American talking heads say that Iran is the key to defeating ISIS. But those in the know say the two "enemies" are actually secret allies.
"There has never been any doubt in my mind that elements within Iran's security services have facilitated ISIS," Col. Derek Harvey told Foreign Policy, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a terrorist network-cum-jihadist army that has now taken over territory in Syria and Iraq that, when combined, is roughly the size of Jordan. "When given opportunities to interdict, or have an effect, [the Iranians] have refrained."
- Trita Parsi: Washington may not want to admit it, but Iran is the most stable country in the Middle East right now.
Harvey, a retired Army intelligence officer and senior Central Command advisor, was emphatic that any solution for containing the rising threat of ISIS, an al Qaeda breakaway group, must foreclose on the possibility of U.S.-Iranian collusion. His comments were echoed by two other high-ranking U.S. military officials who served extensively in the Iraq theater in the last decade and believe that Iran was the principal spoiler for American-led reconstruction efforts after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
These reminders from Iraq war veterans come at a time when debate rages in the U.S. policy establishment and commentariat over whether or not the Obama administration should adopt an "enemy of my enemy" logic in Iraq and work with Washington's 30-year foe in Tehran.
Secretary of State John Kerry floated this idea in an interview on June 16 with Katie Couric, saying, "We're open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and ability of the government to reform." President Barack Obama, in remarks delivered on June 19, seemed to rule out a direct military coordination with the Islamic Republic but nevertheless struck a similar chord of possible future cooperation. "Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we're sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it's inclusive," the commander-in-chief said, before adding that Iran's "hot and heavy" military support for the Assad regime has gravely worsened conditions in Syria -- implying that what is transpiring in Iraq now is spillover from that conflict next door.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also seemed amenable to an entente cordiale with the Great Satan. In a televised address on Iranian state media broadcast on June 14, he appeared to invite U.S. military intervention in Iraq to stem the ISIS assault and presented (not for the first time) Iran as a partner in what was once known as the global war on terror: "We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups."
Yet American veterans of the decade-long Iraq war and occupation say that the idea is both preposterous and dangerous. Iran, they maintain, has long played a double game in Mesopotamia and the Levant, both enabling Sunni extremists to infiltrate countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and then swooping in as the only safeguard heralded against the very forces they helped unleash.
Another high-ranking retired U.S. military official, who asked not to be identified by name, told FP: "Ansar al-Islam, the people who eventually became al Qaeda in Iraq [the forerunner organization to ISIS] -- where'd they come from? They came from Iran. They traveled from Iran through Iraqi Kurdistan and then through Mosul before moving south through Al Sharqat and then Tikrit." The official added: "Iran ran a very subversive campaign against Saddam long before we got into that country. And we were dealing with those same lines of communications before we got there. Look what they've done to the Levant, to Lebanon a couple times over. They're even in Gaza."
Col. Rick Welch spent roughly seven years in Iraq, and worked directly under Gen. David Petraeus during the surge and "Anbar Awakening" period, acting as a chief U.S. military liaison with both the Sunni tribes and Shiite militia groups that were integral to containing what was then a roiling civil war. "Back when we were getting intel from Iraqis at every level in our reconciliation program, they were telling us that Iran was funding any group that could keep Iraq chaotic," Welch said. "They did not want to see democracy in Iraq. They were keeping us tied down and were preventing the [post-Saddam] government from functioning in order to create the cover to let them to get their intelligence assets in place, especially in the south, and then influence the government piece by piece. That was not conspiratorial in nature; it was a deeply held conviction and perception throughout Iraq, and throughout the U.S. military."
Intelligence reporting during this period, Welch added, suggested that Iran was indeed funding "al Qaeda-type elements" in Iraq as well as Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, both of which are now said to be playing a major role in fortifying central Baghdad and Shiite-predominant cities and towns in southern Iraq. Iranian documents captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007 did indeed state that Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC) was helping Sunni jihadists along with Shiite militias, although to nowhere near the same extent.
"All of the EFPs [explosively formed penetrators], IEDs [improved explosive devices], rockets, and rocket launchers we were seizing -- all of this was coming out of Iran via the Shiite militias," Welch said. "Asaib Ahl al-Haq was getting $20 million a month or some outrageous figure like that to train their fighters. Their leadership was in Tehran, but their people operated in Iraq." Another Iranian client was the Mahdi Army, led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has now constituted that militia -- once the bane of coalition forces in Najaf and beyond -- under the new banner of the "Peace Brigades." (Though that somewhat anodyne rebranding has not stopped Mahdi militants from marching through Baghdad with mock suicide vests.) According to Welch, the Mahdi Army "was going to Iran and getting training not in guerrilla warfare but in how to stir up sectarian conflict."
The call to arms by both domestic and Iranian Shiite forces this month follows not only the mass desertion of tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Force soldiers in the wake of ISIS's invasion and sacking of Mosul earlier this month, but also the diktats being issued by IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. He reportedly traveled to Baghdad in the last fortnight and is now rumored to be manning most of the Maliki government's security portfolio -- a particularly burdensome task given that he's already been in charge of Bashar al-Assad's for well over a year.
Suleimani has overseen the formation and training of various Shiite militia groups in Syria, composed of fighters native to the country but also from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Europe. This operational beef-up of Damascus's security apparatus is meant to add 150,000 new pro-regime fighters into the Syrian civil war, and was actually named for Suleimani himself, according to Dr. Shimon Shapira, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and a regional expert on the IRGC. By one Israeli think tank estimate, there may now even be more Shiite foreign fighters in Syria backing Assad than there are Sunnis agitating for his overthrow.
Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militia groups, has also noted that the Shiite militants recruited and trained for service in Syria have been returning to Iraq since last January, since roughly around the time that ISIS first invaded Anbar province and seized control of Fallujah and much of Ramadi, the provincial capital. Smyth argues that although they have been enlisted under the pretext of "protecting" Shiite holy sites and shrines, this is a mere dog-whistle for rallying sectarians to prop up the Assad and Maliki regimes. Writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he noted that in January and again in March, two such militia groups -- Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) and its constituent, the Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) -- "were described as 'protectors of holy sites in Syria and Iraq,' including the Hadi al-Askari shrine in Samarra, Iraq. By mid-May, both groups had launched their own recruitment efforts to field fighters in Iraq. And by late May, the RRF had reportedly deployed to Abu Ghraib, an area with no prominent shrines to 'protect.'"
Colonel Harvey argues that for these reasons, Washington must be wary of even objectively or temporarily aligning itself with the IRGC's Suleimani, whose strategy thus far has been to retrench along sectarian lines -- strengthening militia groups' holds on Shiite-majority cities such as Karbala, Najaf, and Samarra -- rather than taking the fight to ISIS in Sunni-majority areas.
Amplifying remarks made in London last week by Petraeus, who warned against using U.S. air power as cover for IRGC activities in Iraq, Harvey said: "The Finlandization of Baghdad even more so is a good outcome for Qassem Suleimani and Iran's ability to increase its influence in Iraq.... They're shaping that country's security, government, and intelligence apparatus to be compliant to their wishes."
The fact that Iran has facilitated or underwritten al Qaeda in the Middle East is only counterintuitive to those with short memories, or who don't bother to keep up with the U.S. government's more recent assessments. The 9/11 Commission Report, for instance, found that al Qaeda and Iran formed an "informal agreement" in Sudan in the early 1990s to "cooperate in providing support -- even if only training -- for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States." The commission also found that "there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers," although it found no evidence that Tehran was aware of the pending attack on the United States.
In his superb September 2013 profile of Qassem Suleimani, the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins cited former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who is otherwise portrayed in that piece as amenable to a U.S.-IRGC alliance, as saying that in 2003 Washington gained intelligence suggesting that al Qaeda agents in Iran were planning attacks against Western targets in Saudi Arabia. Crocker even flew to Geneva to warn the Iranians against such provocations, to no avail. Three residential compounds in Riyadh were subsequently blown up, along with 35 people, including nine Americans.
Suleimani's promiscuous enlistment of any and all enemies of the West eventually backfired, however, as the Sunni jihadists he insinuated into Iraq began waging terrorist attacks against Shiite targets, such as the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which the IRGC commander is now intent on ring-fencing from ISIS. "Suleimani wanted to bleed the Americans, so he invited in the jihadis, and things got out of control," one Western diplomat in Baghdad told Filkins.
Even so, Iran's cooptation of al Qaeda and Sunni extremists does not appear to have been severed since the bloodiest heights of Iraq's civil war. Last February, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, an Iranian-based Uzbek affiliated with the Islamic Jihad Union, which is accused of "provid[ing] logistical support and funding to al-Qa'ida's Iran-based network." That network, the Treasury designation stated, "facilitated the transfer of funds from Gulf-based donors to al-Qa'ida core and other affiliated elements, including the al-Nusrah Front in Syria [the official al Qaeda franchise there]," as well as helping Kuwaiti donors send money to jihadists in Syria.
Added to this is the widespread allegation, shared by both the Syrian opposition and many defectors from the Assad regime, that Damascus purposefully released jihadists from the notorious Sednaya prison in 2011 as part of an "amnesty" designed to lay the foundation for terrorist structures in Syria. "The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades," one former member of Syria's Military Intelligence Directorate told the National newspaper in January. In February of this year, CNN's Arwa Damon interviewed a defector from ISIS who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Ammara. He claimed that the group wasn't quite the stalwart enemy of Assad's regime as it made out, and that suicide bombers are led to believe they would be attacking Syrian military installations only to then discover they were set on a mission to target rival rebel factions instead. "There were a lot of regime locations we could have taken without sustaining losses of our fighters," Abu Ammara said, "and we would receive orders to retreat."
It certainly is true that, until recently, Assad -- and through him Suleimani -- has largely refrained from targeting ISIS positions or its de facto administrative headquarters in eastern Syria with quite the same gusto or fury he has with other rebel groups. Many journalists have reported on this phenomenon. The New York Times' Beirut correspondent, Anne Barnard, tweeted on June 12 that a Syrian government advisor flat-out told her that fighting ISIS was not a priority for Damascus because its presence was useful as propaganda "tarring all insurgents" and framing the Syria question as one between Assad and jihad. This is why the group has managed to superimpose its caliphate-in-the-making all across eastern Syria, giving it control of most of the regime's oil fields.
The Guardian's Middle East correspondent, Martin Chulov, who traveled to Aleppo last month, observed that the now-abandoned ISIS headquarters in that provincial capital, situated inside a former hospital, remained untouched by barrel bombs or Scud missiles whereas, right next door, the headquarters of a more mainstream Islamist rebel brigade, Liwa al-Tawhid, had been powdered. Chulov also helpfully reported last week that, based on Iraqi security forces' confiscation of ISIS digital material, the main sources of funding for the organization come from oil sales to the regime and the theft of priceless Syrian artifacts. Assad's curiously selective "war on terror" has made the most formidable terrorist network in Syria unbelievably rich.
None of the foregoing appears to have had much of an impact on the thinking of policymakers and analysts who are now advocating that Iran is our single best hope for containing ISIS.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN's State of the Union on June 15, "The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn't fall." In his most recent Washington Post column, David Ignatius, who ironically relies on Colonel Harvey's assessment of U.S. military options for Iraq, wrote, "The Saudis are going to have to swallow the reality that ISIS can't be stopped without some cooperation with Iran." It goes without saying that this is music to the ears of the mullahs who are now set on a carefully scripted propaganda campaign to end U.S. sanctions and lower the temperature on three decades of geopolitical isolation. Yet it is also deeply strident to those who spent a decade trying to save Iraq and have not quite forgotten or forgiven the one country that made their efforts all but impossible.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images