A Knife’s Edge Perched on a Tightrope

Apparently, the inevitable has happened: according to this poorly spell-checked article, ISIS have started attacking targets within Iran. If these allegations are indeed true, then we’re poised to enter a new, even more terrifying stage of this conflict.

Iran’s Shiite-dominated government is a natural enemy of ISIS, and Iran, as a relative regional military and economic superpower with an unflinching hostility toward jihadi groups, is the safest bet toward a sustained repellent against ISIS. Although it would be jumping the gun to say that other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar are directly aiding ISIS as many claim, certainly, their lack of direct action speaks to the fact that providing resistance to ISIS is not their first priority. As such, Iran is desperately needed as an ally in the fight against the jihadi group.

But, like everything else in the Middle East, the situation is not so simple. Firstly, the Middle Eastern tendency toward conspiratorial thinking, especially with regard to ISIS and the West vs Islam narrative, will spread a great deal of misinformation about the nature of the conflict. This misinformation could lead to misguided, poorly informed action against ISIS, which will certainly not be helped by the decentralized and secretive nature of ISIS itself. In such a mercurial conflict, proper information is key.

Secondly, the fact that the Iranian government is dominated by Shiites does not guarantee stability or unity of purpose. A hefty minority of Iranians- about 8%, according to estimates, are Sunni, and these Sunnis often belong to groups that have been marginalized and abused by the Iranian regime in the thirty-some years since the current regime took power. These groups could use any excuse to help the enemies of the Iranian regime destabilize the nation. The article cited in the first paragraph gives the example of a guard post on the border which was effectively capitulated to jihadis without a fight.

Thirdly, the legitimacy of the Iranian government within the eyes of the Iranian public is shaky, at best. Vast swaths of the working classes in Iran distrust the government for its inability to offer them economic opportunities; equally vast swaths in the middle and upper classes distrust the government for its dictatorial and non-democratic nature. This distrust could lead to two consequences- the first, an internal crackdown against dissidents which could rehash the worst excesses of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in the 1980s; the second, an unwillingness on the part of Iran’s largely volunteer army to fight for a regime they don’t believe in. Obviously, none of these factors will help construct the broad anti-ISIS front many throughout the Middle East and the West are looking for.

Yes, Iran could play a role in preventing ISIS’s influence from growing. But it has to negotiate a knife’s edge perched on a tightrope in order to do so. Stay tuned, folks.

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