Iran Takes New Measures to Fight ISIS

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Iranians shout slogans during a protest against the Sunni Arab militants offensive led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq on June 24, 2014 in Tehran.
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Iran is taking its own measures to fight against ISIS and the threat that it poses for not just Iraq, but for the region. It's presenting a rare moment in time where the United States and Iran seem to share a similar goal.

In recent days, Iran has stepped forward with aid, overseeing secret surveillance drone missions over Iraq and sending transport plans with military equipment and supplies to Baghdad. And back in Tehran, hundreds of Iranians rallied in the streets earlier this week in support of their Shiite neighbors.

Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd, author of "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran," says in stepping forward to offer aid, Iran has carefully avoided framing the situation as a sectarian divide.

"It's very important for the Iranians for [the crisis] not to become a sectarian issue because Iran needs the so-called 'Arab street' to be sympathetic to Iran, and not be hostile to it as it has been in recent years," says Majd.

Majd says that Iran never allow "Shiite holy sites to fall to ISIS or any other group that has proclaimed they will destroy them."

While Iran could become a neutral military protector of Shiite holy sites, Majd says it could only happen in the unlikely event that Iraq splinters.

"I don't think Iran wants to be seen in that role, at least certainly not yet because again, I think it points to a sectarian and an ethnic issue that the Iranians don't really want to get involved in," he adds.

While there are some shared interests, conflicts between Arab Iraqi Shiites and Persian Iranian Shiites continue to persist.

"We do have to remember that when Iran fought an eight year war with Iraq, the vast majority of the soldiers fighting Iran were Shiite," Majd explains. "So there is no illusion among Iranians or among Iraqis that the Shiites of Iraq and Shiites of Iran, just because they are from the same sect, are bosom buddies."

Ultimately, Iran wants to avoid turmoil in Iraq and protect its territory from groups like ISIS. Additionally, Iran also wants to avoid aligning itself with Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's stance against forming a new, more inclusive government.

"It is a purely vengeful sectarian position that Maliki has taken, and I think Iran is not comfortable with that—I think they've made it clear to Maliki, although he is still an ally of Iran," Majd says

Iran is working to aid Iraq and maintain a good relationship with Maliki, without putting its own population at risk.

"Iran has a Sunni population of its own, it has a Kurdish population of its own. It has Arabs in the south of Iran," says Majd. "There is no interest for Iran to encourage a sectarian issue here." 

But the sectarian issue is difficult to ignore, especially for Shiites in the Iraqi government who spent their exile years in Iran.

"This is a country where the iron fist of Saddam Hussein came down most hard on Shiites, as we know from history."

For Iran, trying to protect religious heritage without bringing attention to the religious divide is a delicate balance

As Majd says, "Iran would like to see a stable Iraq to the extent that Iraq can be stable. But I certainly would agree that they will never allow the Shiite holy sites to be overrun by Sunnis."