The Guardian – Tehran Bureau correspondent
Merila, 30, has no love for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but she is so alarmed by the Sunni Muslim militants battling to control neighbouring Iraq that she wants her country’s military to bring the fight to them or risk war at home.
Merila teaches English to young children in a day-care centre in Saadatabad, west Tehran, but her usual peace of mind has deserted her. “Isis is really frightening, and I’m scared,” she said. “I feel like they could pose a serious threat to us.”
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, follows a virulent form of Sunni Islam that is deeply hostile to Shi’ism, the majority sect in both Iraq and Iran. Isis has publicised its execution of Shia Muslims after its capture of cities in northern Iraq including Mosul, the country’s second largest.
In pressing on towards Baghdad, Isis has threatened the Iraqi government, which is led by Shia Muslim parties and which has turned to its ally Iran, as well as the United States, for help.
For many Iranians, events have brought back memories of the “imposed war” of 1980-88 when Saddam Hussein unleashed Iraq’s powerful army against Iran. Even those not old enough to remember air-raids and mass casualties at the front have grown up in a society scarred by that conflict.
Merila’s attire – a blue manteau open in the front and tight, grey pants – diverges from the Islamic clothing advocated by Iran’s religious leaders. The Revolutionary Guard was established after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 with the mission of defending the Islamic Revolution, but Merila has no hesitation in suggestion they should be deployed in Iraq rather than wait for Isis to enter Iran. “Personally I don’t like the Revolutionary Guard,” she says. “But when our territorial integrity is at stake, what choice do we have?”
Fear of Isis is bringing a rare meeting of minds between more liberal-minded citizens like Merila and ayatollahs such as Naser Makarem Shirazi, who has called on his website for a jihad (‘holy war’) “in defence of the integrity of Iraq and especially its sacred [Shia] shrines”.
Shirazi identified Isis militants and their supporters as “heretical traitors” and warned that, if necessary, “millions of citizens” from surrounding countries should descend upon Iraq as a “brave people’s army” to fight them.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme political leader, is approaching the situation with caution, merely asking that the United States not enter the conflict. Khamenei has declared that Iraq’s “government and people … along with its religious leaders, have the full capability required to put an end to all attempts at sedition.” In conference with leading members of the judiciary, Khamenei accused US officials of trying to frame the current conflict as solely the result of religious beliefs and rejected the notion that Iraq is experiencing “a war between Sunnis and Shi’ites”.
By moderating their statements on the religious dimensions of the conflict in Iraq, Khamenei and others may hope to avoid attracting the increased ire of Isis, who have already declared their hostility to Iran’s Islamic republic.
But this is not convincing everyone. Mashreq News, a site linked to Iranian conservatives, recently published a story on anti-Iranian and anti-Shi’ite Tweets from Isis. “Let it be known to the heretics that our goal is the total destruction of the tainted [Shia] shrines in Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra [in Iraq],” one such Tweet read. “Know that after we have levelled these sites, our next target is Iran, where we will flatten Mashhad cleanly to the ground.”
Mashhad, in the east of Iran, is the country’s second-largest metropolitan area and home to the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the 12 Imams whom Shia, but not Sunnis, believe were the rightful successors to the Prophet Mohammad. Militant Sunnis like Isis decry the Shia practice of venerating these Imams with elaborate shrines.
Ehsan, a 50-year-old member of the board of trustees for a well-known mosque on Karim Khan Street in Tehran, sports a heavy salt and pepper beard and white robes. Following afternoon prayers he said Isis’s behaviour raises questions about the group’s Islamic credentials.
“I don’t believe that Isis are real Muslims,” he said. “Our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters would never dream of disrespecting our holy sites, let alone fellow Muslims. This is pure savagery, and I’m sure that many from our congregation would rally in defence of our holy sites in Iraq. I knew boys from our mosque between 15 and 20 years of age who didn’t shy away from taking up arms against Saddam during the war with Iraq.”
Hashem, a member of the Basij paramilitary forces who is four terms into an electrical engineering degree, chimes in: “All we need is one word from our leader.” By “leader” he means Ayatollah Khamenei, who alone has the authority to issue such a war decree.
Still, more moderate voices can be heard. Kiomars, currently serving his mandatory military service as a pharmacist in an army hospital, sees benefits in a measured Iranian intervention: “I think if Isis’s campaign in Iraq is successful – and I give that a good chance – then they will attack Iran as well. That’s why Iran should maintain some kind of presence in Iraq. I just hope that such a presence doesn’t ultimately prevent the Iraqi people from taking their country’s destiny into their own hands.”
But even short of an attack on Iran, Kiomars fears Iran losing a “regional ally” should Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki be toppled, or if Iraq splits into three. He is also concerned this would represent a victory for Saudi Arabia, the Sunni state that sees Iran as a strategic rival if not threat. For Kiomars, the Revolutionary Guards, and particularly Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force, the Guards’ overseas arm, need to “enter the fray….[as] the most strategic move at this point.”
But Yousef, a construction engineer, said the experience of the 1980-88 war with Iraq should give Iranians greater confidence in the country’s strength. “Even if the Iraqi government falls and an unholy alliance between the Isis and the Baath party [formerly led by Saddam] takes over,” he said, “our national security will not be threatened. Saddam, with his might, with his iron fist, with his entire country unified behind him and his terrifying army, left not a damn scratch on us.”
Merila, the day-care English teacher, expressed another fear, one that the authorities are very reluctant to acknowledge: that Iranian Sunni militants with a similar ideology to Isis might take inspiration from their success.
Merila referred to Sistan-Baluchestan, the mainly Sunni province in south-east Iran where a low-level insurgency has been running for years and has continued despite the capture and execution in 2010 of Abdolmalek Rigi, leader of a group called Jundullah. “This area is definitely predisposed to supporting a group like Isis,” she said, “as the government has been suppressing Sunni Muslims there for years.”
Thousands of Iranians took part in a social media campaign earlier this year after Jaysh ol-Adl, an offshoot of Jundullah, captured five Iranian border guards. On this occasion four were released – with the fate of the fifth still uncertain – but in earlier incidents captives were beheaded.
Such threats, Marila said, reinforce the urgent case for Iranian intervention in Iraq against Isis. “What’s going to happen if these people make it into our cities and they find supporters among our own citizens?”