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  The country that’s holding its own against ISIS

The country that’s holding its own against ISIS

Published : Sep 8, 2016, 11:27 pm IST
Updated : Sep 8, 2016, 11:27 pm IST

A file photo of a long-range S-300 missile system displayed by Iran’s Army during a parade marking National Army Day in Tehran. (Photo: AP)

National Army Day in Tehran.jpg
 National Army Day in Tehran.jpg

A file photo of a long-range S-300 missile system displayed by Iran’s Army during a parade marking National Army Day in Tehran. (Photo: AP)

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria remains strong. It may have lost ground in the Middle East this year, but it has upped its game beyond the territories it controls in Iraq and Syria, inspiring or conducting a terrorist attack every 84 hours since June.


It successfully hit two of the three top targets on its list: France and the United States. To date, however, it failed to perpetrate a successful attack on its third target: Iran.

It’s not for lack of trying. Iran actively fights Islamic State — and Tehran’s counterterrorism efforts have succeeded where others have not.

Iran’s goal is twofold: Undermine ISIS’ spread, ideology and vision, which promotes a sectarian agenda, while working to prevent attacks on Iranian soil. Iran’s efforts in neighboring Iraq and Syria are slowly paying off, as the territory held by the group continues to shrink.

Iran itself, however, remains a more vulnerable target than the European Union and the United States, not least because it shares a 900-mile border with Iraq. ISIS’ attempts to target Iran should have been more successful, but Iran’s security apparatus has so far mitigated the threat.


Iran developed its counterterrorism policy over the course of several decades. Part of it was developed with the help of the US intelligence community and the Israeli Mossad, when the three countries worked together on security issues until the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah.

Counterterrorism is now divided between several key organisations, including the police force under the interior ministry, the military, numerous intelligence organisations and the Revolutionary Guards. Their effectiveness is a testament to the government’s ability to coordinate them successfully in a volatile political climate.

Iran’s counterterrorism tactics remain opaque and misunderstood in the West. Tehran has been active in Iraq and Syria militarily because it believes that by taking the battle onto ISIS turf it can stop the group from advancing into Iran. While the extent of Iran’s presence in Iraq and Syria was unclear at first, it now increasingly publicises its involvement there. This sends a message to ISIS: Iranians are on the ground, connected to local populations and various political groups, and won’t allow ISIS to get close to Iran.


Tehran wants to show that when Iranians fight and die to protect Shia Muslims and their religious shrines abroad, it isn’t just because of ideology, but to keep the militants away from Iran’s borders.

Iran began its messaging campaign in 2014, when ISIS declared the creation of a “caliphate.” Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani’s social media presence was the first step: He was frequently photographed in Iraq, and more recently in Syria, engaging with various political groups. In addition to sending a signal to ISIS, it sought to reassure the Iranian public of Tehran’s commitment to the fight against ISIS. Today, every fallen Iranian soldier is used to underscore this message.


Iran has also successfully foiled several planned terror attacks within its borders. In June, Iranian intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi announced that 20 terrorist cells had been dismantled the previous month. He added that Tehran this summer had prevented the biggest ISIS attack on Iranian soil. This month, Iranian security forces said they discovered an ISIS base, killed an operative and dismantled a cell in the Western city of Kermanshah, close to the border with Iraq. Last week, Alavi claimed that Iran had prevented 1,500 Iranians youth from joining ISIS. Abroad, Iran tries to change its image as a sectarian player and works with Shias and Sunnis alike, including in encouraging recruitment for the Iraqi Army. Iran’s government has also reached out to its own Sunni minority — part of its bid to be viewed as the leader of all Muslims, rather than just the Shias who make up some 90 per cent of its population.


Despite its success to date, many in the Iranian leadership are aware of Iran’s shortcomings in counterterrorism efforts. Iran is still a victim of its political system. The constant infighting between different factions results in a sort of one-step forward, two-steps back policy implementation. Despite the government’s domestic efforts to work with Sunnis, for example, the mass execution of 20 Sunni militants in August is likely to upset some of the political progress.

Iran is in the game, whether the West likes it or not. It shares similar challenges in the fight against ISIS — including a need to deal with its porous border with Iraq.


But for now, at least, Tehran’s complex counterterrorism policy is keeping ISIS at bay.