On Wednesday, at least 12 were killed and 39 wounded when a team of gunmen and suicide bombers executed a simultaneous strike on two sites inside the Islamic Republic: the country’s parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was a deadly attack and the first of its kind claimed by the Sunni terrorist organization on the majority-Shia Iran. But sectarian divisions don’t suffice to explain why Iran became ISIS’s latest target. As the terrorist proto-state shrinks under external pressure, ISIS is exporting terrorism at a faster tempo against those nations that have contributed to its battlefield setbacks. Iran is, in a way, a member of the anti-ISIS coalition.
Via the Shiite militias that enjoyed partnership with the government of Iraq during Barack Obama’s administration, Iran has contributed directly to the decimation of ISIS in Iraq. Those militia groups stepped up when the Iraqi army collapsed in 2014 amid the terrorist assault, and the major population centers that have been reclaimed by Baghdad likely would have been lost without their aid. This was, however, a Faustian bargain. Those militias have been accused of humanitarian abuses, have alienated the country’s Sunni population, and may have set the stage for another period of sectarian civil war when the exogenous terrorist threat recedes.
Iran intervened as early as 2012 in Syria’s civil conflict to save the enfeebled Bashar al-Assad regime from the various militias that threatened it. At the time, ISIS—rather, the precursor groups that later made up this terror organization—was only one of them. While Assad and his allies have been conspicuously lethargic in their efforts to combat ISIS (Assad is credibly accused of supporting ISIS in a variety of crucial ways) Iranian forces suffered real losses at ISIS’s hands in Syria. Here, too, the long-term threat is not the Islamic State but Iranian influence.
The Syrian civil war strengthened the alliance between Iran and Russia. Moscow has now used Iranian airfields to mount attacks on Assad’s enemies, despite the traditional antipathy of the Iranian population toward Russia. Qods forces commander Qasem Soleimani, a man with American blood on his hands, strengthened that alliance and eroded the American position in the region. Insurgencies and proxy conflicts fueled by Iran are raging not just in Iraq and Syria but in Yemen and Afghanistan, too. They are simmering and threaten to boil over in places like Bahrain, Pakistan, and Qatar. Iran remains the world’s most prolific state sponsor of terrorism. Flush with unfrozen assets as a result of the nuclear accords, it has all the resources it needs to finance the proliferation of extremist militancy. And when Tehran abrogates its obligations in that deal, or simply allows the JCPOA to expire, it will have an unobstructed pathway to the development of a nuclear weapon.
The long view is clear: Iran, not ISIS, is the more grave threat to American national interests and the security of its allies. Of course, ISIS is deplorable. An attack on Iranian civilians is as reprehensible as is the targeting of European or American soft targets. The real world is, however, populated with moral hazards and suboptimal choices that require accommodations of its more seriously minded residents.
ISIS is growing weaker by the hour. It will not be around forever. And when it is gone, familiar battle lines will reform with the United States on one side and Iran on the other. Does this assessment of realities on the ground demand compromises of us?
The painfully obvious answer to this hypothetical is “no.” There are no compromises available to Western nations when it comes to either the genocidal ISIS or the human-rights abusing, terrorist-supporting theocrats in Tehran. The U.S. cannot choose Iran over ISIS; it has to stop both. Some Americans don’t see things this way. At Slate, for example, Joshua Keating has declared Iran an American ally in the war on ISIS. There is no choice.
There are occasions when temporary armistices with the disreputable or despicable can be justified, but that does not render that truce any less corrupting. Even if the logic compelling that trade-off is both sound and urgent, no matter how much we convince ourselves of its necessity, enemy-of-my-enemy rationales are an intellectual perversion. No matter how many times you self-consciously append the prefix “anti” onto the object of your protection, outside observers are still going to call you what you appear to be: “pro.”