Foreign Policy Essay

Partnering with Iran to Counter ISIS?

By Ariane Tabatabai, Dina Esfandiary
Sunday, August 14, 2016, 10:23 AM

Editor's Note: The U.S. struggle against the Islamic State is hamstrung by too many enemies and too few allies. Not only is the United States fighting the Islamic State, but it also opposes the Syrian regime, Lebanese Hizballah, and Iran, among other forces. Ariane Tabatabai of Georgetown and Dina Esfandiary of King's College argue that U.S. policy is at least partly misguided. They contend that Iran can and should be a major ally in the struggle against the Islamic State.


Since June 2016, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has inspired or conducted a terrorist attack every 84 hours outside the territories it holds in the Middle East, including on US soil and in key European cities. The US-led international coalition, composed of US allies in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, has fought ISIS since 2014. But to date, it hasn't achieved its goal. Two years ago, President Barack Obama stated that the coalition’s goal was to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. While the coalition has helped degrade the group in Syria and Iraq to a certain extend in the past two years, that certainly has not stopped—and in fact may have enhanced—the group’s terrorist capabilities. To achieve both goals, Washington must work with a major force combatting ISIS that has so far been excluded from the international coalition: Iran.

How Iran is Fighting ISIS

Today, Iran is sandwiched between countries with weak central authorities and major terrorist groups filling that vacuum, with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and ISIS in Syria and Iraq (as well as Afghanistan). Last month, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry neutralized an ISIS plan to conduct a large-scale terrorist attack on Tehran. The plan was to hit 50 targets using 100 kg of explosives across the Iranian capital, home to over 8 million people. ISIS paid the operatives hundreds of thousands of dollars for these attacks. That ISIS was planning such a spectacular attack on Iranian soil was no surprise: the group put Iran on its top 3 list of targets, alongside France and the US. As the biggest majority Shia country in the world—a faith fundamentalist Sunnis consider as a “deviation” of true Islam due to its rejection of the notion of the “caliphate”—Iran is viewed as the flag bearer of religious deviation by ISIS. As a result, since it concluded a nuclear deal with the world powers a year ago, Tehran focused its attention on regional security and countering terrorism and extremism, in particular ISIS. When ISIS declared a caliphate in June 2014, we were conducting fieldwork in Iran, and over the past two years, we've done dozens of interviews with Iranian officials. Here, we use material from our fieldwork and interviews to discuss Tehran's efforts against ISIS and where the United States and Iran can work together.

Iran’s strategy against ISIS is similar to that pursued by the United States. Tehran wants to eliminate ISIS in Iraq and push it back in Syria, while ensuring that both countries preserve their territorial integrity; destroy ISIS’ capacity to launch terrorist attacks outside of its territories; undermine its appeal to local and foreign fighters; and stop it from spilling into neighboring Afghanistan.

To achieve these goals, Iran has undertaken a number of counterterrorism efforts. While some complement US efforts, others go against them.

Washington must work with a major force combatting ISIS that has so far been excluded from the international coalition: Iran.

In general, Iran’s counter-ISIS strategy is more hands on than that of the United States. In addition to material support and training, Tehran has boots on the ground in both Syria and Iraq, while the US and its allies have limited major combat role for its troops to date. While the coalition has committed some special forces, it’s focused its efforts in an air campaign, sending advisers and equipment, and comprehensive capacity-building, including training. To minimize the costs of direct combat and maximize outcome, Iran works with a set of allies like the US. Unlike the US, however, it works more closely with local players – including the central government in Baghdad, the Assad regime, the Kurds, the Shia militias, and some willing Sunnis – than international and regional players.

A part of Iran’s direct combat against ISIS is done through “signaling” by publicizing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) presence in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, Tehran’s PR campaign included openly and publicly repatriating IRGC body bags, “martyred” in Syria and Iraq. This helps reassure the Iranian public and galvanize support for Iran’s efforts in the region, something that is notoriously unpopular domestically because of the heavy cost of Iranian regional endeavors. Today, the Guards and their supporters use social media to remind Iranians that their security and stability in a volatile region is the result of the work and sacrifice of the security forces. But this messaging also serves as a deterrent: A signal to ISIS that it can’t get too close to Iranian borders or target Iranian interests and persons or Shia religious symbols.

In addition to its offensive measures, Iran also boosted defensive counterterrorism capabilities. Today, no less than a dozen different organizations within the Iranian security forces work on various aspects of counterterrorism. These organizations are part of the three main security forces within the countrythe Revolutionary Guards, Artesh (military) and law enforcement, and intelligence agencies within both the government and the Revolutionary Guards. The Guards—especially the special and elite forces like the Quds Force and the Ansar al-Mahdi Corps—are responsible for Iran’s counterterrorism efforts outside its borders. The Artesh shares some of these responsibilities and recently deployed its special forces to Syria. But both organizations, along with the law enforcement branches, also operate on Iranian soil.

Iran’s domestic counterterrorism efforts are fairly opaque. Iranian officials refuse to discuss them in more detail. What is clear is that Iran’s efforts aren’t just focused on preventing, interrupting, and neutralizing ISIS operations. They also focus on preventing radicalization within Iran, especially within the country’s Sunni population: roughly 10 percent of Iran’s total population. As part of these efforts, the government works closely with Sunni leaders in Iran to develop adequate anti-radicalization steps. Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani poses for photos next to various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq to highlight Tehran’s willingness to work with all. The Iranians tried to work with Sunnis in Iraq through the Iraqi Army, but weren’t able to galvanize the Sunnis enough to join the fight. Iran also tries to undermine ISIS’ sectarian message, which appeals to so many disenfranchised Sunni Arabs. But it has had limited success. Tehran recognizes that “it can’t win the sectarian game” for now, as noted by an Iranian official in an interview with the authors, because it helped exacerbate the sectarian tensions in Iraq and Syria by supporting non-inclusive governments and helping sideline the Sunnis. But today, Iran knows that the only way to effectively combat ISIS’ ideology is by breaking the barriers between Sunnis and Shias. As a result, Iranian officials insist that Sunnis and Shias are all Muslims and highlight their similarities. But the rhetoric of inclusiveness is too little, too late.

Tehran is a key player in the region and has the political will to back up its capabilities to fight ISIS effectively.

Why and How Should the United States Work with Iran

Tehran is a key player in the region and has the political will to back up its capabilities to fight ISIS effectively. Washington knows this. There is precedent for US and Iranian cooperation despite the lack of diplomatic relations: in 2001, to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran was already fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to 2001 with Russia, India, and the Northern Alliance. When the United States entered Afghanistan after 9/11, it convened the Bonn Conference to create a successor government to the Taliban. As noted by US Special Envoy for Afghanistan James Dobbins, Tehran was particularly helpful. It committed substantial aid for reconstruction, the largest of its neighbors, and worked with Washington on the ground, too. Elsewhere, Iran and the US have coordinated on an ad hoc tactical and operational level in Iraq, but they failed to work together strategically. The coalition needs local and regional support to fight ISIS and retain regained territory, as well as help respond to humanitarian crises more effectively, especially when it comes to ethnic and religious minorities in danger. Today, two years after ISIS kidnapped 5,000 Yazidis, over half of them remain enslaved; many are women and children used as sex slaves. As a result of this lack of coordination, small-scale military gains against ISIS did not translate into stability in Iraq.

After its initial surprise at the rapid rise of ISIS, Iran committed political, military, and intelligence means to fight ISIS and took advantage of the influence it wields in Iraq. As noted, Iranian officials have told us that their country doesn’t just work with the Kurds, Shia groups, and mainstream Sunnis, but also non-friendly groups, including Sunni radicals with an anti-Shia and anti-Iranian agenda. Iran’s ties also extend to the religious establishment in Iraq. What’s more, despite their sectarian stance and brutality, it is undeniable that Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq are an efficient fighting force. After all, they’ve received training and equipment for a number of years and have experience fighting armies and militant groups. Their efficiency allows the coalition to achieve their objectives in a timelier manner and to hold liberated cities, which they could not do without ground troops.

How Could the US and Iran Work Together?

First, Washington and its allies can provide air cover for Iranian-backed militia and Iraqi army ground assaults to regain ISIS territory. This small-scale coordination already occurred during the liberation of Amerli in spring 2014. Making it strategic could allow the US to impose conditions on the provision of air cover.

Second, the US and Iran can share intelligence on targets, as they did in the early 2000s in Afghanistan. The difficulty here will be to ensure that these are legitimate targets. The two countries could also share intelligence on foreign fighters and their whereabouts, like Iran has done with Australia.

Third, the US and Iran can work together to facilitate the movement of people and transit of goods and equipment throughout Iraq. Iran is present on the ground and can act faster than the US, which could potentially speed up the lackluster response to humanitarian crises in Iraq, as was the case with the Yazidis.

Fourth, the US and Iran must work together to prevent a worsening political crisis in Iraq, which would only play into ISIS’ hands. The Iraqi government’s mismanagement of the economy and security, and its overly sectarian policies undermines the war against ISIS. And little thought is being given to what a post-ISIS Iraq would look like. It’s imperative the international community begins to do this, and the US and Iran are both key players that will inevitably be involved.

Finally, ISIS can only be beaten if its ideology is discredited and the regional sectarian strife is tackled. For this to happen, all the major Muslim players in the region must tackle ISIS’ appeal together, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the current policy of excluding Iran, the region’s major Shia state, from the international coalition built to fight ISIS worsens the regional sectarian conflict, ultimately playing into ISIS’ hands.

This piece builds on an article comparing US and Iranian counter-ISIS strategies in Studies on Conflict and Terrorism and a forthcoming article in The National Interest outlining areas for potential US-Iran cooperation against ISIS.