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London Anti-Extremism Conference Must Challenge the Role of Iran

27/01/2015 15:23 GMT | Updated 28/03/2015 09:59 GMT

On Thursday, London hosted a major conference to discuss the ISIS threat and strategies for confronting Islamic extremism around the globe. Unfortunately, this conference took place about a week after Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama together expressed support for Obama's commitment to oppose congressional efforts to define new economic sanctions that would be triggered if Iran's Islamic theocracy continue to frustrate international efforts to reach a comprehensive deal over its nuclear programme.

Naturally, Prime Minister Cameron's and President Obama's meeting also focused on the broader issue of Islamic extremism, especially in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris during the previous week. But the two leaders' joint commitment to some watered-down conciliation suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the root causes of the growth of extremism in the Middle East and beyond. One can only hope that last week's conference will have corrected some of the faults in the UK government's policies; but if previous attempts are anything to go by, they are unlikely to have done other than give further encouragement to the incorrigible Mullahs' regime.

Concurrently, the Global Diplomatic Forum leaps on the bandwagon with its one-day Conference entitled "Iran's Re-Engagement with the International Community and its impact on Geopolitics in the Middle East". Apparently no preconditions, no current assessments - just well-intentioned public figures with a dangerously narrow-minded view of the Middle-East.

So what needs to happen if these two conferences are to lead to a comprehensive solution? First and foremost, they need to truly focus on the problem of extremism as a whole, not solely on the ISIS threat as the most prominent example of it. ISIS is a symptom; it is not the disease. And if the participants in these conferences fail to understand that they run the risk of prescribing a solution that alleviates one symptom while exacerbating another.

Both Leaders, in the US and the UK, have, apparently, decided that as long as the headline-grabbing ISIS militants are defeated, virtually any partnership or strategy is justified. Iran is, despite its outrageous interventions in Iraq during the Nouri al-Maliki term in Government, viewed by some as a militarily asset that can oppose the establishment of a Sunni caliphate in its neighbourhood.

But that is only true if Western powers are merely standing against that one specific entity, and not against the overall threat of violent Islamic extremism. If the latter is our true opponent, as last week's conference in London underscored, then it does us no good to dislodge one extremist threat - a Sunni one - by strengthening the position of its Shiite competitor.

Iran's Shiite influence on Iraq and Syria has already been well recognised. In the past month, at least three high-ranking officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been killed there. These are representatives of a hard-line paramilitary organisation that has virtually taken control of the war against ISIS by relying on volunteer forces and Shiite militias, impelling them to commit human rights abuses that rival those committed by ISIS.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reports that there are some thousands IRGC forces active in Iraq today. There should be no doubt that their influence is deepening the sectarian dimensions of the current conflict, and that this is as effective as anything else at driving recruitment for extremists not just within ISIS, but on both sides of the divide.

It would be extremely naïve to think that the broader problem will go away simply when ISIS is destroyed. A significant ISIS threat did not even exist in Iraq until Iran's support allowed the government of Nouri al-Maliki to consolidate power into the hands of a Shiite Cabal, alienating Sunnis from public life and driving some of them into the arms of extremist groups. If someday ISIS ceases to be an option, these same people will find another outlet for their defiance. The best outcome we can hope for, then, is one in which an inclusive, secular Iraqi government provides a safe, workable administration for Iraqis of every shade and complexion.

This may seem like a difficult thing to achieve, but strategy conferences like the one in London last week could have helped to outline the way forward. Yet, they will only serve that purpose if they do not begin from the faulty premise or misunderstanding of the problem. An inclusive Iraqi society is simply impossible so long as Tehran, a Shiite theocracy and leading exporter of sectarian conflict and terrorism, remains as an influential participant in the ongoing conflict. Therefore, one of the first stated goals of Western policy against extremism in the Middle East must be to expel the Iranian regime from Iraq, and from Syria as well.

Allowing Iran to continue to meddle and systematically advance its position in these countries will only exacerbate the sectarian aspects of these civil wars in Iraq and Syria. And by cooperating with Iran and refusing to rein it in, Western powers have effectively tied the hands of moderating influences in the region like the Free Syrian Army and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). By so doing, they have not only failed to resolve the sectarian conflict, they have illogically suppressed those alternative ideologies that can make sectarianism and extremism less attractive within Muslim societies.