Iran and Violent Non-State Actors: The ISIS Case

Article

Since Khomeini’s coming to power in 1979, one pillar of Iranian foreign policy is its grand network with the local groups/ Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) which the Western world named as terrorist. The second pillar is its uranium enrichment policy in order to have a leverage against the Western efforts to isolate it from the international society....

Prof. Dr. Özden Zeynep OKTAV
İstanbul Medeniyet Üniversitesi

Since Khomeini’s coming to power in 1979, one pillar of Iranian foreign policy is its grand network with the local groups/ Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) which the Western world named as terrorist. The second pillar is its uranium enrichment policy in order to have a leverage against the Western efforts to isolate it from the international society. The three important developments transformed those two pillars-uranium enrichment policy and its relations with the VNSAs. One was the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in 2013 who promised to relieve Iran’s international isolation and to end crippling sanctions. The second was the rise of a NSAG, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)- an Al-Qaeda breakaway group (Daesh in Arabic and Persian) especially after the fall of Mosul in 2014. Third development was the finalization of a long term historic nuclear deal with the P5 1 in 2015. This paper offers a review of key milestones in Iran’s response to the emergence of ISIS at a time when the above-mentioned three developments took place and Tehran initiated tectonic changes in its relations with the international society. Simply put, the article will mainly focus on the impact of ISIS on Iran’s evolving role in the international system and its relations with the United States. The impact of Qatar crisis on Iranian policies toward the region will be another concern of the article.

1. A Brief History of Iranian Usage of Non-State Armed Groups

According to many analysts, Iran began employing NSAGs shortly after Khomeini came to power mainly due to two developments. One was the 1980 invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, the second was the hawkish policies of the Reagan administration in Washington. Leaving aside Iran’s feeling of strategic encirclement, Khomeini’s desire to re-establish his ties with the Shiite groups in order to incite a pan-Shiite movement brought about the adoption of a strategy that relied upon a network of NSAGs. (O’brien 2006, 53) Speaking on the significance of the maintenance of the integrity of the state while simultaneously expanding the influence of Shiism and Iran, Khomeini described NSAGs as a network constructed upon his personal relationship with other Shiite leaders to weaken Iran’s rivals, namely, the United States, Iraq and Israel. As O’brien notes that ‘as the NSAGs were expanded, Iran created a large web of interconnected yet disassociated NSAGs. Initially this web was regional; ultimately, it spread to enjoy global capabilities.’ (2006, 59) According to Tabarani, NSAGs were seen by Iran as a part of its state security. As the utility of these armed groups and the proficiency of Iranian Revolutionary Armed Corps (IRGC) became more apparent, Christian and Sunni groups were equally able to draw support from Iran.( Tabarani 2008, 71) Iranian style of security understanding had far-reaching political and strategic ramifications. For example, as noted by the IRGC’s commander, Yahya Rahim Safavi, ‘the IRGC has no geographical border. The Islamic revolution is the border of the IRGC. It has an extensive network of contacts across the Muslim world, with a particular emphasis on Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf region, and the wider Arab world in general.’ (Byman, Chubin, Ehteshami, Green, 2001) Simply put, Iranian revisionism was related to status, not land. By touting the country’s revolutionary credentials to impress sympathizers abroad, Iran aimed both to legitimize/ validate its theocratic regime at home and to cope with the power asymmetry stemming from advanced weapons technology of the West. A war through ideas rather than technology by means of ideologically motivated NSAGs provided Iran with an inexpensive power projection capability. As O’brien explains, ‘Tehran can hit targets inside an enemy as distant as the United States without developing an inter continental ballistic missile or an aircraft carrier.’ (O’brien 2006, 28)

Link to the related book: New Security Ecosystem and Multilateral Cost
 
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