TLDR Up Front: In two separate attacks, militants struck simultaneously at the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Downplaying the attacks by focusing on casualties or containment is a serious mistake. Iranian politics exist in a precariously balanced ‘suspended equilibrium’ between formal Constitutional titular offices and informal factions of relationships that actually control diverse power bases. One of these informal factions is led by Qasem Solemani, Commander of the elite division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard known as QODS and has led Iranian expansion to dominate the post-Saddam middle east political scene. Spoiling these efforts has been Al-Baghdadi, known as “the ghost”, leading ISIS who’s forte is to create instability, disequilibrium and division in the states it targets. In successfully attacking Tehran for the first time ISIS introduces instability into the suspended equilibrium, and shifts the long-running conflict between the two entities into the heart of the Iranian power politics.
Full Context in the Back: ISIS today struck at the heart of Iran’s political and spiritual center, successfully and simultaneously targeting its parliament and the mausoleum holding the body of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. The attack was conducted by two teams consisting of at least at least five men and one woman, all of whom died in the attack, and resulted in a multi-hour gun battle in the parliament building and bombs going off both there and at the mausoleum. That 12 were killed and 50 wounded is but the start of the potential damage. (1)
Although Iran itself, and many pundits, were quick to downplay the attack because it both ended and didn’t result in a catastrophic loss like the 9/11 attacks, underestimating the impact of this attack is a huge mistake. As pointed out one of Iran’s foremost claims is that it has kept the fight against salafi-takfirism outside its own borders, defeating all terrorist attempts (or rather most) inside it’s borders.(2) This claim is critical given the historical perspective Iran has on invasion and attack by Suuni related forces. The attack, under the noses of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards assigned to guard the facilities, is a direct black eye on the Guards closely associated with QODS Commander Qasem Soleimani, a persistent thorn in ISIS’s side.
Room with a view.
It’s not Always Ancient History
Understanding this attack requires knowledge of the history of conflict between these two entities: Iran as a state actor and ISIS as an emerging-state actor. As salafi-takfiri, ISIS considers the Shia, the predominant religion of Iran, to be a form of apostasy. Making this sect of Islam worse than Christians. This has led to ethnic-cleansing and genocide of Shia worshipers wherever ISIS has encountered them inside Iraq and Syria. Although, it is historically accurate to point out that this division dates back to early Islamic history, it’s a disservice to contemporary actions to always be blaming current problems on ancient history of Islam. There’s a far more recent, pragmatic, and focused framework within which to understand the current conflict between ISIS and Iran.
Based on the geographic divisions of wilayats (provinces) and governing practices of the Ottomans, largely copied by the British Mandate of 1920 – the 20th Century Arab landscape has largely geopolitically been one of minority Suuni populations wielding political power over majority Shia populations. A common tactic of colonialism – to play the minority ethnographic division off against the majority to maintain power – such efforts proved increasingly unsustainable in the latter half of the 20th Century. Periodic Shia uprisings occurred in Iraq under Saddam and other areas- but it was the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 that gave the Shia their first true country of their own. Although there were many players in the Revolution and afterwards, none towered as large as the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Founding figure – like George Washington is considered to the US, Khomeini advocated a new form of state-backed Islamist power based on Shia interpretation of Sharia, willing to use violent force, view now described as Khomeinism – akin to George Washington , whose smuggled cassette tapes were passed around and listened to as a form of human radio. Khomeini advocated a violent state-backed view of Islam, similar to the Suuni Islamist, now named for its originator as Khomeinism.
Almost immediately the Republic of Iran was attacked by Saddam Hussein resulting in a brutal eight year war that saw the losses of close to a million Iraqi’s and Iranians. (3) This set a perspective within Iran, rightfully or wrongly, of itself against a hostile Arab world. The Revolutionary Guard, especially its elite division known as the QODS, took upon itself a zealous mission to protect the country from both near and far threats. The Iranian base of power would then become a source for support for efforts across the Arabic landscape, ostensibly for the oppressed Shia, but just as often for the political self-interests of the leadership of Iran itself, often managed by QODS. For example, Iran supported the Shia militia of Hezbollah in the Lebanon Civil War, and that support ran through the Assad regime in Syria. Through this triangle Iran punched-above its weight exerting influence into Lebanon and through it into bordering Israel.
The QODS is hard to understand in a US context as it not only blurs the distinction between military and intelligence gathering – but also governmental and private function. QODS is like combining the US Marine Coprs, CIA, parts of the FBI and about a dozen of the Fortune 50 corporations all under one umbrella. This means it is largely self-funding and funded, the umbrella held by Solemani and his allies within the faction.
When Saddam was removed by the US in 2003 the regional balance of power shifted and Solemani saw an opportunity for QODS, and Iran, to move into the gap. A survivor of the Iran-Iraq war, Solemani recognized the potential of the Shia majority populations, long oppressed by the Suuni minority in the US enforced ‘newly democratic’ Iraq. (4)
Since then Soleimani has had more influence on shaping the post-Saddam middle east than perhaps any other individual. Like a Bismarck of the region, under his leadership Iran began buying, or bullying, support in the emerging Shia political parties in Iraq. With a majority Shia population it was no surprise that ostensibly democratic elections would result in a string of Shia Prime Ministers. (5), (6), (7), (8)
But there were other influential figures also attempting to fill that power vacuum. And one of them, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched the Al-Queda affiliate Al-Queda in Iraq (AQ) which began an insurgency in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi’s grand strategy was to inflame ethnic tensions between Suuni and Shia with attacks against the Shia until civil war broke out. Which eventually happened after the bombing of the Samara Mosque in 2006. And what would become ISIS, then known as Al-Queda in Iraq (AQI) was at the heart of this instigation of ethnic conflict. The massive wave of Muslim on Muslim violence that followed exposed a deep ideological rift between al-Zarqawi and the rest of Al-Queda in how civilian Muslims would be treated, even if they were Shia. As excellently documented by LongWarJournal, the Iranian regime and Al-Queda cut a secret deal to keep Al-Queda out of Iran, and for Al-Queda to attempt to reign in AQI’s bloodletting against the Shia in Iraq. This largely proved unsuccessful as al-Zarqawi increasingly rebuffed control of Al-Queda central and charted his own path.
A Deep Defense
It was these two figures – Soleimani in the shadows and al-Zarqawi large and in charge that were the forces shaping the regions future. A potential Iranian grand strategy is to create defense in depth, a response to the invasion by Iraq, to ensure a buffer between it and other hostile states far from the Iranian border – and near perfect stability inside Iran. Defeating or at least lessening the influence of the Suuni Gulf States is key as well. But, a third plank is also create a viable land-supply route from Iran west to naval ports on the Mediterranean. This is the infamous “route to the sea” comment made infamous by Romney in the Presidential campaign of 2012, which caused much-a-tittering by know-nothings, even though it was a valid concern. (9) Even if it took a generation – a land-rail to the Mediterranean would allow Iran to bypass the chokepoint of the Suez Canal and give it direct ability to ship heavy materials into Syria and from there then south to Lebanon. Or to deploy directly into the Mediterranean to project power onto the European powers directly. A long term plan to be sure, but if one were building a defense in buffer, that’s quite the buffer.
Several hundred thousand dead later…who’s laughing now?
All of these efforts were overshadowed when the Syrian civil war went south on Assad and the more immediate need became to prevent a wholesale collapse of the Syrian regime to Suuni rebel groups – including both Al-Queda and ISIS militants.(10)
Back in Iraq – continued Iranian soft-power efforts and growing indifference to Iraq from Washington under President Obama, those Prime Ministers became increasingly beholden to Soleimani. And as Iranian influence increased, the treatment of the Suunis worsened, payback for generations of mistreatment of the Shia under Saddam. This exacerbated to the point where Prime Minister Al-Nuriki was openly hostile and aggressive – arresting powerful Suuni tribal leaders who held key positions in the government until he was seen as nothing but a puppet to Iran.
It was Al-Nuriki’s disruption of Suuni protest camps protesting his regime that led to the uprising and seizure of Fallujah by ISIS in January of 2014 .
Although the problem was supposed to improve after Al-Nuriki’s ouster and replacement by Al-Abadi in 2014, the mere rise of ISIS only in part made Iran’s job easier. Selling “Shia-militias” as a solution to the woeful performance and near collapse of the Iraqi Army in the Anbar Offensive of the summer of 2014.
It was during that offensive when ISIS seized large numerous population centers and committed horrendous atrocities on the Shia populations and the population was ready for anyone who could stop the mass murders, horrific punishments and ethnic cleansings that drove waves of refugees carrying a clear message to all Shia “get out of the Sham and the Levant.” (The territory ISIS has claimed in the middle east.) Although Al-Zarqawi had been killed years earlier, a new leader of ISIS, Al-Baghdadi had emerged to take his place. Almost the complete opposite stylistically of Al-Zarqawi neither as ferociously aggressive himself nor narcissistically self-aggrandizing and rarely seen, Al-Baghdadi has been given the nickname of Al-Shbab “the ghost.” But he is a far more effective organizer of a sustainable organization than Al-Zarqawi ever was, navigating ISIS through a worldwide expansion that has brought it into dozens of countries, and he has taken the founders place to challenge Soleimani’s dominance of the region.
There were a few months where it was unclear if ISIS could be stopped from taking the Kurdish capital of or Baghdad itself. But the Peshmerga rallied and Iran stepped in to arm, train, equip and even provide their own leaders to the Shia militias – blunting ISIS advances. A stalemate emerged in the south, with Baghdad as the point of furthest expansion. ISIS contented itself with sending in suicide bombers, like an occasional V-2 rocket, into the Shia portions of the city, hoping to stir political trouble for President Al-Abadi and perhaps spark another ethnic conflict as occurred during the US occupation when Shia and Suuni death squads hunted each other within the city. Even though the political agitation strategy succeeded, and Al-Abadi has been weakened by his ineffectualness to stop ISIS – the latter strategy has failed. The residents of Baghdad had lived through one sectarian conflict already thanks and wanted no part of a second helping.
The Shia militias continued to grow in size and armaments. Becoming effectively Iran’s own proxy army inside the country. Although, to be fair, a better army than the one Iraq had available at hand. After assisting in repelling the ISIS advances around Baghdad the Shia militias became integral to winning back the southern cities of Ramadi and Fallujah and then, turning northward, taking back land and towns in the Suuni Triangle. The campaign from Baghdad to Mosul has largely been an effort of the Shia militias now heavily integrated with the regular Iraqi forces.
Throughout all this time, the Revolutionary Guard was able to keep the violence, the bombings, the bloodletting on the other side of the Iraqi border. Except for a few minor bombings here or there attributed to a local terrorist group (the MEK) or suspected of being related to the US/Israeli anti-nuclear efforts. Since the failed Green Revolution of 2009 Iran had projected and been able to maintain stability in its center.
But the Iraqi Shia militias were not kept in Iraq. As tools of Iranian influence first and foremost they have shown up at key junctures in the Syrian Civil War. During the siege of Aleppo, when a collapse of the regular Syrian forces were imminent, Shia militias from south of Baghdad magically appeared is clear as recently they have begun to show up in Syria, aiding Iranian efforts under the direction of Soleimani in countering rebel advances in the Syrian Civil War. LongWarJournal just published analysis of a photograph showing the QODS commander in offensive operations near the northwestern border of Syria, which is pretty far removed from Iraq. (11)
Interestingly, in Syria, Iran has not directly attacked ISIS as often as in Iraq. Perhaps this is simply a reflection on Assad’s strategy of focusing on defeating the rebels in the western coastal areas and ceding the vast eastern interiors to ISIS. Or at least letting the US, Turkish, and Kurdish forces bloody themselves against it. Then again, Syria is a bloody mess and Soleimani may just be limiting his goals to achievable objectives. However far he is from ISIS, Soleimani’s location is smack-dab in the insurgents-formerly-known-as-Al-Queda’s territory around Idlib, their fight against salafi takfirism and the threat of Suuni radicalism continuing.
It’s not all gains against ISIS and Al-Queda however at no cost to Iran. Iran is learning the same lessons the United States, and every other major country fighting a counter-insurgency, has had to learn. Its hard bloody work with a constant stream of body bags sent back home. By using local proxies, Soleimani has limited the casualties somewhat – but there is still some resentment among the Iranian population to the cost in resources and human treasure being squandered in far-away Syria fighting to win someone else’s war.
And it is that resentment which is under strain in the suspended equilibrium held between formal and informal power bases, institutional and factional relationships, always shifting and aligning themselves under the watchful eyes of the Grand Ayatollah who, ostensibly, remains above the political fray. (12) The ascendency of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, or more specifically the QODS in this foreign strategy in the last few years has not gone unnoticed. Protecting them from the criticism of the costs. But in a system such as Iran’s, where one faction rises, another waits for an opening.
The misunderstood strategy of ISIS, both in Iran, the Philippines, London, the United States is not to ‘defeat’ in the conventional sense with these attacks – but to introduce sources of instability into the system. To disrupt equilibrium and create a sustained and escalating oscillation that begins breaking the institutions apart, to turn faction against faction, and ideally, divide the country against itself. Just look at the state of American politics – after each terrorist attack we spend almost as much time attacking one another as we do ISIS. Though there could be a rally-around-the-mausoleum effect by attacking the shrine to the countries founding-father…the sheer inability of the Revolutionary Guards inability to control the situation for hours raises serious questions: why are our forces so far flung away if we cannot protect our own capital? Any result of the instability, a realignment of forces on the Syrian front lines, a reduction of favor on the Revolutionary Guards and their Shia militia strategy, the sharpening of knives against the previously untouchable Soleimani, all of these are wins for ISIS. Regardless if it looks like a Doolittle raid to outsiders.
We may not know precisely the motivations for today’s attack for awhile. But we do know a lot about the conflict between ISIS style salafi takfirism and Iranian style Khoemnisim, how long its been going on and the leaders behind the conflict. Anyone asking the puzzleheaded rhetorical of “Why aren’t Muslims fighting ISIS?” should be viewed as the ninnyhammers they are. Muslims are fighting ISIS, and have undoubtedly born the brunt of this conflict. When ISIS targets not just a country’s capital, but the capital building – as the saying goes “you have gained their attention.”
The conflict with ISIS is not a war against Islam. It is a world at war with ISIS and not the all of the combatants fighting them are always on the same side with one another. We might stand to the side of the Iranian-ISIS conflict and simply observe, but we’d be fools to think the attack is insignificant. Or fail to watch carefully to see what happens next.