For years, the secular opposition in Syria warned the international community about the Assad regime’s collusion with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, better known as ISIS. Yet, these warnings fell on deaf ears.
By facilitating the expansion of ISIS, which fought other armed groups more than Syrian forces, the Assad regime managed to weaken the opposition militarily. Yet the ultimate goal of the Assad regime was to discredit the Syrian opposition as a viable political partner for the West in its pursuit of regime change.
The expansion of a brutal terrorist organization like ISIS ultimately had the effect of compelling the West, and the United States in particular, to abandon the initial policy of regime change in Syria.
There is by now growing awareness in some quarters in the West about Syria’s collusion with ISIS. What is less known is that this policy originated from the Islamic Republic of Iran. For the past three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the foremost sponsor of both Shia and Sunni extremist and terrorist groups.
Iran’s role in supporting extremist and terrorist groups in the Middle East goes back to the early 1980s. The creation of Lebanese Hezbollah is a case in point. This Shia group has carried out terrorist operations and assassinations either on behalf of Iran or in cooperation with Iranian agents.
Since the Iranian regime is a Shia theocracy, its relations with Sunni extremist and terrorist groups have been overlooked, if not ruled out as ideologically odd. However, Iran’s relations with Sunni groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas have hardly been a secret.
But Iran has also maintained relations with al-Qaida. For example, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report pointed out that the relationship “between al-Qaida and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.”
While Iran tried to conceal its relations with al-Qaida following the September 11 attacks on America, as late as July of 2016 the US Treasury Department sanctioned three high-level al-Qaida operatives living in Iran.
Iran’s relations with al-Qaida are well known. Nevertheless, many find it difficult to believe that Iran has relations with or provides support for ISIS, which it is ostensibly fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Iran’s relations with the Salafi jihadists dates back to the 1990s, when al-Qaida tried to gain a foothold in the border area between Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan. An al-Qaida-affiliated group, Ansar al-Islam, established itself in the area and carried out terrorist attacks against Iraqi Kurdistan.
Jihadists from the Middle East joined the group. The future leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was among them. The Kurdish Peshmerga and the security forces of Iraqi Kurdistan targeted Ansar al-Islam and prevented the group from expanding.
Kurdish Peshmerga and US special forces finally managed to destroy the group’s bases in 2001. Subsequently, the leaders and remaining members of Ansar al-Islam fled to Iran.
We have on numerous occasions publicly warned that Iran is supporting these Salafi groups in Kurdistan.
The Salafi jihadists who fled Iraqi Kurdistan were not only given shelter in Iran, but were also provided with training camps in Kermanshah province.
The Salafi jihadists were allowed to engage in propaganda for their brand of jihadism in the mosques of Iranian Kurdistan and Balochistan. Since then, they have been able to recruit new members in Iran.
Following the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, the Salafi jihadists in Iran returned to Iraq and targeted US forces. Through terrorist attacks, they also tried to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan. Some of them went to Afghanistan via Iran to carry out terrorist operations against US and Afghan forces.
Iran, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Assad regime jointly contributed to the expansion of ISIS. For example, in 2013 ISIS stormed the Abu Ghraib prison without much resistance and managed to free between 500 and 1,000 jihadists.
They would later play important roles in the ranks of ISIS. Similarly, ISIS took control over Mosul without any significant resistance from the Iraqi armed forces.
The Iraqi government under al-Maliki was deeply sectarian and systematically excluded the Sunnis, thus creating a fertile ground for the expansion of groups like ISIS.
In Syria, the Assad regime systematically targeted all other rebel groups, while paving the way for ISIS to establish control over Raqqa, later to become the capital of its “caliphate.” While Assad’s air force targeted other rebel-held territory indiscriminately, Raqqa was left unscathed.
Iran, for its part, has since the 1990s provided refuge and training camps for the Salafi jihadists. Iran also facilitated their movement across the border to Iraq to wreak havoc in the country following 2003.
Iran has consistently promoted sectarianism in Iraq in order to perpetuate the Shia-Sunni conflict. Iran’s promotion of sectarianism was reinforced by the sectarianism of al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner to ISIS. Iran and ISIS have thus been mutually beneficial to each other.
Thanks to ISIS, Iran increased its military presence and political influence in Iraq and Syria. Iran is also using the war against ISIS to persuade the West to view it as a useful force in fighting the Salafi jihadists.
In fact, Iran is less concerned with fighting ISIS than advancing its imperialist interests in the Middle East.
It goes without saying that Iran has exclusively targeted Syrian opposition groups rather than ISIS. And it is in the Syrian theater that Iranian forces have suffered heavy losses.
Iran is worried about the complete defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as it serves as a useful pretext for further Iranian military incursions in these countries. The threat from ISIS and other Salafi jihadist groups also has the advantage of preoccupying the West with the symptoms of terrorism rather than its root causes; namely, the persistence of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. It is these regimes that constantly feed extremism and terrorism.
Iran’s promotion of sectarianism and support for Shia and Sunni terrorist groups alike has aggravated the problem. Given Iran’s support for the Salafi jihadis, ISIS has refrained from carrying out attacks in Iran. This is to be contrasted with the group’s terrorist activities around the world, including Europe.
The terrorist attacks on June 7 in Tehran have thus raised suspicions. Iran has always boasted that its security services are among the most competent in the world and have been able to thwart terrorist attacks. No doubt, the Islamic Republic of Iran is in essence a police state with strict control over its capital.
Considering this reality, many people in Iran have raised legitimate questions about how members of ISIS could enter Iran’s parliament, as well as the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, without any hurdles.
What is more worrisome is that the Iranian regime is using the June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran in order to implicate Iranian Kurds in them, as well as to associate the Kurds with Salafi jihadists and ISIS. While it is true that ISIS – due in part to Iran’s policy to nurture the Salafi jihadists in Iranian Kurdistan – managed to recruit Kurds, those Kurds who have joined ISIS are few in numbers. More important, the Salafi jihadists are as opposed to the national identity and aspirations of the Kurdish people as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iranian propaganda is implicating Kurds in those attacks with the aim of sowing divisions within Iranian Kurdistan, since we have a significant Shi’ite minority. Iran is also seeking to paint the Kurds as Sunni extremists in order to deprive the Kurdish national movement of international sympathy and support. The Iranian regime is also trying to turn the Persian people against the Kurdish people, thus igniting ethnic conflict.
We of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan would like to call on the international community to be aware of these machinations of the Islamist regime in Iran. Our party, which is the main Kurdish opposition force, has since its founding in 1945 struggled for secularism, gender equality and democracy in tandem with Kurdish national rights.
We are strongly opposed to sectarianism and terrorism. Kurdish national identity, as well as our political demands, revolve around language, culture and self-rule for Kurdistan within Iran.
Our party was also among the first Kurdish organizations to send its Peshmerga forces to fight ISIS when it attacked Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014. We have made sacrifices in the war against ISIS. In fact, one of the reasons why our Peshmerga forces have returned to their former bases in the Qandil Mountains is to deny a safe haven for the Salafi jihadists nurtured by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
While our situation in Iranian Kurdistan is different compared to secular opposition groups in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where Islamists – either by their own or in collusion with foreign backers – have managed to hijack legitimate struggles for liberty and democracy, we nevertheless want to raise awareness regarding Iran’s latest attempts to associate Iranian Kurds with Salafi Jihadists and ISIS.
In the past we have warned – both through our diplomatic channels and via the media – about Iran’s relationship with Salafi jihadist groups in Kurdistan. We will continue to do so.
Mustafa Hijri is the secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.