“The border patrol has increased its vigilance on the Iran-Iraq border,” said Iran’s police chief, Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam. “The country’s Supreme National Security Council would consider intervening to protect Shia shrines and cities.”
Ahmadi-Moghaddam has been the only high-ranking Iranian official to comment on the advances made by the Sunni extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to IranWire sources, Iranian officials have been ordered to remain quiet about the events in neighboring Iraq and ISIS victories. “Iranian officials have been told not to comment, or else,” said a wary former high-ranking Iranian diplomat to IranWire.
According to the former diplomat, Iranian plans in Iraq are summarized in the wisdom of one man: “We all know that Haj Ghassem is hard at work trying to control the situation”—referring to Ghassem Suleimani, the legendary commander of the Quds Force, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Extraterritorial Force, and perhaps the closest person to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Our forces will do whatever it takes to protect the border, and the holy shrines from this bunch of thugs. And ISIS are nothing but a group of hooligans. They know what can happen if Iran gets involved in the situation, and that is why they are in such a hurry to carry out their dirty acts.”
Iran’s designs in Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, have been looked at with a degree of cynicism and fear. Many Arab diplomats regard Persian Iranians as untrustworthy neighbors who secretly ally themselves with anyone to protect their interests.
Last week a member of Syrian opposition accused Iran of secretly helping ISIS. According to Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former vice president to Syria’s Bashar Assad, Iran is arming ISIS in order to undermine the Syrian opposition. By strengthening ISIS, Khaddam claimed, Iran was seeking to draw Syrian public sentiment back toward Assad, recasting the battle as Bashar’s battle against extremist onslaught.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif categorically denied this accusation. He said Iran has been battling Salafi extremists and al Qaeda itself for years, and would never stoop to such measures.
Iran has a troubled history with Sunni extremists in its neighborhood. In August 1998 the Afghan Taliban stormed Mazar-e-Sharif, which was then a base for the Northern Alliance, and enacted a massacre of Persian-speaking and Shia Hazaras. The Taliban also attacked Iran’s consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, killing nine Iranian citizens, eight of them diplomats. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council weighed how to react and most supported military action to destroy the Taliban, deciding to deploy 100,000 troops along the border with Afghanistan.
Hassan Rouhani, the current Iranian president, at the time was the secretary of Iran’s Security Council. He opposed military intervention in Afghanistan, but with the majority vote for intervention, Iran was just one step away from war. According to former diplomat Hossein Mousavian, who wrote of the episode in his recent memoir, it was only the veto of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, that prevented military action.
For many years now, Iran has also been engaged in a fight against Sunni Kurdish separatists known as Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are responsible for the struggle against PJAK for fighting the Baluchi terrorist group Jeish al-Adl in the southeastern border area with Pakistan.
Iranian media was abuzz throughout Wednesday, with reports anxious that the fall of Mosul will lead the conflict eventually to the Iran-Iraq border.
Some Iranian religious activists have called for the government to send volunteers to protect Iraq’s Shia shrines, an argument that has been used in recent times to justify the military’s support to the Assad regime in Syria.
Though ISIS’s advance across Iraq is deeply alarming for Iran, unless the extremists reach the Shia cities of Najaf and Karbala, the prospect of Tehran intervening remains remote. Marzieh Afkham, the spokeswoman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said today that the Iraqi Army is well prepared to restrain ISIS.
For Iran, any real spread of tensions to the border would be catastrophic. Already embroiled on the ground in Syria’s civil war as an ally to Assad, the potential for conflagration and growing bogged down on multiple fronts would be deadly for Tehran, which is at a delicate juncture in its nuclear negotiations and is suffering from international sanctions that have roiled its economy.
The al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS considers Shias heretics who deserve to be killed, and is taking forth its campaign to liberate Iraq from what it sees as Shia domination; the group has said it will destroy Shia shrines along the way, stoking fears in Tehran of an attack on Shia Islam’s holiest sites, Najaf and Karbala.
Social media sites have quoted Suleimani saying if ISIS destroys the holy shrines, it will face Iran’s ire. Asked what the manifestation of that rage will be, the former Iranian diplomat laughed nervously. “They [ISIS] know that we’re not kidding around, so we shouldn’t worry about them doing anything stupid. And if they’re foolish enough to even approach the shrines, they have to be prepared for anything.” The diplomat paused. “Battles, attacks, raids, massacre. All the options will be on the table.”