Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Wednesday that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq created the extremist group the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Further foreign military presence, he said, will only create new terrorists.
“If you look at the essence of ISIS, it’s the product of foreign invasion,” Zarif said during a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Foreign presence in any territory creates a dynamic for demagogues like ISIS to use the resentment in the population of being occupied.”
He noted that the Islamic State began with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Islamist leader of the anti-American insurgency in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
“As a principle, we do not believe that injection of foreign forces, either air or ground, solves our problem,” he said, adding that the Islamic State “will not be eradicated through aerial bombardment.” Instead, he said, foreign governments should enable Iraqis to fight against ISIS themselves and should cut off all outside support of ISIS.
“We continue to have serious doubts about the willingness and ability of the U.S. to seriously engage this menace across the board –- and not just pick and choose where to engage,” he said, adding that U.S. actions seem to be based on American constituencies rather than what’s best for the people of Iraq and the surrounding region.
Zarif said that the U.S. has been preventing peace in the region by “drawing red lines,” such as saying Iran should not be involved in the coalition against ISIS or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should not be involved. Iran is an ally of Assad and is believed to have previously sent troops to combat the Syrian moderates and keep Assad in office.
A divided U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to arm and train Syrian moderates to fight ISIS, per President Obama’s request. Zarif said the approach would be ineffective.
“People need to be realistic. The so-called Syrians moderates — look at what’s happening on the ground — they control no territory,” he said. “They can have no influence in fighting against either ISIS or the Syrian government.”
The U.S. thus far has refused to align with Assad in the fight against the Islamic State because of human rights violations his regime has committed. Zarif said that makes fighting the Islamic State difficult. “Syria is either controlled by the government or by ISIS. The U.S. cannot effectively fight against both at the same time,” he said.
Diplomats from 26 nations and several international organizations gathered in Paris Monday to divide responsibilities for what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said will be an international assault on the Islamic State. Iran and Syria were not invited, although Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted that he rejected a back-channel U.S. offer of unspecified cooperation against the terrorist group.
In addition to having an ongoing strained relationship with the U.S., Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation, is enemies with Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni and a key ally of the U.S. in the coalition against the Islamic State. Kerry said Monday that the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had told him that if Iran attended the session in Paris, they would boycott it.
Zarif called the coalition to defeat ISIS a “coalition of repenters.” “Most participants in that meeting in one form or another provided support to ISIS … at the end of the day, creating a Frankenstein that came to haunt its creators,” he said. He accused nations of the coalition of providing financial support, safe transit and recruiting grounds for the Islamic State. He didn’t name nations, but wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar have helped fund the group, and Turkey has not stopped thousands of extremists from crossing into Syria.
Extremists, Zarif said, “do not fly into Iraq. They come on foot from somewhere, and they don’t come from Iran. You can look at the addresses, and I believe every location was [represented] around the table in Paris.”
Although Iran is not in the coalition against the Islamic State, Zarif said that it will continue to aid Iraq, upon request, in its fight against the group.