The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State, has started making its presence felt in 2010 after its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, split from Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was founded by the late Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. In 2013, its Syrian front, the Al-Nusra, joined the rebellion against the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (BBC).
While in Iraq, the ISIS has taken advantage of the void after the US forces left and ended its invasion, in Syria, it has taken advantage of its three-year civil war. Since the ISIS, because of its notoriety and its growing strength, has become a force to reckon with in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, the primary concern of the United States (US) and the West in the Middle East have been to counter the terrorist threat (Rafizadeh, 2014). Although ISIS poses a threat that the ISIS to the security of the free world, for the US and the West, the ISIS represents both an unfinished business, resulting from the War on Iraq, and a complication, for its refusal to intervene in the Syrian Civil War.
For Iran, however, the threat of ISIS is more imminent. The terrorist group, which espouses the establishment of a caliphate in the Middle East, occupies regions of two erstwhile powerful Islamic countries with whom Iran shares borders, not to mention interests. If the terrorism that the ISIS brings cannot be controlled, Iran could not help but affected by the turmoil. Notwithstanding Iran’s hegemonic ambitions (Rafizadeh) in the Middle East, it is only rational for Iran to act to stop the ISIS. Apparently, this is what Iran has been doing, with or without the help of the US and the West, by supporting the regime of Syrian President Al-Assad and by sending military assistance to the Iraqi Army to help battle the ISIS. In a recent pronouncement of the Iranian Foreign Minister, he confirmed that Iran will continue to support the Syrian and the Iraqi people fight the Islamic State (Dziadosz).
Many analysts are wary of how Iran has been throwing its weight around in the fight against the ISIS. For one, it reflects the aspirations of Iran towards regional hegemony in the Middle East, and because of the preoccupation of the Western and the Arab players with fighting the ISIS, the question on the nuclear capability buildup of Iran seems to have been set aside (Rafazideh). Iranian efforts, albeit apparently unilateral, were also welcome by the US and West, thereby signaling the beginning of the latters’ policy of appeasement towards Iran. Many feared that continuing such policy might lead to a very powerful Iran that would eventually rival the US and harm Israel.
On the other hand, Iran is in the best position to help Syria and Iraq in countering the Islamic State. First of all, it is Iran’s region that is most affected by the terrorist threat. In no time, the ISIS has spread to Syria from Iraq. If the ISIS sphere influence expands, it may also reach other Middle Eastern countries, especially those who have been reeling from internal strife. It is better to have one strong Islamic Republic of Iran in Middle East, which despite its antagonistic relationship with the West in the past has remained moderate in its foreign policies, than allowing an extremely virulent terrorist organization occupy the region.
Also, affording Iran greater role in securing the region will also relieve the US and the West of its complex responsibilities in the Middle East. The US must already accept that Western-style democracies cannot be imposed and that the Arab countries must be given the chance towards self-determination. In such situations, the US will be able to avoid getting itself in sticky situations where it cannot decide if it should intervene or not in domestic instabilities in these Arab countries.
Nevertheless, it seems that the critical consideration as always has been the US-Israel alliance. It is a tough balancing act for the US to allow the Iran to help its neighbors and at the same time fulfill its commitment to Israel. In such case, the US must learn how to constructively engage Iran and cease treating it as a rival. This can be done by encouraging Iran to cooperate in existing multilateral institutions that will ensure that Iran shares the responsibility of ensuring regional instability in the Middle East, but still, in a responsible manner.