ISIS: Iran’s Instrument for Regional Hegemony?

, June 19, 2014

Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 14, No. 21    June 20, 2014  

  • Immediately after ISIS emerged in Syria, sources in the Syrian opposition said, “We are familiar with the commanders of ISIS. Once they belonged to Assad’s intelligence, and now they are operating on his behalf under the name of ISIS.”
  • Why would Shiite Iran support a Sunni jihadist organization like ISIS? Iran wants to be certain that a strong Iraqi state does not emerge again along its western border.
  • The notion that Shiite Iran would help Sunni jihadists was not farfetched, even if it seemed to defy the conventional wisdom in Western capitals.
  • It is unreasonable to expect Iran to fight ISIS. If Iran does so, it would be turning against a movement that has been a useful surrogate for Tehran’s interests.

The battle currently being waged over the city of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria reveals a great deal about the political orientation of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (or ISIS), that recently captured Mosul and large stretches of Iraqi territory hundreds of kilometers away to the south. The siege of Deir ez-Zor has been maintained by the army of Bashar al-Assad in the south and by ISIS to the north and east. Among the forces that have been trapped in the middle are the Free Syrian Army (FSA), raising the question of whether ISIS was colluding with the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to defeat the more mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition.1

It must be recalled that since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria, and the widespread deployment of Iranian security services there, Iran’s intelligence networks are fully aware of the Syrian military’s activities. Today, given the extraordinary dependence of the Syrian state on Iran, it is difficult to imagine that Tehran is not fully updated on the security policies the Assad regime pursues.

The ISIS-Iran-Syria Axis

The ISIS connection with the Syrian leadership, and hence with Iran, raises serious questions.  It was recently noted that President Assad released ISIS operatives from his prisons and for the most part left it alone, sparing it from attacks by the Syrian army.2 A New York Times reporter recently wrote on her Twitter account that according to a Syrian government advisor, ISIS was not a priority for Assad’s regime.3 Two leading American analysts just wrote in the Washington Post, “The non-jihadist Syrian opposition insists that ISIS is a creation of Iran.”4

The more time passes, the more this notion of a link between ISIS, Syrian and even Iranian intelligence has become fixed in the minds of leading Arab analysts as well. For example, Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, a Saudi commentator for Asharq Al-Awsat and also director of the influential TV channel Al Arabiya, wrote: “ISIS is a creation of Iranian and Syrian intelligence…. Most [of its members] are in the dark [and do not know] they are being manipulated, and some of the al-Qaeda leaders are still living in Iran.5

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the online daily Al-Rai Al-Youm, also saw ISIS’ advance as an Iranian success,6 and for similar reasons, claiming it would enable Iran and the United States to coordinate their moves in Iraq and possibly in Syria as well.

The US Department of the Treasury released a statement designating the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) as a supporter of international terrorist organizations. The US document, published on February 16, 2012,7 specifically stated that the Sunni “al-Qaeda in Iraq” was provided with money and weapons by the Iranian ministry. Within 14 months al-Qaeda in Iraq would be renamed ISIS (see below). Thus, the notion that Shiite Iran would help Sunni jihadists was not farfetched, even if it seemed to defy the conventional wisdom in Western capitals.8


ISIS was established on April 8, 2013, when its subsidiary organization, Jabhat al Nusra, merged with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which itself was a successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq.9

The organization’s leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who regards himself as the heir to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and as no less fierce.10 Immediately after al-Baghdadi’s release from an American prison in 2006, not long before Zarqawi was assassinated, they met, and in the wake of the killing al-Baghdadi was crowned the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and dubbed it “the al-Qaeda Organization of Mesopotamia.”

After the revolt against President Bashar Assad erupted in Syria, the organization emerged in Syria under the new name of ISIS. There it quickly clashed with its former al-Qaeda branch, already active in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front headed by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. The head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, subsequently decided to eject ISIS from the al-Qaeda network, even though ideologically they remained virtually identical groups.

ISIS in Iraq

What enabled ISIS’ rapid success in Iraq was the alliance it forged with powerful forces there that previously were reluctant to cooperate with a Salafi organization. These include the Bedouin tribes in the Sunni areas, the Sahwa tribes that previously had cooperated with the Americans, remnants of Saddam Hussein’s old army headed by his deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, and the armed Sufi order, the Naqshbandis, who also are led by al-Douri.

The clash between ISIS and al-Nusra sparked accusations that the former was nothing but a means for the Syrian Mukhabarat (Military Intelligence Directorate), along with the Iranians, to plant agents of the Assad regime and of Iran within the Syrian opposition, thereby spreading confusion in its ranks and diverting it from the fight against Assad into internecine struggle. Immediately after ISIS emerged in the Syrian theater, sources in the Syrian opposition told this author: “We are familiar with the commanders of ISIS. Once they belonged to Assad’s intelligence, and now they are operating on his behalf under the name of ISIS.”11

The daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that “Emir Raqqah” (the emir of ar-Raqqah, a city in north central Syria), also known as Abu Lukman, had been imprisoned in Syria but was released by the Syrian regime immediately after the outbreak of the Syrian revolt12 The release of jihadi prisoners became a pattern.  In the days of President George W. Bush, Syria would send al-Qaeda operatives to Iraq to attack US forces. Subsequently relations cooled and Syria incarcerated these fighters. But after the revolt began, Syrian intelligence again took an interest in them, and freed them – in full coordination with Iran – so that they could infiltrate the ranks of the Salafis now fighting in Syria. Once free, they broke into Iraqi prisons to liberate their comrades, thereby creating the basis for expanding ISIS.13

Seemingly, the Sunni successes against the Shiites in Iraq would evoke words of encouragement and support from Saudi elements who view Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as one of their country’s chief enemies. That is not, however, what happened. It was indeed strange to find the Saudi commentator Abdul Rahman al-Rashid asserting that it was in fact Iran that was benefiting from the exploits of ISIS!14 He explained that Iran and the United States are now allies, and Iran, should it so desire, now has an opportunity to invade Iraq.  Rashid, however, did not see Iran as intending to do so.

The doubts that ISIS is a genuine al-Qaeda type movement were, in fact, raised immediately by “real” Salafi movements. For example, Nabil Naim, an al-Qaeda member who had left the movement and was acquainted with ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said15 it was the latter who had assisted the Assad regime, in the days of President Bush, in transferring al-Qaeda fighters from Lebanon to Iraq. The daily al-Hayat published a similar report claiming that a USB flash drive, captured by the Iraqi army during the battle for Mosul from one of the ISIS leaders, “Abu Hajr,” had revealed the identity of many ISIS members who were indeed among those Syria had sent to fight the US Army in Iraq.16

A look at the websites of ISIS reveals that the rank and file are not at all aware of being Iranian tools. On the contrary, their anti-Shiite sentiment burns fiercely. Their acts of cruelty against the Iraqi regime’s Shiite army point in the same direction. Indeed, al-Maliki directly accused Saudi Arabia of standing behind ISIS17 though the United States hastened to condemn him for his words.18 Saudi Arabia itself has expressed concern over the situation in Iraq.19

It was Abdul Rahman Rashid who accurately defined the ISIS phenomenon. He called the organization a “mixture of all kinds of groups of Salafis, Bedouin tribes, and Sufis, with Sunni clerics themselves asserting that ISIS is terrorist,”20 while elsewhere explaining that the organization’s Salafi foundation is “made in Iran.”21

Iran’s Motivation

What would Iran’s motivation be to support a Sunni jihadist organization like ISIS? In Syria, ISIS has forced the West to choose between the regime of Bashar al-Assad or an al-Qaeda like organization. Given that choice, it was assumed that the West would back Assad, as did the Russians and the Chinese.

The situation in Iraq is more complex but nonetheless understandable. Given the scars left by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Iranian leadership wants to be certain that a strong Iraqi state does not emerge again along its western border. To avert that possibility, the Iranians prefer Iraq to become a subservient client state or alternatively, that it be divided along sectarian lines into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite states. Presumably, Iran would control or annex the Shiite sector containing the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. In either case, ISIS would serve Iran as a useful tool for advancing its goal of achieving regional hegemony.

The idea that the West could make common cause with Iran against ISIS, against the background of the Iraqi crisis, is based on the assumption that Tehran is implacably hostile to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and to ISIS in particular. There is ample evidence, however, that this assumption is wrong. Going back to the 9/11 Commission Report, it has already been established that Iran even “facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, including future hijackers. Iran, according to the report, wished to conceal any past evidence of its cooperation with Sunni terrorists’ association with al-Qaeda,” but these connections continued.

Expecting Iran to fight ISIS entails turning it against a movement that has served it, at times as a useful surrogate. Any such alliance between the West and Iran could easily break down, given Middle Eastern realities on the ground, giving the Western powers a share of responsibility for whatever courses of action Iran ultimately decides to pursue.


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1. Asarq Al-Awsat, “ISIS, Syrian government continue siege of Deir Ezzor,“ June 17 2014,
2. The Economist, Terror’s new headquarters, June 14, 2014
3. Alex Rowell, Now Media, “Blame Assad first for ISIS’ rise,” June 17 2014,
4. Michael Doran and Max Boot, “The United Stated should not cooperate with Iran on Iraq,” The Washington Post,  June 17, 2014,
7. US Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Iranian Ministry of Intellligence and Security for Human Rights Abuses and Support for Terrorism,“
8. Jay Solomon, “US Sees Iranian, al-Qaeda Alliance,“ Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2011
9. Katherine Zimmerman, The Al-Aqeda Framework,
10.; See also Graeme Baker, Al Jazeera, “The fierce ambition of ISIL’s Baghdadi,“
11. In telephone conversations.
21. See note 5.

About Pinhas Inbari

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.