We’ve gotten a few messages here at SOFREP wondering if ISIS (or IS, if you prefer their new designation) will end up as Iran’s client, thus presenting the Western world with a unified Islamist empire/threat. The question is not only deeply ignorant of the present (and historical) situation in the Middle East, it is unlikely in the extreme.
Iran is a Shi’a theocracy, at least on the surface. (The Council of Guardians and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Pasdaran, control something close to 90% of Iran’s wealth, and some of their actions in recent years suggest that for all their apocalyptic rhetoric, they really don’t want to risk that kind of wealth and power. Ahmadinejad was removed from the Presidency for a reason.) They have supported jihadist organizations, most notably Hezbollah, the Lebanese/Syrian militia that had the highest American body count (largely thanks to the Beirut bombing in 1983) of any terrorist organization prior to 9/11.
The Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham is a virulently hard-core Sunni Salafist terrorist organization/army. They are an offshoot of Al Qaeda, a Wahhabi Salafist terrorist organization. The Wahhabi sect of Islam grew out of Saudi Arabia, and is perhaps the strictest form of Salafism (“Salafi” means “predecessor; Salafism is about getting back to the “original” Islam, therefore the term “Islamic fundamentalists.”).
If anyone has really been paying attention to events in Iraq and Syria recently, it should soon become obvious that ISIS has been fighting Iran’s proxies in both countries. When one pulls back from the myriad groups and competing interests, a wider picture of a regional war between Sunni and Shi’a appears.
The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. The Shi’a constitute a minority, but are the majority in much of Iraq and Iran. The Assad dynasty in Syria are Alawite Shi’a. The Sunni-Shi’a split is over 1300 years old, and has resulted in plenty of bloodshed over the centuries.
The Shi’a split from the rest of Islam over a dispute about the succession to the Caliphate following the death of Mohammed in 632 AD. The Sunni side has proceeded from those who, since Mohammed had no son, only a daughter, said that his closest associate, Abu Bakr (a name used in many kunyahs by Islamists in the years since) should become the new caliph. The Shi’a (from Shiat Ali, the “Party of Ali”) believed that his son-in-law, Ali, should have been named caliph, as Mohammed’s closest living relative. The power struggle saw Ali struck down, as well as his son Hussein, who tried to take the caliphate following Ali’s death. The Shi’a have memorialized the deaths of Ali and Hussein, and developed a powerful sub-culture of martyrdom, as well as a messianic element that Sunni Islam appears to lack.
Although the schism began more as a political dispute than anything else, it has become a deep-seated religious split, with both sides considering each other heretics. Last year, Sunni Salafists, including some of what would become ISIS as well as Al Nusra, declared the Shi’a to be worse even than kfir, infidels. Under these circumstances, an alliance between Sunni ISIS and Shi’a Iran, while they are at each others throats in two separate theaters, is unlikely.
This is not to say impossible, under other circumstances. The founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was known to have worked out of Tehran for several years before the 2003 invasion. There was some (unknown exactly how much) cooperation between Iran and Al Qaeda when they had common objectives, especially in Iraq. The presence of US troops, hated by both sides, provided a powerful common objective. Cries from pundits in the United States that Sunni and Shi’a would never, ever cooperate were shown, over time, to be nothing but ignorance of the fluidity of the situation and the culture in the Middle East.
However, even then, Zarqawi’s Salafist Sunnis couldn’t help but slaughter Shi’a whenever they got the chance. Some of this was doubtless intended to foment as much chaos in Iraq as possible, as a lever against Coalition forces. However, it got bad enough that Bin Laden and Zawahiri actually upbraided Zarqawi for his slaughter of Shi’a, saying that they needed every Muslim of both sects to fight the infidels.
The Islamists are fighting a war that is nothing like the wars of the mid-20th century. “Asymmetrical” truly defines this conflict. The number of conflicting and shifting loyalties and priorities can be dizzying. But expecting a monolithic “Evil Empire” to fight will only result in some of what has already happened: we became so fixated on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden that much of what was happening elsewhere, with other organizations that have risen to prominence in the last two years, went unnoticed.
Image of the al Qubba Husseiniya shrine in Mosul being destroyed by ISIS, courtesy BBC.