There are thousands of differences between Khomeini's regime in Iran and ISIS: in their nature, rise, structure, representation and ideology… With that, they share an essential similarity: their projects' emergence is tied to the implosion of the projects that dominated the Arab Levant.
The 1979 Khomeinist revolution succeeded a gradual two-decade-long collapse that struck all of the Arab world's political and ideological icons, especially those of the Levant:
- Arab unity was dealt its fatal blow with the collapse of the "United Arab Republic", as Syria seceded from it in 1961. Despite the abundance of subsequent attempts and projects aimed at establishing unity, none materialized. They were replaced by occupations with Saddam's Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the imposition of hegemony with that of Assad’s Syria’s on Lebanon.
- Socialism signified the state capitalism ruled by a stern security apparatus. The authorities utilized it to strengthen their grip on their societies and extend their network of control to areas and groups that had managed to maintain a degree of independence. In the mid-1970s, Anwar Sadat let go of that socialism; then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, which prompted the gradual shift to neoliberalism in Syria and elsewhere.
- The page on liberating Palestine was turned after 1967, and it was replaced by "retrieving the lands occupied by Israel." The Palestinian resistance's attempts to bring the old slogan back to the forefront ended with civil wars and, in 1982, an Israeli invasion. After that, in Tunisia, the Palestinian struggle became political, and it came to aim obtaining a state neighboring the Jewish state.
- Opposing Western policies also withered away after Nasserism's decline, which preceded Nasser's death. The Palestinian resistance gradually became moderate. Hafez al-Assad stood by the international coalition to liberate Kuwait and reached a compromise on Lebanon with the Americans. Saddam waged his war against Iran with Western support in the 1980s, and it is not without its indications that this same war became Iran’s widest bridge into the depth of the Levant.
Arab political culture, naturally, was the last to absorb the implication of these developments. The old rhetoric of struggle was and continues to be rehashed. The first to realize this and rush to seek inheritance was Khomeinist Iran, which was, as a cohesive central authority, equipped to do so.
Of course, Khomeinist Iran cannot, as a non-Arab state, inherit the call to Arab unity. As a state that claims to adhere to an Islamic economic philosophy, it also cannot inherit the call to socialism. But it plunged into the Palestinian cause and fighting Western influence, which it framed in Islamic terms.
In this, Khomeinism benefited from several factors: it benefited from the collapse of what had remained of Iraq after the 2003 war, after which the Iraqis became busy with complex and bloody pursuits aimed at shaping the post-Saddam era.
It benefited from the dramatic rise of the issue of sectarian, religious and ethnic identities, and it contributed to the cementation of this rise. The clearest manifestation of this is the emergence of militant Shiite factions in Iraq and Lebanon, some of which had been directly created by Iran.
Tehran also benefited from the meekness of the Syrian regime and the Palestinian resistance movements (Hamas, Islamic Jihad…) which were in desperate need of a savior. And it benefited from a mix of despair, innocence and the regression to the past within cultural milieus in the Levant that found, in the new regime, something to sustain themselves and keep the past alive.
Just as Khomeini's role in the Levant was born out of the failure of coups, their regimes and their propaganda, "ISIS" and its siblings were similarly born out of the failure of revolutions and their promises. True, it would be impossible to pin the emergence of this horror machine down to a single factor, but the despondency in the Arab world, especially the Levant, is undoubtedly among the main factors that made this shift possible.
This collective dejection, which was accompanied by civil strife and violence's replacement of civil and peaceful transformation, was a precious gift to former prisoners, who channeled their deprivation of freedom into inflicting cruel punishments on every moving being or object in this world. Rising upward, to revolution, was impossible, and so began the descent to ISIS.
If empowering Iranian influence is Tehran's final goal, another form of empowerment took hold over ISIS and its behavior: invading territory and establishing a caliphate in it. Instead of changing a regime, ISIS gave Salafists all over the world the chance to make their "migration" to a country that claims total purity. Improving residents' living conditions, then, is not relevant. What is essential is enhancing the implementation of religion as ISIS understands it.
Thus, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an existential need for Soleimani to the same extent that Soleimani was an existential need for Baghdadi. Each of them chose the enemy that suits him: fighting one another affirmed the legitimacy of each one's confessional representation and his entitlement to inheriting that massive number of failed projects, the good and the wicked, which the Arab Levant had known.
Their catastrophic roles were born out of our collapse and the void we found ourselves in.