Iran Pitches Anti-Extremist Cooperation, but Dim Prospects for Coalition
by Adam Weinstein
Iranian leaders have sought to unify both Sunnis and Shias against a “Takfiri” extremist threat embodied in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). These calls have fallen on deaf ears, however, as Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia forms an anti-ISIS coalition founded along sectarian lines that excludes Shia-dominated Iran and is staunchly opposed to the survival of the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus. This trend reflects the expanding boundaries of the Middle East’s sectarian conflict as tensions between Riyadh and Tehran increase.
In order to advertise its commitment to regional cooperation, Iran in November 2014 organized an International Congress on “Takfirism” in Tehran, which included both Sunni and Shia scholars. While reiterating that the defeat of the “Zionist regime” must remain Iran’s eventual goal, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei noted that assembling a regional coalition was a key priority for combating the spread of Takfiri ideology. He warned that ISIS represented a fitna (schism) between Sunni and Shia communities engineered by the West to detract from the issue of Palestinian statehood. Influential Iranian cleric Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi also went so far as to label the spread of Takfirism as the number one threat to Muslims in a public statement at a December 2015 meeting with the Jordanian Minister of Islamic Affairs, prioritizing the fight against Takfiri groups over resistance against Israel.
To fuel its efforts, Iran had been mobilizing Pakistani Shia militia groups, known as the Zeinabiyoun, to join the fight against ISIS in Syria, thereby extending the boundaries of sectarianism beyond the Middle East. With the redistribution of Iraqi Shia militias and some Hezbollah fighters away from the Syrian frontline to defend Iraq, the Pakistani flank has rallied toward Damascus. The relationship of Pakistan’s Shia groups and Iran has grown closer since anti-Shia Salafism gained traction in Pakistan during the 1970s under the leadership of General Zia ul-Haq. In exchange, fighters are promised education opportunities, Iranian citizenship, and free pilgrimage trips to Shia holy sites. The reported death toll of Pakistani volunteers, as well as Afghan fighters, from the fighting in Syria has also increased in the past year.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has threatened to introduce ground troops into the Syrian conflict and has announced the formation of an anti-ISIS coalition, which excludes Iran for its support of the Assad government. Saudi Minister of Defense Prince Mohammed bin Salman has insisted that the envisaged coalition would target all extremist groups; Iran, however, has criticized the alliance, claiming that it includes Sunni extremist groups no better than ISIS. These exchanges reflect the escalating tensions between the two countries, which hit a new low earlier this year when Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The likelihood of a Saudi-led coalition succeeding as an antidote to Salafi extremists appears dubious considering the Kingdom’s support for groups within Syria that espouse extremist ideologies and engage in similar tactics as ISIS. Nevertheless, thirty-three countries have joined the Saudi alliance, the majority of which are Sunni dominated. It appears for now that Sunni Arab states in the region do not view a Saudi-oriented Salafism as an inherent roadblock to unified resistance against ISIS.
At a minimum, Saudi Arabia’s threat to introduce troops into the Syrian conflict, alongside Iran’s Shia proxies, will fuel sectarianism in the region and radicalize the conflict even further. For this reason, Western governments should push for an understanding between Sunni Arab states and Iran on the importance of combatting Takfiri extremism, even if the government of Saudi Arabia protests. The notion that Iran is a necessary partner for combatting terrorism in the Middle East may gain ground in the West as it warms up to Tehran in the wake of the Iran nuclear accords. This could impact the orientation of the entire region by reducing Saudi influence outside of the Gulf. However, if the West discounts Iran and orients itself exclusively with Saudi Arabia—either out of a show of support for Israel or fear of Iranian hegemony—this will create a dangerously bipolar Middle East. While Western politicians, particularly in the United States, are openly suspicious of Iran’s intentions in Syria and any solution that includes the preservation of the Assad Government, they should also recognize that Saudi Arabia’s sectarian, Salafi rhetoric fuels the Takfiri strand of Islam used by ISIS.
About the Author
Adam Weinstein is a third year law student and J.D. candidate at the Temple Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he focuses on the nexus of U.S. foreign policy and international law. His interests include the relationship of U.S. foreign policy to economic development and security within the Middle East and South Asia. He has contributed to the London School of Economics Middle East Centre and South Asia Centre blogs.