Seyed Mohammad Marandi on the Islamic State, the United States, and the Islamic Republic of Iran


Our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi, professor of North American studies and dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, published a powerful Op Ed, “ISIL, US Intervention and the Rise of the Iranian Model,” on Al Jazeera English earlier this week, see here.  We also append the text below.  As usual, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on the Al Jazeera Web site.

ISIL, US Intervention and the Rise of the Iranian Model 

Seyed Mohammad Marandi

Western media coverage of Islam and the “Middle East” regularly dismisses any possibility of meaningful participatory politics outside the frame of western liberal democracy.  When the West faces a challenge such as that posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or al-Qaeda before that, most western elites fall back on the notion that the only long-term solution is the (externally supported) consolidation of secular politics in the Muslim world.

But, even if one assumes that liberal democracy truly exists, it is, historically, a uniquely western phenomenon which has never gained real traction in Muslim societies.  Like other people, Muslims want a say in shaping the political life of their societies.  But they want the frame for participatory politics to be authentic—meaning, for most Muslims, grounded in Islam, not in alien notions of “separating religion and state.”  So far, only one political order in the Middle East is enjoying appreciable success in providing participatory Islamist governance to its people—the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The West cannot bring itself to admit this.  Looking at the coverage of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successful prostate surgery in the western media, one cannot help but smile at the often twisted loathing directed towards him and the political order he leads.  The BBC, which is usually a bit more sophisticated than other western outlets in attempting to conceal its animosity, reporting on the surgery stated that his personal life is kept “a secret topic in Iran”; only the “critical situation in Iran and the region” forced him to be more open and announce the news of his operation.  In another report, the BBC implied that Ayatollah Khamenei is unpopular and that Iranians were critical about the high level of care provided to him in the hospital.

Inconsistent narrative

The fact that Ayatollah Khamenei was operated on in a public hospital and that an earlier operation in 1991 on his gall bladder was also publicly announced is inconsistent with the BBC narrative.  Likewise, the sheer number of people who have turned up (and continue to turn up) at his public appearances during his quarter-century as leader casts doubt that he and the Islamic Republic are anywhere near as unpopular as the BBC indicates.  That the Ayatollah’s wife, four sons, and two daughters are not celebrities, high ranking politicians, or involved in business may make his personal like seem a bit uneventful, but that does not make it a “secret topic,” just different from Western norms.

Western mythology notwithstanding, the reality is that, despite decades of irrational western hostility and violence, the Islamic Republic has indeed evolved into the region’s “island of stability,”  Ironically, this phrase was first used in a toast in Tehran by the former US President Jimmy Carter to describe a very different sort of Iran:  Iran, Carter said in 1978, “because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”

A year later the shah fled the country, amid a popular revolution in which a key slogan was “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.”

In recent years, other political figures in West Asia and North Africa considered “great leaders” in western eyes have met similar fates.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once praised Tunisian dictator Zein El Abidine Ben Ali for the “progress” he had made in advancing prospects for Tunisia’s youth.  At the height of the January 2011 protests in Cairo, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as “immensely courageous and a force for good.”

Popular demands for change have already brought down much of the Middle East’s older order, but there are few signs of anything more than a provisional, shaky stability.  Making matters worse, when client regimes began failing or showing serious instability, oil-rich monarchies, with western coordination and support, funded rebel groups in Libya and Syria, violating international law and dragging the Middle East towards further decline and collapse.

Of course, state-funded militancy is not a new phenomenon.  In the 1980s the United States cooperated with the Saudi and Pakistani governments to promote, train, and arm the mujahedeen “freedom fighters” to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.  During and after this struggle, a number of countries invested heavily in religious schools and other outlets across the Muslim world, spending billions of dollars each year to export an extremist ideology.

Powerful force

As a result—and with the West’s silent approval—this extremism has grown into a powerful force that casts its shadow upon many parts of the world.  After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was supported by almost all regional states except Iran, funding from a number of these countries again flowed to extremist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda—this time in Iraq, to undermine the new Iraqi political order.

Events in Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt underline that the remnants of the old order cannot last much longer.  However, what is currently on offer in the Arab world has so far brought neither great optimism nor social cohesion.  In Egypt, regardless of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the July 2013 coup, the fact remains that the Muslim Brotherhood failed to develop a model of participatory politics capable of accommodating public needs in accordance with indigenous values.

The Brotherhood’s historic failure has helped fuel the rise of a takfiri (apostate) governance model.  This model has evolved from al-Qaeda to groups like al-Nusra Front, the Islamic Front in Syria, and ultimately the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  The evolution reflects the ideology’s utilisation by western and regional countries for strategic purposes in countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.  Today, not only has ISIL turned into a global terrorist threat; it has become an existential threat to countries that have traditionally advocated its underlying ideology and are now a part of a new US-led coalition.

The single force that has blocked this emerging threat from imposing its hegemony from Damascus to Baghdad—perhaps even from Beirut to Riyadh—is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Endless western attempts to destabilise the Iranian political model have ended in failure—and today, as a result of illegal western support for extremists in Syria and continued violation of its sovereignty, the Islamic Republic is now leading the region’s struggle against extremism and emerging global powers increasingly recognise this.

After Ayatollah Khamenei’s surgery was announced, life in Iran continued normally—not merely because the public was assured their leader was in excellent health, but also because an elected constitutional body, the Assembly of Experts, which is charged with electing the country’s highest authority, had already shown its effectiveness years ago by quickly and successfully choosing Ayatollah Khamenei to succeed Imam Khomeini as leader.

Western media outlets and human rights organisations would serve themselves better by toning down their unrelenting caricature of Iran, and by engaging in some self-reflection concerning their Syria narrative.  If they did, the West might even manage to get some better policies.


Barack Obama, the Islamic State, and America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East

The World Financial Review has published our latest piece, “America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East.”  To read the article, click here; we’ve also appended the text (with links) below:

 America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East 

While President Obama continues—at least for now—to resist redeploying large numbers of U.S. soldiers to fight the Islamic State on the ground, the military components of the anti-Islamic State strategy he has laid out effectively recommit the United States to its post-9/11 template for never-ending war in the Middle East.  In the end, such an approach can only compound the damage that has already been done to America’s severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East by its previous post-9/11 military misadventures.       

Thirteen years after the fact, most of America’s political and policy elites have yet to grasp the strategic logic that motivated the 9/11 attacks against the United States.  Certainly, al-Qa’ida was not averse to damaging America’s economy and punishing its people.  But Osama bin Laden knew that effects of this sort would be finite, and thus of limited strategic value; he had no illusions about destroying “the American way of life.”

The real objective of the 9/11 attacks was to prompt American overreaction:  to goad Washington into launching prolonged military campaigns against Muslim lands.  These campaigns would galvanise popular sentiment across the Muslim world against the United States, mobilise Middle Eastern publics against regional governments (like the one in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia) that cooperate politically and militarily with it, and rally them in favor of jihadi fighters who resist American domination.  Looking ahead, the al-Qa’ida leader anticipated that local backlash against U.S. overreaction to a terrorist provocation would ultimately undermine the regional foundations of America’s ability to project massive amounts of military force into the Middle East, compelling it to disengage from the region and go home.

Viewed through this frame, the United States fell for bin Laden’s plan with appalling alacrity.  America’s post-9/11 invasions cum campaigns of coercive regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have been strategic failures, leaving the United States weaker—in terms of its ability to achieve its stated goals in the Middle East, its economic position, and its standing as a global superpower—than before.  And the most important factor ensuring the failure of these campaigns was that they eviscerated the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people living there.  As a result, America’s self-declared “war on terror” has made the threat to U.S. interests from violent jihadi extremists vastly more broad-based, complicated, and dangerous than it was thirteen years ago.

Doing the Same Thing…   

Now, in response to the Islamic State’s dramatic rise, the Obama administration wants to go down the same, well-worn, and colossally self-damaging path of strategic overreactions.  The administration’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is a veritable case study in Einstein’s (apocryphal) definition of insanity—“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  For there is absolutely no rational basis on which to think that, this time, the United States will get a different—presumably better—result.  This makes Obama’s military campaign against the Islamic State exactly the sort of “dumb war” that, as a presidential candidate in 2008, he promised American voters he would oppose.

President Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic—but the movement starts its fight against the United States with an extraordinary level of support from Sunni Muslim publics.  In July 2014—that is, before the United States began its current air campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq—a poll by the (Saudi-owned) pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat showed that 92 percent of Saudis believe that the group “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”  In Jordan and Kuwait, Facebook posts by the Islamic State draw tens of thousands of likes in just a few hours; Twitter feeds and other social media suggest that there is a considerable reservoir of popular support for the movement among Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Saudis, and other Arab populations.  Saudi Arabia and Jordan have generated large contingents of young men who have left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State, which draws holy warriors from across the Sunni world.

Under these conditions, U.S. military action against the Islamic State will once again play into the jihadi grand strategy:  to draw “crusaders” (the West, embodied in the United States) and “infidels” (Shi’a) into battle against Sunni holy warriors, thereby rallying support for them across the Sunni world.

Far from deterring Islamic State provocations, U.S. airstrikes will actually incentivize it to do more.  The movement did not execute any of the American journalists it has been holding hostage (for well over a year in some cases) until after the United States started bombing it in August.  That month, as an Islamic State fighter beheaded journalist James Foley for what (thanks to an initial posting on YouTube) turned out to be a worldwide audience, the group warned that, if U.S. military forces continued bombing, it would execute another prisoner, Steven Sotloff.  Of course, the bombing continued; at the beginning of September, as it had promised, the Islamic State beheaded Sotloff for another worldwide video audience.

These gruesome executions have sparked enough elite outcry and sufficient turnaround in American public opinion to prompt the Obama administration to escalate U.S. military action against the Islamic State.   But one utterly predictable consequence of not just escalating the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq but expanding it into Syria (as President Obama seems set on doing) will be more provocations like the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff.

In effect, the Islamic State is continuing the strategy pioneered by bin Laden thirteen years ago, daring Washington to escalate U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria.  Sustained U.S. military action against the Islamic State—even if confined to what Obama calls “a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists”—will, in the eyes of Arab publics, cast the movement and those allied to it as resisting continued U.S. efforts to dominate the Muslim world.  This will not only boost the Islamic State’s already substantial popular support in the Muslim world; it will further erode America’s already severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East.

…Over and Over Again 

Likewise, Obama’s pledge to boost American “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground” will put the United States in the surreal position of combating the threat to U.S. interests posed by jihadi fighters by funding, arming, and training…jihadi fighters.  The proposition that there is a moderate Syrian opposition with enough military potential and—even more importantly—popular support inside Syria to overthrow the Assad government is a myth.  To claim in addition that these mythical moderate oppositionists can take on and defeat the Islamic State is either blatantly dishonest or dangerously delusional.

To have even a token chance of dealing effectively with the Islamic State, Washington needs to acknowledge the mistaken premises of its Syria policy—that Assad has lost the support of most Syrians and can be overthrown by externally-supported oppositionists—and recognize that ending the anti-Assad insurgency is essential to cutting of the Islamic State’s base in northeastern Syria.  Ostensibly moderate and secular Syrian opposition groups have, for the most part, been well penetrated by their Islamist counterparts.

The White House is (to put it mildly) dancing around reports that elements in one of the supposedly “moderate” and secular Syrian opposition groups to which the Obama administration now wants to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in additional military and financial support sold Steven Sotloff to the Islamic State militants who would later behead him.  For those reports highlight a big problem with the administration’s strategy:  the main thing that will be achieved my stepping up U.S. support for “moderate” Syrian oppositionists is to open up more channels through which the Islamic State can obtain more Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.

Needed:  A Real Regional Strategy 

The point about the mistaken premises of the Obama administration’s Syria policy highlights another debilitating contradiction at the heart of its stated strategy for stopping and, ultimately, dismantling the Islamic State.  This contradiction grows out of the gap between the administration’s rhetoric on the need for a regional strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic State and the actual conduct of its regional diplomacy.

Without doubt, there needs to be a regional strategy for dealing with the Islamic State.  Obama and his senior advisors pay lip service to this idea.  But their notion of a regional strategy encompasses only established and unrepresentative Sunni regimes dependent on Washington for their security—e.g., Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, and Jordan.  These governments, by providing various types of support to Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, have actually facilitated the Islamic State’s extraordinary ascendance.  There is no way that this sort of “regional strategy” can meaningfully contribute to halting and ultimately undermining the movement.

A real regional strategy against the Islamic State would necessarily include Russia, Iran, and Syria’s Assad government—in leading positions.  For those actors are all essential players in any serious effort to contain and roll back the multifaceted challenged this movement poses.  Yet senior Obama administration officials have ruled out working with either Iran or the Assad government, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, complains that the administration’s dialogue with Moscow about the Islamic State—if it can appropriately be called “dialogue”—is much more pro forma than substantive.

Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State provides damning testimony as to how little he has done—or, in his second term, is willing to do—to challenge the foreign policy orthodoxies against which he ran his initial presidential campaign, and which have done so much to weaken America’s international position in the two and a half decades since it came out of the Cold War as the most powerful state in history.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Flynt Leverett Critiques Obama’s Syria Strategy and its Regional Implications

Flynt went on Russia Today’s CrossTalk to discuss the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State; click on the video above or see “Washington’s Jihad,” here or here (YouTube).  As this campaign expands into Syria, we think the points that Flynt made on CrossTalk, and that Hillary has been making in several appearances on CNN, remain important—and underrepresented in what passes for a policy debate in Washington.

Flynt opens by setting the current U.S. campaign against the Islamic State against the backdrop of U.S. policy since 9/11:

America’s self-declared post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ has been strategically disastrous for the United StatesIt has weakened America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally; squandered vast material and human resources; and has basically destroyed the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people who live in this strategically critical region.  And now President Obama is effectively recommitting the United States to this profoundly self-damaging, post-9/11 template for never ending war in the Middle East.”

As Flynt points out, one of the clearest indicators of the thought-free character of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Islamic State is its emphasis on stepped-up support for Syrian oppositionists:

I have been saying for over three years that the idea there is some moderate, secular Syrian opposition with enough military potential and, even more importantly, enough political standing in Syria to overthrow the Assad government flies in the face of realityTo say that this mythical moderate Syrian opposition is now going to be able to take on the Islamic State is, I think, just delusional.

The Syria policy that the United States and its partners in the region have been pursuing since the spring of 2011 has helped, in a big way, to create the situation in Iraq, with this dramatic ascendance of the Islamic State.  We have created this problem, and now we’re coming up with pseudo-solutions that are only going to make the problem worse…The one thing that could come of this is that you’re going to create more channels for the Islamic State to get hold of Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.  Having the Saudis train these so-called moderate fighters is just going to augment the problem that we’re supposedly trying to deal with.

We have fed the creation of the Islamic State through our policy of support for the Syrian opposition.  And it’s going to have huge repercussions regionally.

Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t IslamicBut the fact is—as evidenced in polls, in social media across the Sunni Arab world—is that this movement has a lot of sympathy and support, even among constituencies that don’t like some of its tactics, don’t like prisoner beheadingsBy launching this military campaign against them, the United States is basically—in the eyes of a lot of Sunni Muslims—it is basically re-launching a post-9/11 war against Islam.  And the one thing we know, over thirteen years since 9/11, is that that drives jihadi recruitment more than anything.  It is going to make the problem vastly worse.”

In the program, Flynt also critiques the Obama administration’s thoroughly warped notion of what a “regional strategy” against the Islamic State should look like.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



This weekend, Hillary went on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry  to discuss President Obama’s address—delivered, ironically enough, on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—laying out his administration’s “strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State.  Listening to the speech, we thought it confirmed that political and policy elites have essentially learned nothing from a thirteen-year trajectory of hugely counterproductive foreign policy choices—choices made ostensibly in response to 9/11.  In her segments (see videos above or here, here, and here), Hillary sought to explain why this is the case:

“There are two sets of people that the president has around him.  One is a set of people who made their way among powerful domestic constituency groups, and [the other are] are people who made their way through the party.  This isn’t just a Democratic Party thing; the same thing happens on the Republican side…Then, on the so-called ‘expert’ side, you have people from the CIA and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense.  They are not there to provide facts, to provide information.  Remember, in 1947 both the Department of Defense and the CIA were created—after World War II—not to provide the president with facts, but to provide the president with a basis for power projection.  And this is what both parties fall into, both [post-9/11] presidents across the board fall into.

Remember, President Bush started his presidency with wanting to have a ‘humble’ foreign policy (if we can remember that).  What happens is that both of these presidents, President Bush and President Obama, are captured by their parties and a bipartisan commitment to American dominance, to American hegemony, to power projection.  Then they are fueled by ‘information’ coming from the CIA and the Pentagon, that are there for that purpose, for power projection, not to give simple facts or to inform.”

These dynamics are an important driver for many of the disastrously self-damaging foreign policy decisions American presidents have made in the post-Cold War period.  For, as Hillary explains, once a president is “captured and paralyzed by the bipartisan buy-in for dominance,” he is left “without another option.” 

In fact, as Hillary notes, “there is another option, there is a diplomatic way forward, there is conflict resolution.  [Obama] could be not just going to Saudi Arabia and having regional governments that are totally dependent on us for their security—he could have Iran at the table, he could have the Syrian government at the table.  These things are never said to the American public, but they are essential for conflict resolution.  He could go to the United Nations and not just give a speech, but get the Russians to buy in” for a legitimate international effort at conflict resolution.

But that’s not what Obama will do.  Instead, he has Secretary of State John Kerry say that having Iran at the table would be “inappropriate” until Tehran accepts the fatally flawed premises of Washington Syria policy and stops supporting the Assad government.  Moreover, Obama is asking for—and getting—bipartisan support for more U.S. assistance to so-called “moderate” Syrian oppositionists—who, as Hillary points out, “are the rebels who kidnapped Steve Sotloff and sold him to ISIS to be beheaded.  So you have bipartisan buy-in for that.”

Obama’s speech on the Islamic State provides damning testimony as to how little he has done to challenge the foreign policy orthodoxies embodied in the “bipartisan commitment to dominance” described by Hillary.  In his initial presidential campaign, Obama seemed, to some extent, to run against those orthodoxies, which have done so much to weaken America’s international position since it came out of the Cold War as the most powerful state in history.  Now, the public presentation of his Islamic State “strategy” makes all too clear just how thoroughly Obama has embraced them.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Hillary Mann Leverett on U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic State and the Folly of Sanctioning Russia

This weekend, Hillary went on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry  to discuss the Obama administration’s fumbling response to the Islamic State (see here and here or click on videos above) and the West’s rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine (see here or click on videos above).  Regarding the calls for the Obama administration to expand the current U.S. air campaign against IS targets in northern Iraq into Syria as well, Hillary recounts

“I remember a year ago this weekend.  I was on a different program [see here], and I said, ‘Wait a minute.  Don’t go bomb Assad’s military in Syria, because they’re one of the only militaries that’s fighting ISIS.  We’ll essentially be al-Qa’ida or ISIS’ air force if we do so.’  The president was correct, even though he took a lot of backlash, not to bomb Assad’s army last year, and he’s probably correct not to [mount a bombing campaign against ISIS] this year, because that’s exactly what ISIS wants—they want the United States back in, full throttle, to send hundreds of thousands of troops back and make this an all-out war with the United States to take over their swath of the Middle East.”

And, while Obama’s surely more-revealing-than-he-intended acknowledgment, “We don’t have a strategy,” was maladroit in the extreme, Hillary reminds,

“In the Bush administration, we forget, but it took the administration about a month to come up with plans to attack Afghanistan.  They also had no strategy, even though al-Qa’ida had been attacking us for six years, from 1995 on.  We knew al-Qa’ida, we knew Afghanistan, but we had no strategy.

My concern is that the president—and it isn’t just the president, but it’s the entire foreign policy elite and bureaucracy—has not learned a thing since 9/11.  Here we are—we know Iraq, we had 150,000 troops there, we were there for years, we bombed that country for a long time.  We know the situation, and we still don’t have a strategy…

If there were a strategy, it would actually tell the American public the hard things they need to hear, which is that you don’t partner with, align with, have coalitions just with countries that have like-minded, so-called ‘values.’  You deal with countries as they are—like Iran and Assad’s Syria, who are the only governments in the region fighting ISIS.  And to have this policy that keeps them in the ground is enormously destructive to the United States.”

Hillary points out another serious defect in the U.S. policy discussion—namely, political and policy elites’ collective and willful refusal to acknowledge that the Islamic State has popular support:

“A Saudi-funded newspaper, Al Hayat, did a poll in Saudi Arabia, of Saudi public opinion.  They found that 92 percent of Saudis believe that ISIS conforms to their view of Islamic values and Islamic law.  So we have our head in the sand—that this makes no sense, everybody hates [ISIS], and we can recruit our Sunni autocracies as allies to fund even more Sunni militants to deal with this.  That is insane…

[T]o the extent that we support governments, like the Saudi government, that Saudis themselves and ISIL have as their target—their target is to bring down the Saudi government, to bring down the other Gulf autocracies and take over the heart of the Hijaz, Mecca and Medina—to the extent we are sending $60 billion in weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, ISIS has us in their sights.  Remember that the execution of [James] Foley happened not just because they were looking to kill an American, but when we started bombing them in Iraq.  It’s a very deliberate, sophisticated military strategy.”

On Russia and Ukraine, Hillary offers up the critically important but almost universally avoided truth about the self-damaging quality of America’s increasingly promiscuous resort to financial sanctions as a foreign policy tool (a truth that can also be made with reference to U.S. policy toward Iran):

“Not that I would agree to use force, but President Obama preemptively, almost immediately, and repeatedly has taken force off the table, and has said that we’re essentially going to rely on sanctions—sanctions that have not affected Russian calculations, and we have no basis to believe they will affect Russian calculations.  What we do know about sanctions is that it will be extremely counterproductive for us.  It will accelerate the replacement of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.  We’ve seen Russia and China coming closer together, the increase in the Chinese currency, the RMB, [becoming] more accepted internationally.  And once foreigners stop wanting the dollar, we’re done as a superpower.”

But that’s where the flailing and failing American hegemon seems determined to go.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett