In 2010, Farzad Farhangian, an Iranian diplomat based in Belgium, defected to Norway. Farhangian has now emerged with the extraordinary accusation that the Islamic Republic of Iran is controlling the Islamic State (ISIS) and using it as part of Tehran’s war against the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia. Farhangian’s accusations are lurid and (literally) incredible, but the question of Iran’s role in ISIS’ creation and growth, and Iran’s manipulation of ISIS to further its own ends, is one well worth asking.
Farhangian made his accusations in two separate posts, one dated February 25 and one from May 16. (Thanks be to @Paradoxy13 for translation.) Farhangian has been identified in media reports as the press attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Brussels; his own account adds to that that he was an advisor at the Iranian Foreign Ministry and worked in the Iranian Embassies in Dubai, Iraq, Morocco, and Yemen.
Farhangian says that after meeting with elements of the Iranian opposition in Paris, France, he then “spent four important hours with a high ranking Revolutionary Guard commander who left his post a while ago and is now arranging his residency abroad so he can announce that he is joining the opposition.” Farhangian says that he would ideally have liked to wait until the Guardsman was in the clear, but felt that what the Guardsman had to say was too important to wait. Farhangian says that what the Revolutionary Guardsman said was buttressed by a “confidential and extremely sensitive document”. Farhangian writes:
One of the most dangerous things I was informed of with photos and documents … was that Daesh [ISIS] was being managed and controlled through a military operations room in Mashhad [in northwestern Iran], and the room is being managed by high ranking Russian and Iranian intelligence commanders. The goal is to create chaos in the Arab world in general and the Gulf countries in particular, especially Saudi Arabia. The Iranian regime still believes and seeks by all means to subdue Mecca and Medina to Wilayat al-Faqih [the ruling ideology of the Iranian theocracy]. Russia on the other hand sees that revenge is inevitable because it believes that Saudi Arabia played a big role in dismantling the Soviet Union and its defeat in Afghanistan after it drove oil prices down causing economic collapse in the Soviet Union.
The Russian and Iranian operations room in Mashhad uses Russian satellites to provide support to Daesh in its plans, movements, and the tactics that they follow in their operations, in addition to providing intelligence on the international coalition sorties that target the organisation.
Iran wishes to “drag Jordan and Egypt into the war and to infiltrate Saudi and Kuwaiti land,” Farhangian says, and the setting up of ISIS outposts in Libya and the Sinai desert of Egypt is the prelude to the announcement of an Islamic State across North Africa that can be used as a launch-pad for an attack on the Gulf States. Meanwhile, Iran is seeking “to encircle Saudi Arabia” by means of “open[ing] a front on the northern borders of Saudi Arabia through Iraqi Shi’ite militias … to ease the pressure on the Houthis to the south [of Saudi Arabia], [and] at the same time Daesh will be carrying out terrorist acts in Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks.”
So how reliable is all this? As stated: not very. Conspiracies of this scale and intricacy just do not happen. But what of the idea that Iran is using ISIS to further its strategic ambitions? On that the evidence is rather more suggestive.
Though the Obama administration is now sold on Iran as a partner in the anti-ISIS war, I noted recently that one of the reasons this won’t work is because Iran doesn’t want to defeat ISIS, at least not now. Iran has its strategic holdings in Iraq and Syria and its access to Hizballah in Lebanon. Iran couldn’t rule over all the Sunnis under ISIS’ “Caliphate” anyway, and ISIS’ presence helps keep Iraq and Syria off-balance—giving Iran the weak neighbours it has always wanted—and the ISIS menace helps keep any opposition to Iranian hegemony among the governments in Baghdad and Damascus side-lined when the alternative is extermination.
This, however, is only the most indirect means by which Iran has helped ISIS build its power. One “cannot truly understand ISIS today,” Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write in their superb book on the takfiri group, without examining “the agendas of [the] regimes in Iran and Syria”.
From the very start in Syria, the Assad regime bet on provokatsiya (provocation), the Russian-perfected tactic of taking strategic control of one’s enemies to have them discredit themselves, of creating problems in order to solve them—which has been serving Moscow since the 1880s. Assad said the rebellion was a jihadist conspiracy, and he was the last line of defence against the Islamist hordes who would destroy the minorities. Then Assad and his Iranian and Russian patrons took steps to make it come true.
Assad’s intention was to defend his spoils system by starting a grand religious war, frightening the minorities like the Alawis and Christians into clinging to the regime, providing the ruling clan enough human shields to ride out the uprising, and to scare the international community into not helping the Syrian opposition and perhaps even helping to put down the insurgency. It has essentially worked, with the U.S. now acting as Assad’s air force.
What Assad/Iran have done in Syria is not new: in the 1990s, the Algerian regime—like Assad’s trained by the KGB—seized control of the insurgency against it, and drove it into the dead end of mass-murder. The DRS, Algeria’s powerful intelligence agency which effectively runs the country to this day, by infiltration and fabrication of insurgent groups facilitated the creation of the GIA, which it then pushed into domination of the insurgency, and takfirism. The GIA leader, a DRS agent, declared that all those who were not fighting for GIA were apostates to be killed and began massacring whole villages—usually in sight of regime military bases. Defectors have since explained, “During the massacres, the inhabitants of the first houses were deliberately spared to enable survivors say they recognised the Islamists.” The cost in human life was extraordinary but for Le Pouvoir it was a total success: having created a binary choice—the regime or GIA—France ran point in the West and allowed Algiers to finish its dirty war.
Assad/Iran seem to have relied less on direct infiltration to manipulate ISIS—though there have been accusations that some of ISIS’ leaders are Assadist agents. Rather, Assad/Iran seem to have relied on numerous indirect means of letting ISIS flourish.
When the Syrian uprising broke out, one reason why the Salafi-jihadists were able to gain a foothold so quickly was that Assad had provided “robust logistics networks that facilitate jihadist activity” for the previous decade to attack the American forces trying to make constitutional order stick in Iraq. In October 2008, the U.S. struck into eastern Syria to kill Abu Ghadiya, personally appointed by Abu Musab az-Zarqawi—the leader of ISIS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) until 2006—to move the foreign holy warriors into Iraq, most of whom arrived at Damascus International Airport and then moved into safe-houses operated by Assad’s mukhabarat. As late as 2009, senior members of Assad’s regime met directly with members of what-is-now-ISIS and elements of the fallen Saddam Hussein regime to plan a massive bombing in Baghdad.
“Assad first changed the narrative of the newborn Syrian revolution to one of sectarianism, not reform,” a defected Syrian diplomat noted, after which “the Assad regime and Iran … meticulously nurtured the rise of al-Qaeda, and then ISIS, in Syria.” Assad disseminated videos of Sunnis tortured into saying Assad was god and of mosques being desecrated. Alawi paramilitaries were sent to massacre Sunni civilians. Assad not only released the violent Salafists—some of whom went on to be ISIS emirs—while continuing to arrest and kill the secular activists, but “facilitated [the extremists] in their work, in their creation of armed brigades”. When these extremists responded to Assad’s sectarian provocations and killed members of the minorities, Assad allowed it in order to rally the compact communities round the regime, as Assadist defectors have explained. Once ISIS had taken hold, Assad avoided attacking it—since “letting black-clad terrorists run around … crucifying and beheading people made for great propaganda”—and Assad even provided ISIS a de facto air force when the rebels went on the offensive against ISIS in early 2014.
The media war was a very important component Assad’s war strategy, and Russian and Iranian media have been reliable amplifiers for Assad, especially to English-speaking audiences.
Russia has been intimately involved in the prosecution of Assad’s war. And Iran orchestrated a Shi’ite jihad in Syria, and created the National Defence Forces which it leads, in late 2012, since which time Tehran has been in effective control of the Assad regime. Iran’s involvement in Syria, however, especially through Hizballah, began much earlier; Iran has been deeply involved at every stage in Assad’s methods of warfare.
During the American regency in Iraq, Iran worked tirelessly to bloody U.S. forces, which included direct assistance to AQM/ISIS. Indeed, Iran was involved in the formation of AQM/ISIS. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, Zarqawi fled to Iran. From Iran, Zarqawi then moved across the Arab world creating networks and is believed to have cooperated with Assad’s intelligence services to assassinate an American diplomat in Jordan in 2002.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, Zarqawi, who had been in the country for nearly a year, fled with the Ansar al-Islam (AI) group he had come to lead—and which would soon become part of AQM/ISIS—back into Iran. Zarqawi spent his time in Iran rebuilding his networks. There is a claim that Zarqawi was trained at a Revolutionary Guards camp in Mehran. In the summer of 2003 moved AI back into Iraq.
An al-Qaeda facilitation network was set up on Iranian territory with the complicity of the clerical regime no later than 2005, and supplied men and materiel to AQM/ISIS. The U.S. Treasury exposed the “secret deal” between Iran and al-Qaeda in July 2011.
Iran not only allowed al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) to supply materiel to AQM/ISIS, but Iran itself provided assistance. Iranian agents were found in possession of “phone numbers affiliated with Sunni bad guys,” for example, further Treasury sanctions noted that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (VEVAK) “provided money and weapons” to AQM/ISIS and “negotiated prisoner releases” of AQM/ISIS operatives. It wasn’t only indirectly that Iran’s Iraqi proxies worked in tandem with AQM/ISIS against American forces and the stabilization of post-Saddam Iraq. There are accusations from the Syrian rebellion that Iran is directly helping ISIS down to the present day.
The Arab Sunni regimes are regularly said to be key to ISIS’ success; this isn’t true. ISIS is self-funding with oil money from the Assad regime, stolen antiquities, and above all criminal enterprises, specifically extortion or “taxes” from the populations it controls. The accusation ISIS is a creature of the Saudi government has been overthrown: At most, five percent of ISIS’ budget came from Gulf donations between 2005 and 2010.
In short, former White House staffer Michael Doran is exactly on the mark in saying: “Iran and Syria have played a far more pernicious role in the rise of ISIS than have the Gulf monarchies.”
With al-Qaeda, Iran’s nefarious behaviour is even clearer. In 1992, Iran made an “informal agreement” with al-Qaeda to collaborate in attacks against the U.S. and Israel. This arrangement involved Iran, through Hizballah, training al-Qaeda jihadists in the Bekaa Valley. During the Bosnian War (1992-5), Iran provided extensive support to Salafi-jihadists, including Ayman az-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). EIJ would go on to become a core component of al-Qaeda and Zawahiri is now al-Qaeda’s leader.
In 1996, Iran bombed Khobar Towers, running the operation out of its Embassy in Damascus. Whether or not Assad knew in advance of Khobar Towers, he was an accomplice after the fact, sheltering the Hizballah al-Hijaz members who fled Saud Arabia. Al-Qaeda played “some role, as yet unknown,” in Khobar Towers.
Key members of al-Qaeda, including Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, had residence in Iran at various times in the 1990s, and Iran operated a general policy of not stamping passports of those heading from Afghanistan and Pakistan, a tell-tale sign for security officials in Arab States. Iran’s contacts with al-Qaeda got deeper as al-Qaeda’s lethal capacity grew, including a “concerted effort to strengthen relations with al Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole“.
Up to half of the 9/11 death pilots “traveled into or out of Iran” and there is evidence that “senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000.”
The Iran-based al-Qaeda network still exists and U.S. Treasury sanctions show that al-Qaeda is sending resources to Jabhat an-Nusra in Syria from Iran with the complicity of the Iranian regime. Many of the senior members of the Iran-based Qaeda network from the last decade are now known to us as the “Khorasan Group“. How the Khorasannites got from Iran to Syria is an interesting question, as is the provenance of the information the U.S. used when it struck at “Khorasan” last September.
In May 2014, after al-Qaeda disowned ISIS, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS’ main spokesman, released a message in which al-Adnani claimed that ISIS had never been a branch of al-Qaeda and al-Adnani instanced AQM/ISIS’ repeated refusal to abide by AQC’s requests to deescalate the attacks on the Shi’a. But, said al-Adnani, AQM/ISIS “kept abiding by the advices and directives of the elders of jihad” with respect to external policy, and this is why AQM/ISIS “has left the Rawafid [bigoted term for Shi’ites] safe in Iran”. ISIS “endur[ed] accusations of being collaborators with, Iran, its bitterest enemy, … in compliance with the orders of al-Qaeda to protect its interests and supply lines in Iran,” al-Adnani said. “Let history record that Iran owes al-Qaeda invaluably.”
The 9/11 Commission concluded, on the matter of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda, “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.” Unfortunately this further investigation has never arrived.
At the time of President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in January 2002 it was controversial to say that Iran supported Sunni terrorism as part of its global campaign against Western and Jewish targets. Now everyone knows of Iran’s support for HAMAS, and most know of Iran’s assistance to al-Qaeda. Iran’s help to ISIS is shrouded in more mystery, but the evidence is there.
In Middle Eastern media, a reliance on “secret documents” and “well-placed sources” is often the giveaway sign of a fabricator. Perhaps Farhangian falls into that category or perhaps Farhangian is a credulous conduit; matters will be a good deal clearer if/when the Revolutionary Guardsman on whom he supposedly relies is revealed. Until then, however, it is important not to let the overwrought accusations discredit the legitimate ones in the spooky areas of intelligence and provocation—not least because quite often that’s exactly what they’re meant to do.