In Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 3 March speech to the US Congress he likened what was happening in the Middle East to the hugely popular American fantasy television series “Game of Thrones”. Presumably his audience were aficionados; they loved the comparison as they cheered Netanyahu on thunderously.
“The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America,” averred Netanyahu. “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.”
For those few who, like myself, have never watched the programme, here is a quick précis of the series and its three interwoven plot lines, courtesy of Wikipedia: “The first narrative arc follows a civil war among several noble houses for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms; the second covers the rising threat of the impending winter and the legendary creatures and fierce peoples of the North; the third chronicles the attempts of the exiled last scion of the realm’s deposed ruling dynasty to reclaim the throne.”
In the world according to Netanyahu, the great threat, what he called “the foremost sponsor of terrorism”, remains Iran. “We must,” he insisted, “stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”
Presumably, then, Iran has the inside track, ahead of ISIS, for the “Iron Throne” of Islamist domination. It is a breathtakingly simplistic and recklessly dangerous reduction of a complex and multi-layered reality and one that ignores the rampant menace that the so-called Islamic State has become.
However, it has to be acknowledged that conflating the threat of Iran and linking that threat to ISIS was a masterstroke by a veteran street fighter who used the politics of fear to secure a surprising election win, thus making him the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history. As Haaretz newspaper’s Carlo Strenger wrote presciently back in February: “Fear has always been Netanyahu’s best friend. Because of the region’s instability and the rise of ISIS, most of Israel’s centre-left policy makers are currently paralysed when it comes to the country’s existential issues. Netanyahu should therefore send letters of thanks to Islamic State, whose members are about to secure him another term in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.”
However, having won the political war, surely now is the time for Netanyahu to drop the fantasy that Iran poses a greater immediate threat to Israel and the region than ISIS. He need look no further than neighbouring Jordan, where the terrorist group has made startling inroads, for the evidence.
Writing this week in Al-Monitor, Mona Alami charts the shift of Salafist jihadists from Jabhat Al-Nusra to ISIS in Jordan. She argues that poverty and the collapse of the middle classes, as taxes rise and cuts to food and fuel subsidies begin to bite, is driving ever more young Jordanians into the deadly embrace of the group.
Elsewhere, in Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and Lebanon, it is clear that ISIS is either winning new supporters or forging useful alliances with other terror groups. Israel, it can be argued, is threatened on all sides by an organisation the ultimate aim of which is not only to seize the Arabian Gulf and with it Islam’s two holiest sites of Makkah and Madinah, but also to ride into Jerusalem and lay claim to the third, Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Making Iran the regional bogeyman while ISIS thrives is therefore an odd strategic choice. After all, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has proved invaluable in the fight to save Iraq and remains an essential though largely unacknowledged ally both for the US-led air campaign and the embattled Iraqi army.
As such, the role that Iran is playing in the degradation and eventual destruction of ISIS — which is a necessary precursor to any stability and any hope for peaceful solutions to the region’s myriad problems — is obvious for anyone to see. Obvious, that is, unless you continue to insist wilfully that the only way to define an unfolding tragedy is through the prism of an American fantasy television series.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.