Iran’s biggest challenge? To retain its strategic ‘crescent’

For Iranian leaders, the rise of ISIS poses one of the largest strategic and geopolitical challenges

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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In order to preserve its national interests, the Islamic Republic of Iran has spent a significant amount of political capital, invested financially, politically, militarily, and strategically to keep hold of the Shiite Crescent extending from Iran to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian leaders put all of their political, military, economic and intelligence efforts into making sure that Iraq would emerge as a Shiite state, which would contribute to the Shiite Crescent and preserve Iran’s geopolitical, economic and strategic interests as a staunch ally.

Although the Shiite government of Iraq - backed by the Iranian government, Quds forces and the IRGC— has repeatedly encountered some unrest, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Maliki was capable of cracking down and repressing the opposition with the assistance of Iranian leaders.

Unlike previous instances of unrest, we can argue that the current development, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or other Sunni extremists groups in Iraq, is in fact the largest strategic and security challenge that the Islamic Republic has encountered since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

The longer the fighting and battle in Iraq continues, the more the government of Maliki will become dependent on the Islamic Republic

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Even Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani, who calls for “moderate and prudence” in foreign policy, has joined the voices of the IRGC and Iran Supreme Leader in implicitly warning, blaming and accusing other Arab states in the gulf for assisting ISIS. Recently, he pointed out that some countries “feed terrorists by their petrodollars.” He warned that this support will have repercussions in the countries that “feed terrorists.”

Uniqueness of Iran’s foreign policy and its pillars: national interest, sectarianism and ideology

Iran’s foreign policy is anchored in three crucial pillars that interact with each other, operating simultaneously, and ultimately informing Tehran’s foreign policy. The three pillars are: national interest, sectarianism, and ideology. The combination of ideology, sectarianism and national interests makes the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic distinct, in a sense that Iran employs ideological policies, sectarian tactics, and nationalistic policies at an unprecedented level. In other words, the Islamic Republic can be viewed as one of the most ideological, sectarian and nationalistic governments in the world.

When it comes to the Shiite Crescent, sectarianism and ideology play dominant roles. Iraq is crucial for Iran ideologically, for sectarian purposes as well as national interests. When it comes to national interests, Iraq is strategically, geopolitically and economically crucial for the Islamic Republic. Ideologically speaking, Iranian leaders view themselves as the defenders and protectors of the Shiite population and Shiite shrines in Iraq. For example, from the Islamic Republic’s perspective, the Iraqi Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf (which the Islamic Republic has vowed to defend from attacks of ISIS) are considered sacred places, which belong to the Shias around the world, rather than being cities of other sovereign states. From a sectarian perspective, a Shiite led government in Iraq would be a crucial nexus of the Shiite Crescent.

According to Iran’s media, Iranian chief of police Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, pointed out that in order to “protect Shiite shrines and cities,” the National Security Council of the Islamic Republic would consider intervening in Iraq.

The prospective trend: Nouri al-Maliki, Iran’s man

In previous sectarian conflict in Iraq since 2003, the Islamic Republic mainly provided military and strategic planning rather than sending significant amounts of troops on the ground, or providing fundamental manpower.

The danger that ISIS poses on Iran’s security and strategic interests has prompted the Islamic Republic to dispatch commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, according to several reports, including from The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.

Quds forces, which the Islamic Republic dispatches for sectarian purposes to other countries (such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq), are among the most experienced cadre of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Led by General Qassem Soleimani, Quds forces are a secretive branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Soleimani, who helped built Hezbollah, has been characterized as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today.”

In addition, the Islamic Republic has been using and manipulating the Iraqi-Shiite diaspora in Iran to join this holy and ideological war. Many Iranians have signed up to join Iran’s forces in assisting the Iraqi government of Prime Minsiter Maliki to crack down on ISIS and other Sunni extremists.

Majid Ghamas, the representative of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated in the Washington Post that, “We’re sending a message to the world that Iraqis living in Iran, although we are few in number, have a strong voice and we’re ready to defend our homeland and our sacred sites.” In addition, many Iranians or Iraqis who view the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their highest religious authorities will join the fight as well— in case a fatwa is issued. Sistani has issued a fatwa for Iraqis to bear arms.

The longer the fighting and battle in Iraq continues, the more the government of Maliki will become dependent on the Islamic Republic, particularly the senior cadre of the Quds forces and the IRGC. In other words, the more Maliki clings to power, the more the Quds forces and the IRGC will dominate Iraq. In addition, the more Mr. Maliki insists on maintaining his power, the more likely other opposition groups will join ISIS against the Shiite-led government. This can turn Maliki into a hated figure for large sections of the society. Iran’s Quds forces increasing involvement in Iraq and cooperation with Maliki can also persuade those Iraqi Sunnis, who do not support ISIS, to shift their stance and side with ISIS or other militants against the Maliki government.

For Iranian leaders, the rise of ISIS as well as the rapid advancement of other Sunni extremist groups pose the largest strategic and geopolitical challenges to Tehran’s regional hegemonic ambitions and foreign policy objectives.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu.

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