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Understanding Iran’s Syria Policy, and How the ISIS Threat Spooks Tehran

Iraq is home to some of the most holy sites in Shia Islam and if ISIS were to come close to them, Iran would be obligated to defend those sites’.

Written by Lara Setrakian and Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

The foreign ministers of Iran, Iraq and Syria met in Tehran on Tuesday, asserting that they would work together to battle radical Sunni Muslim militants, in particular those behind the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). In the same week, Iran threw its weight behind a Russian bid to host Syrian peace talks in Moscow. Russia and Iran, longtime allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have long sought to preserve his rule and government.

On the margins of the nuclear peace talk, the U.S. has spoken to the Iranians about the situation in Iraq and Syria; they both share the same interest of defeating the Islamic State. While Tehran is not part of the U.S.-led international coalition carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in both countries, it has acknowledged that it sent military advisers to Iraq to help the Iraqi army in its battle against Islamic State fighters.

“I think the Obama administration has come to the realization that ISIS won’t be defeated without Iran, and Iran probably recognizes ISIS won’t be defeated without U.S. help,” said Hooman Majd, a journalist and an analyst on Iran.

Majd spoke to Syria Deeply about Iran’s interests in Syria, its strategy for fighting ISIS, how Syria factors into its bigger dynamic with the West.

Syria Deeply: What is Iran’s fundamental interest in Syria? What are they looking to preserve or achieve?

Majd: Syria has long been Iran’s only Arab ally since the start of the Iranian revolution, and more specifically the year after the Iran/Iraq war where every other Arab nation supported Iraq, either militarily or financially. The fact Syria was the only Arab country that supported Iran against its own Baath brethren in Iraq will never be forgotten by Iran. The Iran/Iraq war for this generation of Iranian leaders is a seminal event.

Arab support from Hafaz Assad’s family was crucial during the war. After and even during the Iran/Iraq war, Syria played a crucial beachhead for Iran into the Arab world, particularly into the Mediterranean with Lebanon, where Iran has great interests because of the Shiite population, intermarriage between Iranian and Lebanese Shiite clerics and the creation of Hezbollah.

It’s not to say that Iran is married to the Assad family, but they are married to the idea of not allowing Syria to fall into the Western camp.

Syria Deeply: How does Syria factor into Iran’s bigger dynamic with the West? How do its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. potentially impact its Syria policy?

Majd: There have been some public comments from the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani indicating that cooperation in the fight against ISIS and the future of Syria is dependent on the nuclear deal. It’s a given. I don’t think it’s a threat or a bargaining position on the behalf of the Iranians. As long as there is animosity between the West and Iran, it will be very difficult to have cooperation on Syria and ISIS. Both sides are tight-lipped, but there has been indication that they do talk about Syria. If the nuclear deal is put to bed, it’s only natural that Iran would want to be very much involved in the resolution of the Syrian crisis and the battle against ISIS.

Syria Deeply: What has it cost Iran in financial or political capital to keep backing the Assad regime?

Majd: It’s been a political, financial and military liability. In the early days of the Syrian uprising, Iran’s backing of Assad was viewed as a huge liability in the Arab world and on the street, where the credibility of a self-proclaimed Islamic nation backing what was considered a butcher was damaging to its reputation. Three, almost four years on, the tide has turned a little bit for Iran. The realization among moderate opposition groups, even in the U.S., and certainly of mainstream Muslims, is that Assad is awful, and the situation in Syria is terrible, but that they don’t want another Libya, or ISIS running Syrian territory. It may be coincidental, but I think the price Iran is paying politically is less now than three years ago.

Iran is always mentioned as the one ally keeping Assad in power, but it’s Russia and Iran together that are keeping the Assad regime alive.

Syria Deeply: Russia, along with Iran, has been trying to convene a conference bringing Syria’s warring sides together in Moscow for a dialogue. Why do they want to be seen as peacemakers? Why now?

Majd: The Iranians and Russians claim they always wanted to be peacekeepers. What they didn’t want is this knee-jerk reaction of saying Assad must go. The reason for that is they say that there is no solution for what happens after Assad leaves. There is no government in waiting, no legitimate opposition that can take over and run the country. Their attitude has always been that you can’t say Assad must go in the face of a popular uprising and assume everything will be ok when he goes. Iran was never invited to any of the peace talks, and I’m not sure they would have accepted had they been invited, because some of the preconditions for the talks was that Assad had to go. They have made enough public comments about not necessarily being tied to one man or one party, but not accepting the government of Assad has to be dismantled prior to negotiations with opposition parties. They have been fortunate with ISIS in that it has shown that the most powerful group fighting Assad is a group no one wants to see come to power.

Syria Deeply: What has been Iran’s approach to ISIS? What threat does it represent to Tehran?

Majd: There are a number of threats. There is the threat to Syria and Iraq, which is a neighbor of Iran, and the threat of sectarianism.The fact that ISIS is vehemently opposed to Shiism, or any kind of Islam that isn’t Wahhabist or Salafist is a threat to Iran. It’s also a territorial threat because Iran has two regions – Kurdistan and Baluchistan – where there is a large Sunni population, which is very unhappy with the Islamic State’s attitudes towards minorities in that region. Iran can’t afford to lose its two big Arab allies, Iraq and Syria. They’ve had Syria from the beginning, and Iraq since 2003. There is also a religious aspect to this – Iraq is home to some of the most holy sites in Shia Islam and if ISIS were to come close to them, Iran would be obligated to defend those sites, so there is a military aspect to want to defeat ISIS completely. Iran has committed itself to defeat ISIS financially, through military advisers and committing boots on the ground. Iran has military people coordinating the fight against ISIS, with the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi forces, Shia forces and Assad’s forces in Syria.

Right now their strategy against ISIS has largely been through proxy. They’ve assisted the Kurds, for example. It’s in the interest of the Kurds, the Shia and the Assad regime to defeat ISIS. Obviously, right now, the U.S. is essentially on the same side as Iran in the fight against ISIS, and that is probably helpful to Iran. The strategy is not to contain ISIS. The strategy is to defeat it once and for all.

Syria Deeply: Is there room for the U.S. and Iran to cooperate on Syria? Do you think they’re cooperating, in some form, already?

Majd: I think they are cooperating in some form already. The fact of the matter is that we do have the U.S. secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister in constant contact over the nuclear issue, and probably over other issues. I don’t think there is any doubt there is some form of direct and indirect coordination, which has been admitted to by the Iraqis and to some degree the U.S. There is no doubt there could be more coordination. Iran is unfortunately a bit of a toxic issue for many Americans, and the idea that we would be cooperating with Iran on anything is a non-starter for many people, particularly in Congress. However, I think the Obama administration has come to the realization that ISIS won’t be defeated without Iran, and Iran probably recognizes ISIS won’t be defeated without U.S. help.

ISIS is not a terrorist group the way al-Qaida is, which is impossible to defeat fully. You can kill Osama bin Laden, but someone else will always show up. ISIS has the ambitions to be a state, and it can be defeated in that regard. It may morph into, once it’s been defeated militarily, a terrorist group like al-Qaida that is a constant terrorist threat. But holding populations, controlling territory, taxing people etc. can be defeated, and there is recognition in the U.S. that it can be defeated.

Photo Courtesy AP Images

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