In the past few months, the world has watched in horror as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, often shortened to ISIS, ISIL, or just IS, has committed unspeakable atrocities throughout its areas of influence in Iraq and Syria. In a recent interview with NPR, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger downplayed the threat of ISIS, arguing that Iran poses a greater threat to the United States than the false caliphate. His reasoning being that, “There has come into being a kind of a Shia belt from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut. And this gives Iran the opportunity to reconstruct the ancient Persian Empire — this time under the Shia label.” While it appears all but inevitable that the current borders of the Middle East, which were largely created by the British and French following the First World War, are bound to change, Iran appears to have doomed its prospects of fulfilling Kissinger’s prediction when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced it would not cooperate with the United States in both countries’ operations against ISIS.
The inevitable fragmentation of Iraq, where ISIS has the most influence, is just one part of the reason why Iran has lost much of its ability to expand its influence there. Based on the demographics of Iraq, it appears the country will divide into three independent nations: a Shiite Arab nation, a Sunni Arab nation, and a (Sunni) Kurdish nation. Due to historic animosity between Sunni and Shiite Muslims dating back to the seventh century, the Sunni Arab state and the Kurdish state will be highly unwilling to be subjugated by the Shiite Iranians. Furthermore, the Kurdish separatists, though supported by both the United States and Iran, have made it clear that they will ally not with Iran, but with the United States as well as Israel. While sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shiites will likely prevent Iran from conquering a Sunni Arab state without a fight, the Shiite Arab state, whose political infrastructure will likely be that of the current Iraqi government, will probably be neutral, as evidenced by the Shiite-dominated polity of Iraq’s relationship with Iran and the United States.
The case of Syria is probably much more complex than that of Iraq. Since 2011, the country has been in a state of civil war with various sectarian rebels fighting in favor of and against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Although Syria is a Sunni-majority country, Assad is a Shiite of the Alawite sect who maintains strong relations with Iran. Due to his brutal crackdown on his dissenters during the civil war, which have included the use of chemical weapons against dissenters, Assad has tried to eliminate any and all rebels that would seek friendly relations with the United States and its allies, painting himself as the preferable option to rule Syria over Islamist extremists. This tactic has been difficult for US President Barack Obama, who has previously stated that Assad must be ousted due to his tyrannical ways. In order to counter this challenging position, the United States has recently reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to train “moderate” rebels to combat both Assad and ISIS in Syria.
Although the US-Saudi Arabia agreement seems reasonable, I find it hard to trust the Saudis due to their endorsement of and support for Wahhabism, which is an inherently puritanical and extremist school of Sunni Islam that is little different, if at all, from that promoted by ISIS. For this reason, I doubt, but hope I’m wrong, that the Saudi-trained Syrian rebels will be true moderates that will maintain friendly relations with the US and its allies and not terrorize and oppress their citizens as ISIS and Saudi Arabia do. Even if they do, sectarian differences will pose yet another roadblock to Iran’s claim to being a major regional power in the Middle East.
Ultimately, it appears that President Obama’s strategy against ISIS have been quite successful thus far. Moreover, Iran’s decision to not align themselves with the United States will make them unable to claim the spoils of war when ISIS is defeated by the United States and its allies. In conclusion, the inevitable partition of Iraq and the eventual rise of Sunnis, moderates or Wahhabis, to power in Syria, will undermine Iran’s ability to reestablish a Shiite/Persian Empire, as Kissinger predicted they would.