Two weeks ago in Foreign Policy published an article entitled "Trust Iran Only as Far as You Can Throw it," in which the author alleged a damning charge: that the Islamic State (IS') rapid growth in Iraq is funded, supported, and facilitated by the Iranian government. This is symptomatic of a growing movement within some analysis circles—most notably in a much shared think-piece by Pinhas Inbari for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs entitled "ISIS: Iran's Instrument for Regional Hegemony?" published but four days before the FP piece—pushing for acceptance of some vast regional conspiracy, led by Iran to seed discord within the Middle East using ISIS as a knowing or unknowing agent to fulfill Iran's secret master-plan.
This is an unnecessary complication of an already complicated situation. The evidence is largely based on hearsay and events from the US-led Iraq War that play little to no role in the current scenario, but which are still pervasive in the mind of many Western analysts. The primary point begins with the accepted fact that Iran played at least some role in the surge of Al Qaeda-linked jihadi fighters in Iraq during that earlier conflict.
Even accepting all of the claims made regarding Iranian support of not only Sunni jihadi groups but rather the wider Sunni insurgency during the Iraq War, this means absolutely nothing when it comes to the involvement of Iran with IS which, importantly, is not part of Al Qaeda. Furthermore, some the lines of evidence provided by proponents of the earlier theories from the mid-to-late 2000s often fall short: relying on tenuous forms of evidence such as the finding of Iranian arms in Sunni-held areas of Iraq.
Many reports from this period are confirmed, however: that AQI and allied groups were given passage through and inside Iran, for instance. But similar to these AQI-Iran allegations of yesteryear, the rise of IS in Syria today, bolstered in no small part by a large influx of foreign fighters, owes itself to Turkey's willingness to turn a blind eye to the phenomenon in the belief that these fighters could bog down the YPG. However, it would be erroneous to conclude, as supporters of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime do, that IS is a proxy agent secretly colluding with Turkey, especially as Ankara has become much more concerned about a potential attack on its own territory by IS (though, notably, IS has never threatened to do such a thing), leading to cooperation with the Syrian Revolutionaries' Front this year. In that vein, Tehran's allowance for Sunni jihadis to move within its territory during the years of the U.S. troop presence shouldn't necessarily imply a more nefarious plot than causing trouble for their mutual Western enemies which are now long gone.
After the Americans left, the Iranians became Iraq's biggest friend in the region. Why would Iran want to shake that up considering its grip on Iraq's central government was already so tight and growing stronger and stronger in the past couple of years with the development of Syria's civil war, which crucially pushed the Maliki government into alignment with Iran on this key foreign policy issue? It just seems silly to assume that. And yet, that's a major point of the arguments made alleging the Iran-IS connection: if they did it once (which is a big "if") then they'll definitely do it again. That'd be a fine assumption, if Iran's role were the same as it was before the US left Iraq. But it's not the same, so it's not a fine assumption.
In any event, much of the Iraqi government's steps- such as the crackdowns on the protest sites in Hawija and Ramadi- that fed to the perception of marginalization of Sunnis and helped foster the revival of the overall Sunni insurgency are to be explained as the result of Maliki's own decision-making designed to monopolize his own power and work towards building a more centralized system of governance as opposed to the pro-autonomy trends in Basra that were actually favored by Iran. Little wonder that Qassim Suleimanireportedly denounced Maliki as an "idiot" for the premier's own mistakes that fostered the current situation.
There is truth to the idea, however, that Iran would have an interest in a fundamentally unstable Iraq, insofar as Iran could view Iraq's oil production as a threat to its own, but not so far as to risk government control over half of two of its closest allies in Iraq and Syria. And, additionally, not so much as it could lead to an independent Kurdistan, viewed by Iran as another potential rival in the region.
What's more, the Iranians have no interest in risking the emergence of anti-Iranian Shia forces when they've already got pro-Iranian Shia allies in place. The return of the Mahdi army was precipitated by the rise of Quds Forces-backed militias on key front and Muqtada Al-Sadr (who resisted calls for mass Shi'a militiamen mobilization to fight in Syria) not wanting to lose influence. They came out with a proverbial bang: with massive military marches across Iraq's Shia areas in the Baghdad Belts and further South. While not necessarily a political threat, the Mahdis and groups like them will be major players that the Iranians, in their supposed master-plan, will have limited control over, and therefore would be a bit of a wild card in Iran's alleged self-defeating chess game.
The Iran-IS conspiracy seems to have in mind for Iran a similar goal to one of Ayatollah Khomeini's original goal during the Iran-Iraq War: a Shiite Islamic revolution in Iraq. After the revolution in Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, Muqtada's father-in-law, praised the revolution and founded the Al-Dawaa party to help support his own ambitions. Hailed by Iran as the "Khomeini of Iraq," Tehran thought Sadr could garner enough support to create a coup in his own right against Sadaam Hussein's Ba'ath party. But they were wrong: Iraq's Shiite community, while often friendly to Iran, does not and did not largely support the idea of their own Shiite Islamic Republic in the vein of Iran. In the end, Sadr and a large number of Iran's other supporters in Iraq were mercilessly slaughtered by Hussein; a waste of perfectly good agents based on bad intel filtered through idealistic goggles. Iran knows this—and one can only assume they learned that lesson heartily after losing the longest inter-state war of the 20th century—so it seems unlikely they would help foster an unpredictable boogeyman just in the hopes they can gain more power, when Maliki is probably the closest they'll get to a full-on puppet in Baghdad any time soon.
The IS-Iran theory is reminiscent to the common and equally wrongheaded myth that there is a conspiracy between IS and the Syrian government. This theory runs as follows: IS gets funding from the Syrian government so that it can sow discord in areas the regime can't reach. The general evidence for this is that IS has an ongoing deal with the Syrian government to give safe passage to oil tankers. What this theory omits, is that this is a common agreement for many rebel groups (including the Syrian Kurdish militias, who have been some of IS' harshest opponents.) There is nothing sinister other than common greed involved here, and the greater contention that this is somehow part of Assad's master plan relies on assuming intent that cannot be proven and makes no logical sense. Indeed, the "war economy" approach has become pervasive among rebel groups, extending to allowance of transit of goods and manpower into and out of besieged regime bases in return for money.
Iran, meanwhile, is a longtime supporter of the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad, and has helped fund and encourage Shia militias group involvement in the conflict. Iran and Syria's allies have gotten involved, including both Shia militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as their regional ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. So, would Iran really benefit from allowing a major rival army to take over thousands of kilometers of land across two allied nations just so it can sweep in to save the day? This seems highly unlikely.
Indeed, the whole irony of these IS-Iran conspiracy theories is that they are the mirror of the pro-Iranian charges that IS is backed by a vast network of private or state-funded Gulf money, when in fact such funding can only be thought of as the icing on the cake of IS' finances that have largely arisen from ISIS' thriving off extortion networks, oil smuggling and corruption in Iraq, much as Ansar ash-Shari'a in Libya has been building itself up through a system even more corrupt than in Iraq. For those who like to talk "proxy wars," the rumor-mill surrounding the Gulf-Iranian rivalry should be an all too familiar one; and one in which proponents of these theories find themselves be presumably unintentional foot-soldier.
One needs to be clear about the origins of the IS-Iran conspiracy theories: namely, they derive from the narrative of the Syrian opposition-in-exile and its affiliates, trying to come to terms with what it considers to be IS' 'betrayal' of its cause, in so far as ISIS was welcomed at first by a wide range of rebel groups including not only the main constituents of what would become the Islamic Front but also FSA-banner groups like Col. Oqaidi's Aleppo FSA Military Council, whose leader went out of his way in an interview last August to defend ISIS as a partner against the regime and the Kurdish PYD as well as the PYD-affiliated YPG militia, dubbed agents of the regime. Indeed, the wider conflict that emerged in Syria between IS and the YPG beginning with IS' expulsion from Ras al-Ayn helped to secure cooperation between IS and other rebel groups, allowing ISIS to entrench themselves on the Hasakah province border areas with Iraq thanks to cooperation with Ahrar ash-Sham. In turn the Islamic Front groups preferred as far as possible to resolve problems with IS via mediation partly driven by ideological sympathy, which further emerged in the wider infighting that broke out in January this year that saw many members of Ahrar ash-Sham especially unwilling to fight IS. It was precisely Ahrar ash-Sham's toleration of IS that allowed the latter to gain strongholds along much of the Ninawa-Hasakah borderline.
Neither of us is arguing necessarily for U.S. cooperation with Iran to counter IS, and those who make the argument against the proposal have plenty of reasonable grounds for their case: for example, as the Syrian experience should demonstrate, the Iranians are not exactly all that keen on a 'hearts and minds' approach that would help the Iraqi government to secure local cooperation to restore control over insurgent-held areas. However, the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria demonstrates a new reality that can be explained by many factors, and supposed collusion or conspiring with Iran is not one of them. Frankly, this line of argument is part of an all too common trend of lazy analysis that simply interprets all non-state actors as unwilling or willing proxies of one regional power or another, while those favored by partisans one way or another are absolved of any responsibility for their own mistakes. This all presupposes a scenario where Iran is playing its agents off against each other in a vast conspiracy that would make Oliver North blush.