Iran Doesn’t Hesitate to Cooperate Militarily With the Sunnis

Tehran’s alliance with the Taliban to create a buffer against ISIS helps show that the Iranian leadership is anything but monolithic.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's Herat province, May 27, 2016.
AP/Allauddin Khan

It was a good week for the Iranian parliament. Ali Larijani was chosen speaker for a third consecutive term. His two deputies are reformists, and he will be serving alongside 17 women, compared with only four in 1984.

Even more, to the delight of the speaker who studied math and computer science and did his doctorate on Kant, the percentage of parliamentarians who are clerics has plunged to 6 percent from 61 percent.

Larijani’s brother is Sadeq Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary, and a third brother, Mohammad Javad Larijani, is a foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Mohammad Javad studied the philosophy of mathematics, by the way.

Ali Larijani is a conservative, but not an extreme one. He has good relations with the reformers and is a key supporter of President Hassan Rohani in parliament. His support was expressed when he stood with the president during the nuclear talks and silenced the agreement’s opponents.

One of Larijani’s deputies is Ali Motahari, a declared reformer who also happens to be Larijani’s brother-in-law and the son of the conservative religious philosopher Morteza Motahari. The elder Motahari was assassinated in 1979 by a radical.

Understanding these family connections is important not just for drawing the Iranian leadership’s family trees, but mainly to dispel the notion that Iran is run exclusively by the supreme leader based on a uniform and rigid ideology. No, decisions aren’t dictated from the top down in a way that makes government institutions like parliament or the people near the leader almost irrelevant.

One can imagine, for example, that when the Larijani brothers and Motahari get together for a family dinner they don’t only talk about the food. They probably craft positions they can present to the supreme leader.

One can also assume that Khamenei recognizes the brothers' political power and their religious pedigree their father was one of Iran’s most prominent religious leaders. Khamenei probably doesn’t make any decisions without hearing their opinion.

Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
AP

The uniform and rigid approach is also mistaken regarding another prominent family, the Jannatis. The father, Ahmad Jannati, a radical conservative, was elected in May to head the Assembly of Experts, which has the authority to pick the next supreme leader.

He’s also chairman of the Guardian Council, one of whose roles is to screen candidates for parliament and the presidency. Yet his son, Ali Jannati is Rohani’s culture minister and a member of the moderates who support reforms.

Just like after 9/11

These family ties are also a key to realizing that in today’s Iran the terms “conservative,” “radical” or “reformer” are partly dependent on the personal relationships between the ideologues. Ideology certainly plays a role in Iranian decision making, but just as the family ties make the lines between principles and ideologies more flexible, foreign policy will often will favor self-serving pragmatism over Islamic law or the principles bequeathed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

An example is Foreign Policy magazine’s report that Tehran is cooperating with the Taliban in Afghanistan to create a buffer for Iran against the Islamic State.

The Taliban, who are radical Sunnis, were Iran’s traditional enemies. Iran helped the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan when the Taliban strove to conquer Afghanistan in the 1990s. The Iranians consider the Taliban an ideological and religious threat, and even helped the United States against the Taliban after 9/11.

Now it turns out, and not for the first time, that Iran doesn’t rule out military cooperation with radical Sunnis, as long as they serve its interests. Iran reportedly even hosted Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour before he was killed by an American drone while he was crossing the border to return to Pakistan.

The Taliban link is important to Iran for another strategic reason: It lets Tehran offset Saudi Arabia’s influence on the Afghan government. The Iranians can also influence the negotiations (frozen for now) between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

This is another example of Iran’s strategy of penetrating militarily or politically via cracks opened by local groups. That’s what it’s doing in Yemen when it supports the Houthis, and that’s what it did on the Palestinian front when it adopted Hamas, even though the organization is Sunni.

Here we witness the shattering of another mistaken assumption that Iraq’s relationships in the Middle East are based entirely on the Sunni-Shi’ite split. The Sunnis are assumed to be allies of Saudi Arabia or the United States, or they’re terror groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaida.

The battle for Fallujah

Even though Iraq is supported by Iran, the Shi’ites don’t see eye to eye with Tehran in many areas. For example, Iraq’s leading ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, rejects the Iranian system of government in which the leading cleric is also the supreme religious leader. Sistani is a nationalist, and he’s worried about his country.

This week, when Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militias funded and trained by Iran began the campaign to retake Fallujah from the Islamic State, Sistani warned against the slaughter of Sunnis in the city. This came after revelations of the tremendous damage to Sunni people and property in Ramadi, which was liberated from the Islamic State late last year. Sistani is worried mainly about the cruelty of the Shi’ite militias, which aren’t subordinate to the Iraqi army and government.

A few weeks ago at the entrance to Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the government ministries are located, demonstrators, most of them Shi’ites loyal to isolationist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, shouted “Iran, get out, get out” and “al-Sadr is holy.”

In March 2015 Ali Younesi, Rohani’s adviser for minority issues, declared that “Iraq is part of the great Iranian culture” and stirred a major uproar in Iraq.

Five days later Sistani’s spokesman said: “We are proud of our homeland, identity, independence and sovereignty.” He made clear that, although Iraq is grateful for Iran’s assistance, this “does not mean we will give up our identity and independence.”

This tension doesn’t prevent Iran from operating almost unrestricted in Iraq. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, is a regular guest in Iraq, where he often visits the thousands of Iranian fighters and members of the Shi’ite militias he trains.

In the war for Fallujah he’s winning the battles outside the city, and Iranian experts are operating Iraqi drones from a base in Baghdad. The Shi’ite militia fighters paste a picture of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Saudi Shi’ite cleric who was executed early this year, on their missiles, and are threatening to massacre Fallujah's Sunni civilians because all of them, in their opinion, are Islamic State collaborators.

Washington, meanwhile, is sufficing with expressing reservations about Iranian involvement, and especially about the brutal behavior of the Shi’ite militias. But in general it’s pleased that Iran is fighting the Islamic State. As in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States sees Iran as an undeclared partner whose military involvement in Iraq is essential to defeating the Islamic State.

Just as the occupation of Iraq in 2003 boosted Iran’s standing in the region, the war against the Islamic State is making Iran a power that holds the keys to several bloody conflicts in the region. The Islamic Republic wields greater influence than Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s ability to forge diplomatic and military ties with ostensible ideological enemies is an important part of its pragmatic flexibility. And apparently the West, which is gradually inundating Iran with new trade agreements, will have no choice but to learn how to speak diplomatic Farsi.