Despite its outward appearance, Iran’s involvement in the war against ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) defies simple sectarian explanations.1 While ISIL might be motivated by its hatred for all things Shi’a, Tehran has not always rushed to the aid of its coreligionists. Instead, its support has been selective and strategic. This is true again, as it confronts the ISIL.
Iran versus ISIL
Iran’s response to the rise of ISIL has been driven by realpolitik rather than religious identity. ISIL threatens to undermine Iran’s regional alliance structure and destabilize its borders. Iran has responded not only by mobilizing Shi’a militias but also working with the United States and the Kurds. Nevertheless, this pragmatic approach may prove unstable over the long term. Iran’s new relationship with the United States remains fragile, and Iran’s regional interests conflict with those of the Sunni members of the anti-ISIL alliance.
A picture of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adorns a military vehicle as Iraqi security forces deploy, on May 26, 2015, during an operation aimed at cutting off ISIL in Anbar. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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