ISIS, a Tough Test for Iran's Foreign Policy

Monday, July 13, 2015

Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

The phenomenon of terrorism has been a determining factor setting Iran's foreign policy orientations during the past decade. As a result, the emergence of ISIS in Iran's periphery has also weighed on the country’s foreign policy during past few years because following the fall of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, ISIS has been the most important security threat in the neighborhood of Iran. The magnitude of this threat has been enough to affect Iran's foreign policy goals and tools at certain junctures. Therefore, we have witnessed that during the past two years, in parallel to the nuclear negotiations, Iran's foreign policy apparatus has been concerned about turning the ISIS threat into an opportunity.

This warmongering group had been originally equipped by the Arab-Western axis to topple the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad. However, after conquering vast lands and plundering the wealth of some regional countries, it took advantage of the absence of a dominant power in Iraq and in a short period of time, changed its goals and approaches so as to turn from a friend to the enemy of countries that were previously its staunch supporters. Therefore, ISIS is now the common enemy of Iran and its regional and transregional rivals. As a result, and due to the importance that Iran attaches to Iraq in political, economic and cultural terms, the way is now paved for Iran and its rivals to form a natural alliance in accordance with international political treaties and principles of international relations.

ISIS’ rapid advances in Iraq prompted Iran, which saw Iraq on the verge of disintegration, to reach the conclusion that further strengthening of ISIS and its domination over Iraq would disturb the dynamics of regional power against Iran. Therefore, although Iran's main regional policy is for regional countries to protect the security of the Middle East, this time, just like the previous time that an international coalition was formed against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, suitable grounds were provided for interaction and convergence between Iran and the United States.

However, despite the aforesaid security concerns, Tehran believed that its tangible military presence in Iraq would entail major risks. Therefore, establishment of a coalition led by the United States to fight ISIS was considered by Tehran to be in line with the Islamic Republic’s interests. Of course, due to domestic limitations and having different viewpoints with the United States and the West, Iran could not join the coalition, but the active role played by the county in providing consultation, intelligence and logistical services, has practically put Iran and the United States in the same front, though with different tasks to accomplish. In the meantime, interactions between Iran and the United States have not been totally smooth. For example, establishment and organization of popular groups against ISIS by Iran was among tactical sticking points between the two sides. Therefore, despite the threat that ISIS poses to the West and Iran, interaction between the two countries in Iraq has been marked with political differences, which to some extent, are indicative of distrust of each side toward the other.

However, it seems that when ISIS was at the peak of its power, nuclear negotiations were somehow affected by this issue with negotiating sides trying to use Iran's capacity to rein in the ISIS crisis by going easy on certain aspects of the country’s nuclear case. As a result, in June 2014 and on the sidelines of the nuclear talks, consultations about ISIS threat and Iran's role in curbing that threat were seriously going on between the two negotiating sides.

On the other hand, it seemed that ISIS threat would be able to play a similar role in improving Iran's ties with its regional rival, Saudi Arabia. However, the cynical and ideological approach taken to this issue by Saudis and later developments in Yemen deepened the existing gap between Tehran and Riyadh so much that even the existence of such a formidable common enemy could not bring about a thaw in the two Islamic countries’ relations. If security aspects of this issue are put aside, it would become clear that apart from opportunities it has offered Iran's foreign policy, ISIS has also posed challenges to Iran's foreign policy apparatus.

At any rate, analysts believe that the emergence of ISIS in the neighborhood of Iran has put the country’s foreign policy to a tough test. Iran’s calculated positions and performance in the face of this regional crisis, with the goal of turning this threat into an opportunity, have proven that Iran's foreign policy is reaching maturity. In the meantime, through correct understanding of the rules of the game, Iranian decision-makers reduced the weight of ideological factors in favor of more rational ones, which would be more understandable to the Western countries as well. Continuation of this process on an international level will cause the international community to recognize Iran as a rational and powerful actor and take advantage of Tehran’s countless capacities for the resolution of multiple crises that are currently plaguing the Middle East.

Key Words: ISIS, Iran's Foreign Policy, Iraq, Syria, Dynamics of Regional Power, Regional Crisis, Ideological Approach, Nuclear Talks, US, Kebriaeezadeh

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