Iran’s Response to DAISH: It’s all about the Revolution

This is the sixth and final post in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015.  An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


The radicalization and mobilization of the extremist militant group Dawlat al Islamiyah fy al Iraq we al Sham (DAISH) – aka Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL) – has caused the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime to once again flex its Revolutionary mantra in response to the encroaching threat. A key point worth noting is that the Tehran’s focus and concern has been to secure the IRI regime against internal and external threats. This has come in the guise of appeasing domestic opposition (internal threats to the regime), and keeping increasingly powerful external militant groups (including DAISH) from becoming a real threat to the regime.

The IRI’s reaction to DAISH is rooted deep in the Iranian Constitution (implemented following the 1979 Revolution on 3 December of the same year, and amended just once in 1989 following the death of the first Ayatollah or Supreme Leader). It is therefore important to acknowledge the context and impact of the event. Significantly the 1979 Revolution brought an end to a almost 2,500 year ear of monarchical rule in Iran. A rule which ended under the final monarch of Iran, Shah Mohammed Reza. The departure of Mohammed Reza – a staunch Western ally in the region, dubbed ‘the policeman of the Middle East’ – was followed by the incumbency of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini who was viewed (in the constitution) as the leader of the revolution, a post which was subsequently passed down to the incumbent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 1989 following Khomeini’s death. The role and constitution included goals to ensure:

The complete elimination of imperialism and the prevention of foreign influence [… and ensure that the] framing the foreign policy of the country [was done] on the basis of Islamic criteria, fraternal commitment to all Muslims, and unsparing support to the freedom fighters of the world.
Iranian Constitution, 1989, Article 3, Point 5 and 16

Significantly, DAISH has posed a more immediate threat to the IRI regime’s revolutionary mantra, and this has been reflected in Tehran’s response to the militant group. To begin with, the IRI expressed support for the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a leader who’s Shia status (like Iran) meant that he was of strategic importance an susceptible to influence from Tehran. However, following al-Maliki’s refusal to bow to internal and external pressure to increase the role and number of the Sunni contingent in Iraq’s political system, he was replaced by fellow Shia Haidar al-Abadi – a move supported by the IRI. In an attempt to further bolster Iraqi (central and otherwise) resistance to DAISH, Tehran provided political, military, economic and humanitarian aid to mainly Shia and Kurdish stakeholders in Iraq. A welcome move, which was made clear by the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani who noted that Iran was ‘the first country to provide [the Kurds] with weapons and ammunition’.

As a result of this apparent ‘softening’ of the IRI, there were rumblings of Tehran coordinating with external actors both within the region and without. Significantly, these included calls to improve Iranian-US ties, which had been weak if not non-existent since 1979, and Iranian-Saudi Arabian ties, which had historically been marred by Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) competition for influence in the Muslim world.

That being said, in spite of these suggestions, IRI-US and Saudi ties have only implicitly improved, for three reasons:

1. The IRI regime does not want to contradict, and subsequently lose support from the more conservative factions in Iran’s political structures, its constitutional ‘prevention of foreign influence’.

2. The United States does not want to lose pressure and momentum over the ongoing 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPA) initiative which is aimed at eliminating the nuclear threat of Iran.

3. Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that Iran does not increase its power and influence in the region and beyond, and therefore does not want to relieve the pressure of the JPA.

Indeed, IRI-US cooperation has remained outside (albeit on the sidelines) of the JPA negotiations, and IRI-Saudi Arabian ties have similarly been on the fringes of formal meetings (on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly annual conference in September 2014).

Further, these less than formal lines of cooperation between the IRI, United States, and Saudi Arabia have not been strong enough (formally and conceptually) to significantly improve ties between Iran and its two rivals. However, the fact that they have taken pace demonstrates a promise for building trust and cooperation.

That being said, these actions demonstrate how the IRI’s continued focus has been on securing the revolutionary regime of Iran. Therefore, its direct responses to DAISH (providing support for combatants in Iraq), and indirect response to the militant group (opening up informal cooperation with the United States and Saudi Arabia), will continue as long as the Iranian revolution is protected.

Image:  MajGen Qaseem Soleimani of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards reportedly pictured in Iraq in October 2014. Photo via Twitter.

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