The Triangle of ISIS, Iran, and the USA

With its suicide attack in Iran, ISIS has showcased the danger it still embodies. Inadvertently, in doing so, it has also furnished its other nemesis, the USA, a rationale to sustain its military forces in Iraq.

And then, abruptly, ISIS re-emerged – or the Islamic State, as the group self-designates. Through a double suicide bombing in Iran, during the mass commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the death of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in his birthplace, Kerman. Nearly ninety individuals lost their lives, and numerous others were wounded.

Yet, the terrorist organization held off on claiming the attack for over a day. Given the ongoing conflict in Gaza and Iranian backing of Hamas, initial suspicions quickly pivoted towards Israel. Notwithstanding Israel’s known modus operandi for targeted assaults on foes (including in Iran), and the fact that suicide bombings are not typically in its repertoire.

When ISIS eventually asserted responsibility, it was met with widespread disbelief. This revelation did not align with the prevailing perceptions. It had to be the Zionists! Allegedly in collusion with the detested opposition faction Mujahideen Khalk! Or perhaps, it was the Iranian government itself, orchestrating events like previous significant attacks, to subsequently cast blame on the opposition or foreign entities. Weren’t high-ranking officials and relatives of Soleimani conspicuously absent, presumably forewarned?

If it indeed was ISIS, then by the logic of the prevalent conspiracy theories in the region, still either Israel or the USA were behind it, as the group is considered an Israeli-American creation. Alternatively: ISIS and Israel execute the plots conceived by the USA. All three have been known to target civilians in Iran and rejoiced at Soleimani’s demise. Thus it’s inferred, they are the culprits.


With the advent of social media and the proliferation of fake news, the number of conspiracy theories in the region has surged. In the absence of knowledge and reliable information, all kinds of explanations are embraced, the more complex, the more appealing. Sensational news often trumps the mundane reality.

Furthermore, many incorrectly believe that ISIS has been relegated to the past. Post the decisive defeat at Baghouz in 2017, global media’s dwindling interest led to a widespread ignorance of the group’s persistent global activities. No longer controlling a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it still sees regular apprehensions of its leaders and affiliates.

According to BBC Monitoring, ISIS’s activities have diminished. For 2023, a reduction to half of its previous year’s activities is recorded. The group claimed responsibility for a total of 838 worldwide attacks last year, a steep decline from over 1800 the year before. Having lost three leaders within a year to targeted strikes, the current leadership operates clandestinely.

Yet, they remain active. In Iraq, ISIS claimed 141 attacks last year, and 112 in Syria. There was a foiled plan to attack the Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Day with a car bomb, as part of a series of ISIS attacks during the Christmas holidays in Europe. This was prevented by arrests in the Netherlands and Germany.


An ISIS spokesperson, shortly before the attacks in Iran, urged all followers to target Israeli and Jewish sites in the US and Europe, retaliating for the Gaza conflict. The campaign’s motto, a Quranic verse, states: ‘And kill them wherever you find them’. ISIS has since claimed responsibility for about thirty attacks in various countries under this banner.

The Kerman attack was also part of the campaign. ISIS is desperately seeking activities that can be exploited for propaganda. It aims to replenish its thinning ranks and assert its presence, especially against its rival, Al-Qaeda.

Is it not peculiar for ISIS to strike in Iran, a supporter of its brother group Hamas? Primarily, ISIS is the most anti-Shiite among Salafist groups, viewing Shiites as apostates. It has executed numerous attacks on Shiite targets, such as the double attack in June 2017 on Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb and the Iranian parliament in Tehran. Also the September 2018 attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, and the October 2022 shooting at a shrine in Shiraz.

The attack during the commemoration of Soleimani fits this pattern, particularly since the general played a key role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. His success in uniting Shiite militias there was instrumental in ISIS’s ultimate defeat.


Furthermore, the animosity between ISIS and Hamas is notable. Despite sharing a radical Sunni doctrine and matching brutality, they revile each other. ISIS believes in fighting for global Salafist Islam dominance, while the Palestinians focus on their statehood and expelling Israelis from their land.

ISIS abhors Sunni Hamas’s financial and operational reliance on a Shiite regime. The group accuses Tehran of manipulating Palestinian groups to ‘lead the Palestinian scene and portray itself as Palestine’s savior and defender’. They claim Tehran employs Sunnis (like Hamas) to extend its regional influence, coupled with its proxies’ anti-Israeli and anti-American assaults.

However, the ISIS strike in Iran has the curious effect of benefiting Americans and even Israel. The trio finds a shared adversary in Iran. The attack furnished the Americans in Iraq with a justification for not yet disbanding the anti-ISIS coalition.

Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are pushing for American troop withdrawal by targeting their bases. This has led to American retaliations on Iraqi militia leaders accountable for these strikes. As a result, the call for American withdrawal from Iraq has intensified to the extent that Prime Minister Sudani has tasked a committee to explore this possibility.


The official rationale for American troops in Iraq is Baghdad’s request for aid against ISIS. This battle is largely over, with ISIS nearly eradicated from Iraq, save a few cells, prompting calls for troop withdrawal from pro-Iranian Shiites. This sentiment is echoed by Lebanese Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, and some Iraq experts believe the American presence only legitimizes the Iraqi militias.

Many Iraqis, however, fear that this withdrawal might upset a critical balance, potentially empowering Iran and its Iraqi militias. Tehran’s objective is clear. At the same time, the aftermath of President Obama’s 2011 troop withdrawal – leading to Al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the eventual rise of ISIS – remains a cautionary tale.

Paradoxically, ISIS’s attack in Iran has inadvertently armed the proponents of an American stay in Iraq with new arguments. It has underscored the persistent threat ISIS represents, a reality even Iran can no longer ignore.

Total: € -