The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) hit two critical targets in Tehran Wednesday, killing 17. The attacks came just two weeks after President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he’d urged Arab states to combat terrorism and counter Iran. The President and the Gulf states’ hardliners, some of whom hosted him in Riyadh, all equate Iran with terrorism. But while Iran has and continues to support certain terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, it’s also been a critical force in the fight against ISIS.
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Wednesday’s attack presents a quandary for the Trump administration. Despite Iran having actively fought ISIS since its advent three years ago, the Trump administration sees the attacks as Tehran as reaping what it's sown elsewhere. As the White House statement issued on the day of the attack put it, "We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
President Trump has made the fight against ISIS one of his administration’s top priorities. And this message resonates with his base. But so far, he’s failed to articulate a clear strategy, instead choosing to focus on more visible actions and strong language. And some of his stated goals are conflicting. For example, President Trump wants to combat ISIS, while at the same time countering Iran.
But since ISIS declared a caliphate in Iraq in 2014, Iran has been at the forefront of the fight against it. This is because the Iranian public and political and security establishments recognized ISIS as a terrorist threat of a different kind of than any they had encountered before. And unlike groups like al-Qaeda, they couldn’t work with ISIS to deter it from targeting their territory, population, and interests. Tehran maintained some level of relationship with al-Qaeda to poke Washington in the eye and make sure the network, which at its peak had considerable power in Iran’s neighborhood, wouldn’t target Iran itself.
After 2014, ISIS rapidly gained control of swaths of territory in Iraq, and made considerable progress in Syria. It also gained ground in Afghanistan thanks to its offshoot—the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP). As ISIS’ progress and strengths became more visible, Iran became concerned that it would end up sandwiched between ISIS by its border with Iraq and ISKP by its border in Afghanistan. So Tehran began to commit considerable resources to tackling the group, including increasing its defense budget with the specific aim of increasing its capabilities in three key areas, including beefing up counterterrorism.
As a result, Iran’s already elaborate counterterrorism apparatus underwent a number of changes to adapt to the new threat ISIS represented. Today, a complex web of Iranian state organizations works in counterterrorism, and it has been fairly effective in mitigating the threat. For example, ISIS already tried to hit 50 targets across Tehran a year ago. But Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security quickly uncovered the plan. The incident only increased the importance and urgency of dealing with the threat for Iran.
Today, as for Washington, ISIS is a top priority for Tehran. And virtually all regional players share the United States and Iran’s interest in combatting the group. But political and sectarian issues stymie these countries’ ability to work together toward the same objective.
The United States created an international coalition to work toward its goal of defeating ISIS. But while the coalition includes a number of Sunni countries, including key players like Saudi Arabia, it’s failed to incorporate the critical Shia player, Iran. This is a key shortcoming of the coalition, which only highlights ISIS’ sectarian narrative.
To make matters worse, after the Tehran attacks, many were quick to blame Saudi Arabia for being behind the attacks. The Iranians had long blamed the Saudis’ export of Wahhabism and terrorism financing for ISIS, whose origins indeed lie in Sunni radicalism.
For their part, some in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf had posited that the lack of ISIS attacks against Iran demonstrated that Iran was behind the group. And while this narrative hasn’t helped either side, it’s helpful for ISIS, which feeds off both sectarian and political tensions in the region.
To complicate matters further, Trump failed to put the attacks against a major Shia nation on a part with other ISIS attacks. The White House statement, along with the U.S. Senate’s decision to move ahead with the vote on a new sanctions bill - despite several Senators urging the Senate to consider postponing the vote out of respect for Iranians - undercut the State Department’s condolences and send a message to both sides of the sectarian divide, and ISIS.
And just hours before, the President had welcomed the news of more turmoil and division in the region. He took credit for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and other Arab states severing ties with Qatar, a country that has often found itself in the middle of Gulf Arab debates around Iran, as the two share gas fields and trade. Qatar has often been accused of supporting various terrorist groups. President Trump hoped that this development would be “the beginning of the end of the horror of terrorism.”
But neither the increased divisions in the Arab Middle East, nor the singling out of Iran and its exclusion from the international coalition fighting ISIS, will help bring about the end of terrorism. Instead, the continued attacks in major world cities, from London to Paris to Tehran, highlight the importance of bringing all major players—even those that don’t see eye to eye—into the fold to fight ISIS.
As for declaring his objective the "end of terrorism", the President’s wishful thinking fails to recognize that the tactic has been around, and will likely continue to be around, for centuries, if not millennia. Perhaps he should be more concerned his policies don’t bring the end of any reasonable form of order and stability for the wider Middle East and beyond, and empower rather than undermine ISIS.
Ariane M. Tabatabai is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Follow her on Twitter: @ArianeTabatabai