Newsweek Magazine recently published an article entitled ‘If Iran falls, ISIS may rise again (December 10, 2019), in which the author, Tom O’Connor, spoke of challenges that might emerge after the fall of the Iranian regime. What captured my attention about the article was the American author’s wilful distortion of facts and erroneous claims about the supposed dangers that could result from the downfall of the Iranian regime, which – Mr O’Connor claimed – would lead to the emergence of terrorist groups in areas inhabited by non-Persian peoples, such as Ahwaz, Kurdistan, Baluchistan and other areas. ISIS, he claimed, would rise again in the border areas between Iraq and Iran. He reiterated his viewpoint in an exclusive interview with BBC Persian Television.
Instead of shallow fear-mongering, he should have known that the regime in Iran has long systematically targeted ethnic and religious minorities, especially those who have struggled for their own self-determination against this regime, such as Kurds, Baluchis and Ahwazis. These minorities are denied the right to express their cultural and ethnic identities and suffer large scale institutional discrimination and oppression at all levels of Iranian society. Yet none of these peoples have any desire to see the brutal regime simply replaced by another autocratic radical cult, such as ISIS.
What most piques the curiosity of those who actually follow Iranian affairs is that the columnist never made any attempt to contact those knowledgeable about the region, who could have fact-checked his claims. Instead, all of his quoted ‘sources’ track closely to views expressed by the Iranian regime, and echoed by members of its propaganda lobby in the US. Some of his interviewees are even employees of the Tasnim News Agency, a known mouthpiece of the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Obviously, the viewpoints expressed by these individuals were not impartial, objective or professional, but wholly shaped by their political and ethnic affiliation and their status of employees and/or admirers of the Iranian regime among other factors. This evident bias and lack of any countering viewpoints dramatically reduce the credibility of the Newsweek article to transparent propaganda. Similarly, a couple of weeks after the publication of Mr O’Connor’s article, media outlets published reports about ISIS recruits based in the Hamrin Mountains on the border between Iraq and Iran.
In analysing the Newsweek article and similar ensuing claims in other media outlets – all of which are possibly linked to the Western lobbies funded by Iran’s regime, especially in the US – it is important to note that none of these articles have mentioned or even acknowledged the regional events which spawned four decades of terrorism. Even cursory review of these events would easily show how Iran’s regime has worked to destabilise the region and add layers of sectarianism and complexity to resolving political disputes in the Middle East. It was these same Iranian machinations that led to the emergence of extremist groups embracing violent ideology, which Iran sponsors when expedient.
Moreover, while Iran’s regime is heavily sectarian, it works with terrorists across the spectrum without hesitation so long as they serve its objectives. These groups, in turn, use Iran as a hub for training, and logistical, intelligence, financial and political support.
Here, we’ll briefly discuss the circumstances that led to the emergence of terrorism in the Middle East and the role of Iran’s regime in creating these conditions to suit its expansionist agenda, but the concept is not entirely new, as Iran’s former regime exploited the economic fragility and deprivation in the areas populated by Shiites in Lebanon long before Hezbollah in order to support its own purposes.
Iran’s rulers also worked to establish charitable centres to support some Shiite families as a PR tool to win support amongst Lebanese Shiites. This work was overseen by SAVAK, the infamous Iranian intelligence agency, even while maintaining an alliance with Israel.
Some Iranians who had settled in Lebanon participated in this Iranian project in southern Lebanon, establishing the ‘Movement of the Dispossessed’ in 1974, which went on to produce the Amal Movement.
A few short years later, the Shah’s regime in Iran was toppled in the 1979 revolution. The Shah’s successors in Tehran, the ‘Islamic Republic’ regime, then took over the SAVAK project in Lebanon and created Hezbollah as a breakaway faction of the Amal Movement.
Hezbollah’s terror activities in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the broader Middle East, as well as in Europe, South America and even the US, are familiar to everyone monitoring and analysing Iranian and Hezbollah affairs.
This brief glimpse into the history of Iranian rulers’ relations with the Shiite minorities in the Arab region will undoubtedly help followers of Iranian affairs to understand the political status quo. This is the reality and foundation of what is happening in the region, of which Newsweek’s self-appointed expert analyst, reliant on Iranian regime propaganda, knows nothing.
When Mr O’Connor touched on the conditions which gave rise to terrorist organisations, he paid no heed to the critical role played by the Iranian regime in creating these conditions or in nurturing and working with these terror groups whenever expedient.
For a specific example, Article 154 of the Iranian regime’s constitution legitimises Iranian intervention in the affairs of the other countries under the guise of supposedly ‘defending the oppressed’ and otherwise allegedly supporting those it refers to as the ‘vulnerable’ (presumably including Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah and numerous Iraqi militias) with weapons, money, military, intelligence and logistic training. The regime notoriously uses these terror proxies and allies to implement its scheme in the region and worldwide.
From the regime’s perspective, the way to oppose oppression and injustice inflicted on Shiites in other nations is not to support them through legal action or humanitarian work on their behalf or to lobby the governments of those countries to actually improve their status, but to arm the oppressed, turning them into militias to support Iran’s ideological expansionism by helping them to overthrow the rulers of those nations. It should be crystal clear that for the regime, any foreign Shiites are nothing but expendable tools used to achieve its ultimate objective of theocratic colonisation, building a hard-line Shiite empire led by Tehran, initially extending from Iran across the Middle East, then to the rest of the Islamic world, and ultimately to a Persian-ruled Twelver Shiite world. While the regime is extremely unlikely to be able to achieve this on a global scale, its efforts to ‘Persianise’ the Middle East are already inflicting unimaginable suffering across the region.
Since this expansionism is the regime’s ideological raison d’être and ultimate objective, it views as legitimate any means used in achieving it, including forming longstanding relations with other armed extremist groups from different sectarian backgrounds such as Al Qaeda. Despite the efforts of its lobbyists, Tehran’s ties to the group’s deceased founder Osama Bin Laden and other senior officers in the infamous terror group, and sheltering of its members in Iran, is being exhaustively documented and explained by many analysts worldwide, including Karim Sadjadpour’s recent article, ‘The Sinister Genius of Qassem Soleimani’ in the Wall Street Journal.
Imad Mughniyeh, the deceased Hezbollah leader, played the role of coordinator between al-Qaeda and Iran. At one meeting, he brought together Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, then the IRGC chief of Staff, Osama bin Laden and Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of Sudan’s National Islamic Front. This meeting led to strong relations between Iran’s regime and Al-Qaeda in the period between 1992 and 2011.
As a result, Al-Qaeda used the Iranian territories to train its members in camps run by the IRGC, with Iran becoming a safe passage for al-Qaeda affiliates who travelled back and forth between Iran, Syria and Afghanistan from the 1990s onwards.
Coordination also took place between Iranian regime officials and the terror group’s leadership, with a number of Al-Qaeda’s operations being carried out using Iran as the launching pad.
Documents retrieved by US intelligence agencies from Bin Laden’s hideout following his death revealed the close nature of the dangerous, years-long relationship between Al-Qaeda and Tehran.
Turning to the Iranian regime’s relationship with ISIS, a recent credible report in the English edition of the India Times newspaper stated that extremist Indian nationals had joined ISIS with the aid of Tehran, which provided them with military training and identity documents to facilitate their movements among countries. There are many similar accounts of Iran’s regime covertly helping recruit and train ISIS members in Iraq and Syria. This strategy has a twofold purpose for Iran’s regime, firstly providing it with legitimacy on the international stage as a supposed ‘ally’ in the War on Terror, and secondly allowing it to use this status as a pretext for regional expansionism, carrying out large-scale ethnosectarian cleansing in Iraq and Syria to change the demographic composition in both countries.
Other reports suggest that the IRGC incited ISIS to bulldoze historical monuments and smash priceless historical artefacts displayed in Iraqi museums, both to gain international support for its own supposed opposition to the group and to eradicate the traces of Iraqi civilisation, which Tehran was keen to do in order to erode Arab heritage and effectively deny the collective memory of the region’s Arab population.
At the same time, Iran’s proxies in Iraq attempted to change the name of the historic city of Babylon to ‘Imam Hassan City’, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to appeal to the sectarian sentiments of Iraq’s Shia, given their participation in protests demanding that Iran’s regime and its forces leave Iraq. As the regime has already done in Ahwaz, eradication of historical artefacts, many of them dating back centuries or millennia, is an Orwellian attempt at historical revisionism, destroying irreplaceable historical sites as a way to deny they ever existed before rewriting history.
For anyone who’s conducted even the most basic research into the close and interwoven relations between the Iranian regime and global terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah of Lebanon and of Iraq, the Popular Mobilisation Units and Asaib Ahl al-Haq of Iraq, Houthi militia in Yemen, the Pakistani Zainabiyoun militia, the Afghan Fatemiyoun militia, among other militias and crime syndicates in several countries, or anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of regional and international political affairs, it’s very difficult to take Mr O’Connor’s claims in his article or his self-described status as an investigative journalist seriously.
Directly contrary to his regime-friendly claims, it should be clear to even the lay reader, much less any scholar of political science and international relations, that the multiple ties between the Iranian regime and almost every regional and global terrorist organisation mean that the downfall of Iran’s regime would begin the end of a terror empire built on promoting a brutal extremist medieval worldview and sponsoring terror and tyranny both regionally and internationally.
While the end of the ayatollahs’ regime will not magically make the world perfect, it will have a massively positive effect regionally and globally, helping to bring peace and stability to a region too long robbed of both by Iran’s regime and its proxies.
To be perfectly blunt, the fall of the Iranian regime will not mean a resurgence for ISIS, and it is patently absurd to even suggest it. Whatever actual effect Iran’s self-serving military actions had – which was considerably less than the heroic exploits by the Kurds and Yezidi – ISIS did not fall because of Iranian opportunism. Nor could it rise again if the regime that set the stage for its initial rise were to be replaced by a responsible, modern, pluralistic democracy. There is no simple road to world peace, but if there is any way for the world to embark upon that journey, the Iranian regime is a wall that must be removed.
By Nouri Hamza and Rahim Hamid
Nouri Hamza, an Ahwazi journalist and follower of Iranian affairs based in Sweden. He can be followed on his Twitter account: https://twitter.com/NouriHamzeh
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.