The dangerous idea that Iran is a force for stability in the Middle East

Don't be fooled: Iran and the West don't have common interests when it comes to defeating ISIS



In the Guardian this morning, Jonathan Steele has written an article defending President Barack Obama’s Iran policy. Steele allows others to make his points for him, but he contributes to a narrative in which rapprochement with Iran is a worthy policy – even as the President formally denies that the Iran negotiations are about anything other than the nuclear-weapons program.

Steele writes:

“In Iraq, [Iranian officials] insist, Iran is a force for stability, helping [Iraqi prime minister] Haider al-Abadi’s government militarily while urging it to be more attentive to Sunni concerns – just as Washington is,” Steele writes.

This is nonsense. In 2008, after the US ‘surge’, violence in Iraq was down 90 per cent, and the political process had begun to work. This was achieved by separating the Sunni Arab tribes of western Iraq from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), the forerunner to the Islamic State (ISIS).

The tribes were beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein’s regime and had resented their loss of income and status; they had also feared domination by Iraq’s Shi’a majority and by Iran, and looked on AQM/ISIS as a means to restore their power in Baghdad.

Realising their error, the tribes rose against AQM/ISIS, and with US support, the tribal militias secured order in their own districts, providing security against the Salafi-jihadists and majoritarian persecution. The US ensured the Sahwa (Awakening) militias were kept supplied and that the Shi’a-led government was protected from the Sunni militias launching a coup.

With the US withdrawal at the end of 2011, however, the then-prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki was able to consolidate a sectarian autocracy that was increasingly dependent on Iran. Maliki witch-hunted the Sunnis out of the government, violently suppressed a Sunni protest movement, and drove the Sahwa to destruction, opening a security vacuum that ISIS filled.

Given that Iran was complicit in restarting the Iraqi insurgency, it seemed unlikely it was the solution, and so it has proven. Iran’s intervention in Iraq since ISIS invaded in June 2014 has largely been through al-Hashd al-Shabi, a conglomeration of Shi’ite militias, many of which are direct proxies of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). The Hashd has led the pushback against ISIS in Iraq, and has committed terrible atrocities along the way.

Iran is near-incapable of projecting conventional force, so has to work through sectarian asymmetric structures like the IRGC’s external operations unit, the Quds Force, and the Hashd, which actually push more Sunnis into joining ISIS.

In short, Iran could not – even if it wanted to (see below) – destroy ISIS. Unfortunately, Iran’s militias have received US air support anyway, furthering the ISIS ‘narrative that the Iranians are leading a Shiite conspiracy to take over the Middle East and that the US is complicit in this plot’, which of course makes more Sunnis look to ISIS for protection.

Steele adds that in Syria, ‘Iranian decision-makers argue that their policy is … to defend a multicultural state against attack from Islamic nihilists’. Iran, says Steele, does not provide ‘unquestioning support’ for Bashar al-Assad, but wishes for ‘negotiations to produce a coalition government that includes the moderate Sunni opposition’. This is either hopelessly naïve or outright propaganda.

The myth of the ‘secular’ Assad regime just will not die, but the regime is a sectarian one. Assad relied from the start of the uprising on inciting a sectarian war to frighten the minorities into rallying around the regime – effectively to provide the Assad clan and its retainers with human shields to protect its spoils system. As a defected Syrian diplomat has explained:

“Assad first changed the narrative of the newborn Syrian revolution to one of sectarianism, not reform. He then fostered an extremist presence in Syria.”

The evidence of the Assad regime helping empower extremists within the insurgency is overwhelming. The intention was to prevent international help to the rebellion and perhaps even draw in international support to put down the insurgency; it has essentially worked. Assad has always been reluctant to attack ISIS, and with the US striking at ISIS, Assad is free to try to finish-off the moderate rebels, and vindicate his narrative – it’s the dictator or the jihadists.

At every stage Iran has supported Assad. In May 2011, two months into the uprising, the United Nations reported that Iran was arming the Assad regime. Lebanese Hizballah, the Mediterranean branch of the IRGC, was in Syria providing snipers against the protesters.

It was in response to this violence that the peaceful demonstrators took up arms in late 2011 to defend themselves, after 5,000 Syrians had been killed.

In 2012, with the Assad regime reeling, Iran orchestrated a Shi’ite jihad, moving tens of thousands of foreign Shi’a jihadists, mainly from Iraq but from as far away as the Ivory Coast into Syria, which saved the regime. Iran concurrently constructed a sectarian militia, the National Defence Force (NDF), from the Assadist paramilitaries.

The NDF is effectively all that is left of the Syrian State and it is under Iranian direction. This strategy has recently hit its limit, and the Assad regime is now retrenching, but Iran has erected structures in Syria that have made its so-called Resistance Axis ‘more integrated and capable’ across the Middle East.

Iran did not go to all this effort in Syria to hand over to an elected government, since a free election in Syria would undoubtedly result in a government hostile to Iran.

Steele’s knock-down argument is that ISIS is ‘a national security threat to Iran’, and thus there is a commonality of interest with the West. This argument is commonly heard and is dangerously wrong.

Leaving aside the fact that Iran has supported ISIS when it has suited its purposes and has a long relationship with al-Qaeda and other Sunni terrorists like HAMAS: Iran has no interest in pacifying the areas currently under ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. Iran could not rule over all those Sunnis anyway, and Iran already has control of the Iraqi security sector and Syrian western corridor, keeping open the lifeline to Hizballah that allows Iran to deter Israel and organise terrorism globally.

While ISIS creates chaos Iran has the weak, decentralised neighbours it always wanted. Moreover, the ISIS threat keeps the governments in Damascus and Baghdad pliable: whatever doubts they have about Iranian colonisation are silenced when the alternative is extermination.

Steele says that the negotiations with Iran could bring about ‘a historic compromise’. It is true that the intention of the Obama administration has turned from disarmament to détente, but the result will not be the ‘stability’ that Steele (incredibly) suggests is a ‘basic principle of Iran’s foreign relations’.

Throughout this negotiation process the result of trying to make Iran into a partner against (Sunni) terrorism by enabling its imperial march across the region has been more terrorism, and the attempt to advance counter-proliferation by conceding to Iran greater and greater nuclear capabilities has set the stage for region-wide proliferation. There is no reason to think that more of the same policy will produce a different result.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter

10 Responses to “The dangerous idea that Iran is a force for stability in the Middle East”

  1. WilliamTBlue

    nowRead this leftfootforward … Here’s a Blog


  2. Patrick Nelson

    Iranian Republic and ISIS both wrap themselves in a religious garb, language and symbolism but in their hearts both are modern and materialistic political movements with very worldly aims – both Iran and ISIS are actively hostile to actual spirituality, which is why both of them persecute the Sufis so severely.

  3. DanielLHancock

    nowRead this leftfootforward … Here’s a Blog


  4. Hanif Leylabi

    1) Iran backs sectarian militias that have committed atrocities

    This is Iraq. A country ruled by a vicious dictator for decades (supported by the west), then suffered deadly western sanctions, then experienced a brutal coalition occupation, then suffered a de facto civil war and is now being invaded by ISIS sadists. The idea that any group of Iraqis fighting in Iraq in this context is going to have the Geneva convention for human rights at the forefront of their mind, is a bit naïve. That doesn’t mean we do not challenge war crimes and make it clear that we think it’s wrong. But the idea Shia fighters aren’t going to go after people who provided a social base of support for saddam and ISIS is odd. Of course that it has often been indiscriminate or collective punishment is totally wrong. And Iran consistently calls for these elements to be reigned in. Iran has no interest in stoking sectarian tensions when it is trying to position itself as leader of the Muslim world. But collective punishment and punishment without trial in this context isn’t actually the same as massacring people the way Isis do. The Shia militias are committing the same transgressions other Iraqi groups do, from the Kurds to the Sunni Arabs.

    2) Iran Supports ISIS
    I mean this is just ridiculous. Iran buries soldiers every month at least killed by ISIS. The defector mentioned in the article met up with an ‘opposition group’ in Paris that itself is accused of war crimes. It is a cult that psychologically tortures its members and was accused of helping saddam commit genocide against the Kurds. Not a great point to be making then!

    3) Assad
    The writer doesn’t seem to understand how Assad can be secular and sectarian. His ideology is secular, but his survival strategy uses sectarianism because it is politically expedient. Very basic observation. Iran supports Assad because Syria has been a rare ally for a long time. When Iraq invaded Iran, supported by the west, Syria was the only Arab country to support Iran. That support meant a lot when you lost over half a million young kids in that war. Now Iranian involvement in Syria has been counterproductive. Far better would have been to come out in support of a negotiated settlement at the beginning. The crimes of Assad are many and Iran is thoroughly complicit. But they defended Syria because it’s an ally and possibly also a stepping stone for an attack on Iran. Not out of some sort of Shia religious fervour.

    4) Iranian domestic politics

    The impact of a nuclear deal on the domestic scene in Iran would be a huge victory for moderates and reformists and a huge blow to hardliners and conservatives of all stripes. That’s why it’s those hardline groups who are trying to scupper a nuclear deal. It’s also those hardline groups who control iran’s foreign policy and military action in the Middle East! A nuclear deal that included and end to sanctions would be a direct blow to the those pulling jeans political and military strings in Iraq and Syria.

  5. swat

    Would you believe it, it must be 40 years or so since the Shah was deposed and these b***dy Clerics got in. They seem to be running the whole show and Iran is plunged back into the middle ages. One of these days we are going to have to rid the World of them as well, and impose Democracy on Iran.
    And it must be 20 years or so since Iran and Iraq were at each others throats and an 8 year war ensued.
    I remember a phrase from the film Lawrence of Arabia: ‘the Arabs are a very tribal and warlike people’.
    And that about sums up the whole Middle East.

  6. James James

    Good post.

  7. Rupert Oldham


  8. Alavari Jeevathol

    It could be argued that any proposal for any action taken in the Middle East at the moment (or indeed, any moment in decades past) is, or could be, “a dangerous idea”, so that in itself is not an insightful comment for the author to make.

    One could well ask what policies, over the last century, initially, crucially, and then repeatedly, led to the destabilisation of the region, the author, however, does not ask this question.

    Given the intrinsic instability of the region, a sensible starting point might be to think of a course of action that has the least risk of flaring up tensions (political, ethnic, or otherwise). I would encourage the author of this article and his readers to consider this most basic of starting points.

    Also, it would be useful if the author provided suggestions for possible alternative courses of action to those currently being pursued (i.e. beginning to negotiate with Iran on relatively equal terms, instead of belittling its interests).

    Does the author not think that Israel and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenals are of any cause for concern? Where did they get the financial and political backing to build up such arsenals? Where does Iran rank in the list of countries that have engaged in an “imperial march across the region”? What triggers could we factor in for Iran’s support for terrorist groups across the region? How does supporting retail terror and giving financial/political backing to repressive governments compare with support for wholesale terror and outright conventional military aggression? What are the criteria used by the author to decide what he should write about in his articles?

    Surely it is very easy to point to any one entity in the region and cry foul. One could argue that every actor (state and non-state) has blood on their hands in the Middle East. There is little point even in comparing who has more blood on their hands than everyone else. What honest and serious politically conscientious people should do, in my opinion, is look at the terror and suffering that they, as citizens, are responsible for, and stop contributing to it.

  9. disqus_l36exwdw2i

    Orton peddling a narrative that is almost beyond its sell by date. When this Iran deal happens we can perhaps harvest the tears of Orton and his fellow Iran-haters, and solve the middle-east water crisis.


    The Clerics are not any different from Western Clerics although the Western women are not forced to cover their faces but that can be arranged if Western men comply with Islamic Idiots.

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