opposition factions; notably the al-Qaeda affiliate al- Nusra Front, diverting the groups from their main fight (against the Iranian-backed Damascus regime), depleting their resources and in the process providing the regime a reprieve that enabled it to avoid what seems to be an imminent collapse.”
In further exploring what he calls “the lethal symbiosis between these two entities”, Mneimneh noted that “jihadist critics of ISIS disagree over the intentionality of the Iranian-ISIS alignment.
“The majority tends to accept a deliberate conspiratorial arrangement between leaderships, while a minority opinion attributes the collusion to Iranian manipulation that deftly exploits ISIS’s lack of vision and expertise, or through the use of infiltrators.”
ISIS supporters deny there is any collusion and so does Tehran even though in the last two years Tehran has released several senior al- Qaeda chiefs who are now active in Syria fighting the Iranian-backed Damascus regime of President Bashar Assad.
The jihadists “insist that the falsely Islamic Persian-chauvinistic Iran is absolutely a target, even if not an imminent one”, Mneimneh said.
He argued that the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran ignited a simmering Muslim radicalism that now includes ISIS and its apocalyptic agenda. “Curses, insults and verbal attacks characterise the exchanges between the Islamic Republic and the Islamic State… Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic State are bound by a causality loop.
“Without the Islamic Republic, there would not have been an Islamic State. It is not just that a Shia irritant has awakened a latent Sunni radicalism; the two sides are engaged in a repeating cycle of fundamental and ideological mutual reinforcement,” Mneimneh said.
“Acknowledgement of this reality has unfortunately been absent from discussions on how to curtail and eradicate the ISIS phenomenon… Failing to understand the causality that ties the two radical manifestations is tantamount to attempting to extinguish the fire of the Islamic State using Islamic Republic gasoline.”
Suspicions of collusion between Tehran and the jihadists go back to ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda. It should be remembered that in 2008 Osama bin Laden and his eventual successor, the veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, admonished ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, to stop slaughtering Shias in Iraq, who, after all, were fellow Muslims, because this was harming the jihadist cause.
Naame Shaam, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) run by Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian activists that monitors Iran’s role in the Syrian war, claimed in a September 2014 report that al-Qaeda and ISIS agreed not to attack Iran so they could preserve their supply networks, an accusation the US government has supported.
The NGO said: “There is abundant evidence that both the Syrian and the Iranian regimes have infiltrated, collaborated and used al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to serve their own interests, either by aiding them and then using them against their opponents, or trading their extensive knowledge of these groups’ networks and figures with Western powers, and even selling them off, in exchange for being allowed to stay in power, or by claiming to be victims of terrorism so as to discredit all their opponents and legitimise their brutal crackdown of them.
“Moreover,” Naame Shaam observed, “the US administration, which has employed similar strategies in the past, seems to be happy to play along.
“The events in Syria and Iraq over the past two years seemed to confirm this claim, at least until August 2014, when the UN Security Council adopted a resolution… calling on all member states to ‘act to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria’.
“The Syrian and Iranian regimes suddenly started to sell themselves to the West as ‘partners’ in combating terrorism.”
When US forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to crush al- Qaeda and its Taliban hosts, many senior jihadists, including members of bin Laden’s family and his inner circle, fled to Iran. They were supposedly held under house arrest but US officials maintain they were allowed considerable freedom of movement.