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Rival Islamic States: ISIS v Iran

Rival Islamic States: ISIS v Iran

By Cameron Glenn and Garrett Nada

The following is a four-part series comparing the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the surface, the two have the same goal – a pure, idealized government based on Sharia law. Yet the two Islamic systems differ in political systems, economic life, culture and, most of all, the role of religion.

Part 1 -Rival Islamic States: ISIS v Iran 

Part 2 -Rival Political Visions: ISIS v Iran 

Part 3 -Rival Islamic Leaders: ISIS v Iran 

Part 4 -Rivals on Women and Minorities: ISIS v Iran 


Rival Islamic States: ISIS v Iran

The Islamic world is rife with political diversity, from ultraconservative monarchies to new democracies. But two places reflect the escalating rivalry over an ideal Islamic state in the 21st century: The Islamic Republic of Iran, predominantly Shiite, was born of a revolution against centuries of monarchical rule. The Islamic State, purely Sunni, was born out of war in the modern nations of Iraq and Syria.

On the surface, the two have the same goal – a pure, idealized government based on Sharia law. Both have global visions. Yet the two Islamic systems differ in political systems, economic life, culture and, most of all, the role of religion. They are also now enemies that basically want to destroy each other. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, regards Shiites as apostates who should be killed to pave the way for a purer form of Islam. Iran views ISIS as a terrorist group and has taken a leading role in confronting the Islamic State.


The ISIS "caliphate," declared in July 2014, practices a rigid Salafi interpretation of Sharia. It has no constitution. No country recognizes its borders, which include about one third of both Syria and Iraq. It has vowed to fight any state or group that does not share its rigid worldview. It is a member of no international organizations. It persecutes all other faiths and forces conversion. Its economy relies on smuggling oil, extortion, kidnapping and financial aid from Salafi supporters in the Arab world.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, which celebrates its 36th anniversary this week, is predominantly Shiite. It has a republican constitution, which blends Napoleonic laws from France and Belgium with Islamic law, although its human rights violations, economic corruption and social discrimination are well-documented by international watchdogs. It has recognized borders. It is a member of the United Nations and several international organizations. It recognizes most (but not all) other faiths and provides proportionate representation in parliament. The economy relies heavily on energy and international trade.

Laws and Courts

ISIS has no rule of law or due process by international standards. It carries out the most severe forms of punishment allowed under Islamic law, known as hudud. Common practices include flogging, stoning and amputation. It carries out executions, sometimes in public, by beheading, crucifixion and even burying or burning prisoners alive. It has engaged in mass executions, some broadcast on social media. It takes foreign hostages, particularly aid workers and foreign journalists.

Iran has a constitution that lays out legal rights for its citizens and a sophisticated court system for criminal and civil trials. But additional courts for anti-Islamic behavior allow for prosecution and imprisonment on vague charges. Iran allows lengthy detention without charges or access to lawyers; some detainees have died in jail. It has detained foreigners too; it held 52 American diplomats 444 days shortly after the revolution. The penal code practices hudud, including stoning. Executions tend to be hangings, sometimes in public. More than 600 people were reportedly executed in Iran in 2014, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate.

Global goals

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (left) has vowed that Muslims around the world should be united “under a single flag and goal.” ISIS is aggressively trying to conquer territory. It has called on Muslims worldwide to either immigrate to the Islamic State or pledge allegiance to it. Militant groups in more than 10 countries, including Libya, Egypt and Algeria, have publicly declared support for the Islamic State.

In the revolution’s early days, Iran ambitiously sought to export its revolutionary ideology among both Shiites and Sunnis. It particularly condemned monarchies. "We shall export our revolution to the whole world," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pledged. "Until the cry 'there is no god but God' resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle." But Iran’s only territorial dispute is with the United Arab Emirates over three small islands in the Gulf. It instead cultivates spheres of influence in Shiite communities, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, although its goal has not been to gain territory. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into groups with common causes, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Authority.


The Islamic State has forced females back behind the veil and actively discouraged them from education, work and even appearing in public. It actively recruits women to move to the territories of Iraq and Syria it now controls. Ten percent of its Western recruits are reportedly female. Jihadist social media portray the Islamic State as an idyllic Islamic society and an alternative to life in the West. But media accounts and testimony of women who have escaped indicate women experience violence, rape, forced marriage, and general repression.

In Iran, women have opportunities in higher education, most professions and high-ranking political positions. They hold seats in parliament, run their own businesses, attend universities and participate in (segregated) sports. They are mandated to wear modest Islamic dress, although styles are not as restrictive, and women do not need a male escort to leave their homes. According to the constitution, “the government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria.” But women face serious discrimination in areas such as divorce, inheritance, and child custody. A woman, regardless of her age, needs her male guardian’s consent for marriage. Women also require permission to obtain a passport and travel abroad.

Iranian women are educated, capable & powerful. In this Gov. we're hoping to ensure equal opportunity

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 2, 2013


The Islamic State has little tolerance for religious minorities. It has tried to cleanse its territory of people it deems unbelievers, including Shiites and non-Muslims. It has reportedly killed hundreds of Shiites and Yazidis, among others. The militants have also destroyed property belonging to minority groups, including ancient holy sites. In late 2014, ISIS distributed a pamphlet attempting to justify the kidnapping, enslavement, and rape of non-Muslim women and children.

Iran has not attempted to wholesale convert, expel or kill its religious minorities. The constitution provides for representation of Armenians, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Some minorities are considered “People of the Book” and are thus entitled to protection and some autonomy in religious practices. But Baha’is are not protected under the law, are not allowed to practice their faith, and have faced persistent persecution.


ISIS has been hit hard since a U.S.-led international coalition launched airstrikes in August 2014 to back up local militias in Iraq and Syria. The United States claims more than 6,000 ISIS fighters have been killed, although ISIS has also recruited more than 20,000 foreign fighters to supplement its local forces. Short-term, ISIS appears capable of holding large swaths of territory, with support from Sunnis who feel marginalized by the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. However, its long-term viability is uncertain.

Iran has had tense relations with the Sunni countries, notably Saudi Arabia, and the West since the 1979 revolution. But since October 2013, Iran has engaged in intense diplomacy with six major powers – the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia– on its controversial nuclear program. Despite international sanctions and frequent diplomatic showdowns over the years, Western nations no longer consider supporting regime change in Tehran.

This article originally appeared on Newsweek.

Photo credits: Supreme Leaders Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei via


Rival Political Visions: ISIS v Iran

Despite their similar names, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria represent two distinct visions of an ideal state based on the faith. They have more differences than similarities in politics, economic life, culture and, most of all, how they blend politics and religion.

The disparity between ISIS and Iran largely derives from their particular interpretations of Islam. ISIS, like al Qaeda and other jihadi groups, espouses a militant Salafi ideology. Despite its use of modern weaponry and social media, its members largely look to the seventh century for inspiration.

Post-revolution Iran, on the other hand, is the product of innovation by late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who crafted a political system not entirely theocratic nor entirely republican. As a result, approaches to governance in the two places starkly contrast with each other.

The Islamic State and Iran have at least one thing in common, however. Both fall short of the idyllic visions they profess. Both have engaged in political inequities, human rights violations, economic corruption and social discrimination. Iran ranks poorly on these issues compared to most other countries, but its people generally enjoy much more freedom than those living under ISIS control.

The Islamic State

The ISIS experiment in blending Islam and politics remains in its infancy. The movement emerged from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, founded in 2004. It rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006. The “surge” of U.S. troops in 2007 drove the group from its strongholds, killing and imprisoning many of its core members. But it made a comeback when Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011. The group changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013.

ISIS began capturing Iraqi territory in 2013. By January 2014, the group had established a de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. In June 2014, ISIS launched an offensive that seized large swaths of territory across northern Syria and Iraq. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared a caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq, rebranding the group the Islamic State.

ISIS has yet to present a detailed plan for governing the towns and cities under its control. But it has established a basic bureaucracy in its territories, with institutions based on its interpretation of Islam.


Iran’s experiment with political Islam dates back to the 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It brought together a full range of political factions, including leftists, nationalists and Islamists. Iran’s revolutionary constitution reflects the mix. Governance must be compliant with Sharia, or Islamic law, and it vests ultimately authority in the hands of the clerics. But day-to-day rule is based on republican institutions that include separate branches of executive, legislative and judicial branches. Both the presidency and parliament are popularly elected. The push and pull between Islam and democracy has been and continues to be central to Iranian politics.

Iran’s political system is based on Shiism. Shiites only account for 10 to 13 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, but 90 percent of Iranians are Shiite. Shiism as practiced in Iran awards clerics the power to interpret between God and man; it emphasizes obedience to their rulings, or fatwas, on religious matters. Today, Iran is the modern theocracy ruled by clerics.

Iran has not fought an overt offensive war in centuries. Its eight-year war with Iraq was a result of President Saddam Hussein’s invasion. “We have never expanded for the last 300 years, almost three centuries. Iran has not waged a war against anybody,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif emphasized in a 2014 interview with NPR.

The following is a rundown of key parallels and differences based on ISIS publications and Iran’s constitution.


ISIS and Iran both describe the state as an entity embodying a pure, idealized form of Islam. The state is not supposed to serve the interests of any particular individual or group. But ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria and the clerical establishment in Iran have benefited disproportionately compared to other sectors of society.


The Islamic State

The Islamic Republic of Iran

“By Allah’s grace – you have a state and Khilafah, which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership. It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers. It is a Khilafah that gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribi (North African), American, French, German, and Australian. Allah brought their hearts together, and thus, they became brothers by His grace, loving each other for the sake of Allah, standing in a single trench, defending and guarding each other, and sacrificing themselves for one another. Their blood mixed and became one, under a single flag and goal, in one pavilion, enjoying this blessing, the blessing of faithful brotherhood.”  - Speech by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

In practice:

Baghdadi describes a utopian Islamic society encompassing Muslims of all ethnicities. The influx of foreign fighters to the Islamic State seems to reflect this global orientation, as more than 20,000 militants from 80 countries have reportedly flocked to Syria.

But reports suggest that life in the Islamic State is not as idyllic as its leaders claim. Foreign fighters occupy many of the top administrative posts in the bureaucracy, generating resentment among Syrians. ISIS fighters also reportedly benefit disproportionately from the collection of taxes, receiving generous salaries and benefits from tax revenues without being required to contribute to them.

“In the view of Islam, government does not derive from the interests of a class, nor does it serve the domination of an individual or a group. It represents rather the crystallization of the political ideal of a people who bear a common faith and common outlook, taking an organized form in order to initiate the process of intellectual and ideological evolution towards the final goal, i.e., movement towards Allah. Our nation, in the course of its revolutionary developments, has cleansed itself of the dust and impurities that accumulated during the taghuti [idol-worshipping] past and purged itself of foreign ideological influences, returning to authentic intellectual standpoints and world-view of Islam. It now intends to establish an ideal and model society on the basis of Islamic norms.”

In practice:

Iran’s constitution lays out an idyllic vision that does not serve the interests of any particular group. But in reality, a few groups have disproportionately benefited from the system. The clerical establishment has grown rich and powerful since 1979. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for example, reportedly controls a multi-billion financial empire.

The Revolutionary Guards have steadily gained control over large sectors of the economy since the 1990s, including energy, telecommunications, construction, banking and finance. The policies of the Ahmadinejad administration (2005-2013) led to privatization of the largely state-run economy that particularly benefitted companies associated with the Revolutionary Guards. The Guards, likely the most powerful economic actor in Iran, also control many charitable foundations (bonyads) that are tax-exempt and largely unregulated by the government.

Laws and Courts

The nascent ISIS court system and Iran’s penal code are both based on sharia. ISIS carries out the most severe forms of punishment under Islamic law, known as hudud. Lashings, stonings, amputations, and executions, as well as mass killings of religious minorities are common. Iran may be less brutal and indiscriminate in doling out punishments, but its penal code also includes the hudud. Iran also has a more sophisticated court system.


The Islamic StateThe Islamic Republic of Iran

“[Courts] govern by the laws of God, implement the hudud punishments, ensure rights, and extend justice; dozens of cases are dealt with daily, and it is based upon a legal and administrative cadre” - ISIS report on the Aleppo province (translation via Institute for the Study of War)

“We treat people by what is shown to us by their actions and their devotion to Islam. Our actions are based on unequivocal evidence and not based on supposition and questionable premises.” - From an ISIS city charter

“Individuals under our rule are safe and are supported under Islamic law, where their individual rights are preserved and justice is served to protect the oppressed.” - From an ISIS city charter

In practice:

ISIS began establishing courts in July 2013, and has since expanded its judicial system. The group’s bureaucracy also includes local police forces and religious police.

ISIS has conducted lashings, stonings, amputations, and executions for a wide range of violations, including adultery, theft, and apostasy.

While the total number of ISIS executions has not been verified, A U.N. report estimates that ISIS militants killed 8,493 civilians in Iraq alone in 2014. The group claimed to have executed 1,700 Shiites in a single incident, after seizing a prison outside Mosul in June.

The group’s bureaucracy also includes local police forces and religious police, known as al Hisba, who conduct regular patrols to crack down on religious offenses like insulting God or conducting business transactions during prayer time. As of July 2014, there were more than a dozen Hisba offices in Raqqa and Aleppo that had logged hundreds of violations.

“The judiciary is of vital importance in safeguarding the rights of the people in accordance with the line followed by the Islamic movement, and the prevention of deviations within the Islamic nation. Provision has therefore been made for the creation of a judicial system based on Islamic justice and operated by just judges with meticulous knowledge of the Islamic laws.

Article 32

“No one may be arrested except by the order and in accordance with the procedure laid down by law…

Article 34

“It is the indisputable right of every citizen to seek justice by recourse to competent courts. All citizens have right of access to such courts, and no one can be barred from courts to which he has a legal right of recourse.

Article 35

“Both parties to a lawsuit have the right in all courts of law to select an attorney, and if they are unable to do so, arrangements must be made to provide them with legal counsel.”

In practice:

Iran’s legal system includes many layers of civil, criminal and military courts. But it also has two sets of tribunals outside of the judiciary, the Revolutionary Courts and the Special Court for the Clergy. The latter has been used as a political tool to silence clerics who urge reform or challenge the regime.

Amputation, flogging and stoning to death are all legal according to Iran’s penal code. The code’s latest iteration, which entered into force in 2013, “now omits references to apostasy, witchcraft and heresy, but continues to allow for juvenile executions,” according to a U.N. report.

The death penalty applies to a wide range of crimes, including drug-related offenses, adultery, rape, sodomy, insulting the Prophet Mohammad and crimes against national security. Iran has seen a sharp rise in executions during the past few years. More than 600 people were reportedly executed in Iran in 2014, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate.

In addition to a regular police force, Iran also has a volunteer paramilitary organization operating under the Revolutionary Guards. The Basij Resistance Force is responsible for supplementing internal security forces, law enforcement and morals policing. The ubiquitous group has a claimed membership of 12.6 million, but perhaps only 1 million are combat capable. And the number of full-time, uniformed and active members may be less than 100,000. The Basij played an important role the anti-government protests following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

Global Aspirations

Both ISIS and Iran seek to export their forms of Islamic governance. ISIS has attempted to globalize its influence by calling on Muslims around the world to migrate to the Islamic State or pledge allegiance to it. Militants from more than ten countries, including Libya, Egypt and Algeria, have publicly sworn allegiance to it.

Image -- The Islamic State's link in N. #Sinai, Jamaat Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis.

— Flashpoint Partners (@FlashpointIntel) January 30, 2015

After the devastating war with Iraq from 1980-1988, Tehran gradually scaled back its efforts to export its brand of Islamic revolution. It has aided groups with common causes, like Palestinian Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran has also cultivated spheres of influence in Shiite communities elsewhere, such as Afghanistan. But the goal has not been to gain territory for the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic State

The Islamic Republic of Iran

“The Islamic State is facing a growing list of enemies, and it further underscores the fact that the lines are being drawn and the camps of īmān (believers) and kufr (non-believers) are both being cleansed. This will eventually lead to a camp of kufr with no trace of īmān, and a camp of īmān with no trace of hypocrisy, as per the statement of the Prophet...all parties will soon be forced to make a choice between the two.” - Issue # 4 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine

“With this declaration of the caliphate, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Caliph Ibrahim and support him…The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.”- Spokesman Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, "This is the Promise of Allah"

“If you cannot perform hijrah for whatever extraordinary reason, then try in your location to organize bay’āt (pledges of allegiance) to the Khalīfah Ibrāhīm. Publicize them as much as possible.” - Issue # 2 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine

In practice:

ISIS militants captured large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. The group has not yet conquered land elsewhere but has attempted to promote the Islamic State globally. ISIS publications encourage Muslims around the world to either migrate to the Islamic State or declare allegiance to it. Jihadists in nearly a dozen countries – including Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – have reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS. It is unclear, however, how much direct control ISIS has over its affiliated branches.

“With due attention to the Islamic content of the Iranian Revolution, which has been a movement aimed at the triumph of all the mustad'affun [oppressed] over the mustakbirun [oppressors], the Constitution provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad. In particular, in the development of international relations, the Constitution will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community (in accordance with the Qur'anic verse ‘This your community is a single community, and I am your Lord, so worship Me " [21:92] )

and to assure the continuation of the struggle for the liberation of all deprived and oppressed peoples in the world.’”

In practice:

Iran has both a conventional military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The constitution commits both to extending God’s sovereignty throughout the world. But in practice, Iran has only fought defensively in conventional wars and within its borders since the 1979 revolution. Iran has not used its armed forces to take additional territory.

The theocracy has actually had little success in exporting its Islamic revolution. Tehran funds the activities of clerics trained in the holy city of Qom and promotes its brand of Islam in Shiite communities across the world. But the strength of Iran’s soft power is debatable.

In the 1990s, Iran largely abandoned attempts to spread its revolution among the Shiite minority in the Gulf. The few elites who do subscribe to the concept of clerical rule and consider Supreme Leader Khamenei their marja’ (cleric for emulation) do not enjoy wide support.

Iran has had much more success setting up and assisting armed organizations beyond its borders that share its goals and values.

In Lebanon, the Islamic Republic has used Hezbollah to expand its influence in Lebanon and challenge Israel. The powerful Shiite militia and political party has its own domestic agenda and interests. But the Revolutionary Guards initially set up the organization in the 1980s, and Hezbollah has continued to play an important role in Iran’s regional policy.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Iran has aided Islamic groups committed to armed struggle against Israel. Iran has provided arms, training and funds to Islamic Jihad and Hamas.


*Click here for a full translation of Iran’s constitution. 

Photo credits: Iran flag by SiBr4 via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]; Islamic State flag by Global Panorama [CC 2.0], via Flickr commons


Rival Islamic Leaders: ISIS v Iran

The caliph in the Islamic State and the Supreme Leader in Iran hold absolute authority in both political and religious realms with few, if any, real checks on their power. Both ISIS and Iran emphasize scholarship and piety as qualifications for their leaders. The current leaders both claim to be seyyeds, descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, which boosts their credentials. 

The Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has been active in jihadist groups since the 1990s. He assumed leadership of the Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq, in 2010. When the group renamed itself the Islamic State, Baghdadi took the title of caliph. In theory, he has total authority within ISIS territory, but his day-to-day responsibilities are unclear.  

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, succeeded late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Khamenei has authority over Iran’s judicial, legislative and executive branches, as well as the military. His role is clearly defined in the constitution. Unlike Baghdadi, Khamenei frequently gives public addresses and appears on state television. The supreme leader’s office is active on social media networks, promoting his worldview in several languages. 

Leadership Selection and Qualifications

The Islamic State

The Islamic Republic of Iran

On justification of Baghdadi’s leadership: “The scholar who practices what he preaches, the worshipper, the leader, the warrior, the reviver, descendent from the family of the Prophet, the slave of Allah, Ibrāhīm Ibn‘Awwād IbnIbrāhīm Ibn‘AlīIbnMuhammad al-Badrīal-Hāshimīal-Husaynīal-Qurashīby lineage, as-Sāmurrā’ī by birth and upbringing, al-Baghdādī by residence and scholarship. And he has accepted the bay’ah (pledge of allegiance). Thus, he is the imam and khalīfahfor the Muslims everywhere.” - This is the Promise of Allah 

“Imamah (leadership) in religious affairs cannot be properly established unless the people of truth first achieve comprehensive political imamah over the lands and the people.” - Issue #1 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine 

“We will continue to obey the imam as long as he orders us to obey Ar-Rahman (the Most Merciful). But if he orders us to disobey Allah, then we won’t obey those orders.”- Issue #1 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine

Article 109 

“Following are the essential qualifications and conditions for the Leader: 

•a. scholarship, as required for performing the functions of mufti in different fields of fiqh. 

•b. Justice and piety, as required for the leadership of the Islamic Ummah [nation]. 

•c. right political and social perspicacity, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership. 

In case of multiplicity of persons fulfilling the above qualifications and conditions, the person possessing the better jurisprudential and political perspicacity will be given preference.”

The Leaders


The Islamic State


The Islamic Republic of Iran

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

Baghdadi was born in Samarra in 1971, and reportedly received jihadist training in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where he lived with Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Kabul. He fought with jihadists in Fallujah in the early 2000s after returning to Iraq, and was reportedly held at the U.S. detention facility Camp Bucca from February to December 2004. In 2010 he assumed leadership of ISIS, then called the Islamic State of Iraq. Little else is known of his background, but jihadist publications claim that he is from a religious family descended from noble tribes, and that he holds a PhD from Baghdad’s Islamic University.  

Baghdadi is known for avoiding the spotlight. There are only two known photos of him, and he reportedly conceals his identity with a bandanna from everyone outside his small inner circle.  

Baghdadi is the supreme political and religious leader in ISIS territory. The caliph has virtually unchecked authority, but in practice he relies on deputies like Abu Muslim al Turkemani, who oversees ISIS areas in Iraq, to manage administration of its territory. The Islamic State has ashuracouncil that can theoretically depose the caliph, but all members areappointed by Baghdadi. 

The leader has a strongly anti-Western world view, and in his speeches he has urged Muslims around the world to rise up and take revenge against injustices inflicted by “the Jews, the Crusaders, their allies...all being led by America and Russia.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 

Born in 1939 to a traditional family, Ali Khamenei followed in his father’s footsteps and became a cleric. He joined the struggle against the monarchy in the 1960s and spentseveral years in prison before the 1979 revolution. 

Khamenei’s sacrifices for the Islamic revolution and close relationship with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini helped him to attain power within the new government. He served as president for two terms from 1981 to 1989. When Khomeini died in 1989, he left no designated successor. Khamenei was selected by the Assembly of Experts as the second supreme leader, despite the objection of some senior clerics who felt he lacked the theological credentials.    

As supreme leader, Khamenei is Iran’s most powerful official. He wields constitutional authority or significant influence over all branches of the government, the military and the judiciary. His control over the 12-man Guardian Council, which vets all candidates for public office, enables him to influence who can and cannot run. For most of his tenure, Khamenei has preferred to stay out of the public eye.  

Khamenei still upholds the revolutionary and anti-Western narrative of the 1979 revolution. The United States and its allies, especially Israel, are trying to undermine Iran and the progress of Muslim nations, according to his worldview. 

Click here for more information on Khamenei.

In Their Own Words

The following are quotes by Baghdadi and Khamenei on key issues.

The Islamic StateThe Islamic Republic of Iran

On Democracy 

“The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.”  - July 1, 2014, in a speech

On Iran 

"Muslims' rights are forcibly seized in...Iran (by the rafidah* [Shiites])." 

"Terrorism is to worship Allah as He ordered you. Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation, and subordination (to the kuffar– infidels). Terrorism is for the Muslim to live as a Muslim, honorably with might and freedom. Terrorism is to insist upon your rights and not give them up...Terrorism does not include the extreme torture and degradation of Muslims in East Turkistan and Iran (by the rafidah), as well as preventing them from receiving their most basic rights." 

*"Rafidah" is a pejorative term for Shiites
- July 1, 2014, in a speech

On the United States and Israel

“O ummah of Islam, indeed the world today has been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy – the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews.”
- July 1, 2014, in a speech

On Democracy 

“As for political and social issues, the higher aspect of this religious democracy is that we have had 32 elections during the 35 years from the beginning of our Revolution. Thirty two public elections have been held in this country. Is this a minor achievement? This is an exceptional phenomenon. Elections in the Islamic Republic are held with a high turnout - higher than the global average and in some cases, it is much higher.”
–June 6, 2015 in a speech 

On ISIS and al Qaeda 

“This takfiri orientation - the thing that has emerged in Iraq, Syria and some other regional countries today and that confronts all Muslims, not just Shias - is the handicraft of colonialists themselves. They made something called alQaida and DAESH [ISIS] in order to confront the Islamic Republic and the movement of the Islamic Awakening. However, this product has become a burden for them.” 

“We see that the unreal effort which America and its allies are making in the region today under the name of confronting DAESH is, in fact, an effort for channeling enmities among Muslims more than it is an effort for nipping this evil movement in the bud. They try to pit Muslims against one another. Today, they have chosen this ignorant, prejudiced, fossilized and dependent group as the element for doing this. Otherwise, the goal is the same old goal.”
– Sept. 13, 2014 in a speech 

On the United States and Israel

“If we are to find a regime in the world which is evil towards everyone and plots against everyone, that regime is the American regime. It is the United States of America which is evil towards everyone, as wherever it strides in, it does so with aggressiveness, arrogance, voracity and insolence.”
– Oct. 29, 2008

“[Western-style] freedom in the economy, political scene and moral issues…reflect terrible, bitter, heinous and in some cases abhorrent realities in the Western society. The results are discrimination, bullying, warmongering and double standards towards noble issues like human rights and democracy.”
– Nov. 14, 2012 in a meeting with academics and teachers

“If the Zionist regime makes a wrong move, the Islamic Republic of Iran will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.”
– March 21, 2013 in an address to a crowd in Mashhad for Persian New Year

Rivals on Women & Minorities: ISIS v Iran

The contrast between the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic is especially visible in their treatment of women and minorities, evident in ISIS documents and Iranian laws. On paper, both discriminate. But in Iran, women and ethnic or religious minorities generally enjoy greater rights and freedoms than either group living under ISIS control.


The Islamic State actively recruits women to move to the territories of Iraq and Syria it now controls. Ten percent of its recruits are reportedly female. Jihadist social media portray the Islamic State as an idyllic Islamic society and an alternative to life in the West. But media accounts and testimony of women who have escaped indicate women experience violence, rape, forced marriage, and general repression.

In the Islamic Republic, women play visible roles in politics, economic life, education, the professions and public life. Women hold seats in parliament, run their own businesses, attend universities and participate in (segregated) sports. Despite protections in the constitution, however, they face discrimination in many respects. The dress code is not as restrictive as under ISIS, and women do not need a male escort to leave their homes.

Women’s Rights and Role in Society

The Islamic State

The Islamic Republic of Iran

“Stability is in the house, inherently the khidr,or women’s quarters, and go out [from the house] only when necessary for the guidance of the mothers of the believers… blessings upon them.” - From an ISIS city charter

"Woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband." - From a manifesto on women released by the al Khansaa Brigade, translation via the Quilliam Foundation

In practice:

In ISIS territory, women’s freedoms are severely curtailed. They are encouraged to stay at home and are required to have a male escort to go out in public. In Raqqa, for example, women have reportedly been beaten or arrested for traveling outside their homes without a male chaperone.

Many young Syrian women in ISIS territories have also reportedly been forced to marry against their will. ISIS opened “marriage bureaus” to facilitate marriages between women and ISIS fighters. Militants have financial incentives to wed, as married fighters receive a $1,200 grant, a home, and fuel for heating.

Many women have been victims of violence and assault, and militants have executed women for adultery. ISIS stoned eight women to death in Raqqa alone in June 2014. After seizing Mosul in June 2014, ISIS militants reportedly went door-to-door assaulting women. The UN estimated in 2014 that ISIS forced 1,500 women, girls, and young boys into sexual slavery.

ISIS provides limited educational opportunities for young girls. It has established female-only religious schools, which teach students to memorize the Quran. ISIS enforces gender segregation in these schools, and prohibits male teachers from teaching girls.

ISIS is also unusual among jihadist groups in that it has an all-female morality police. The al Khansaa Brigade in Raqqa arrests and punishes other women for not abiding by ISIS’s strict rules on women’s behavior in society. Members of the brigade reportedly ask women questions to test their knowledge of prayer, fasting, and the hijab.

In January 2015, the brigade released a semi-official manifesto on the role of women in society. It encouraged women to stay at home and detailed three limited circumstances in which it was permissible for women to leave the house: jihad, studying the Quran, and serving as a doctor or teacher.

Article 20

“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria."

Article 21

“The government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and accomplish the following goals:

“1. create a favorable environment for the growth of woman's personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual;

“2 .the protection of mothers, particularly during pregnancy and childrearing, and the protection of children without guardians;

“3. establishing competent courts to protect and preserve the family;

“4. the provision of special insurance for widows, and aged women and women without support;

“5. the awarding of guardianship of children to worthy mothers, in order to protect the interests of the children, in the absence of a legal guardian."

In practice:

Despite protections outlined in the constitution, Iranian women face serious discrimination, especially in matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. A woman, regardless of her age, needs her male guardian’s consent for marriage. Women also require permission to obtain a passport and travel abroad.

Child marriage, though uncommon, is not illegal. The legal age of marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys. A judge can grant permission for children to marry at even younger ages.

Rape is illegal and subject to harsh penalties, including execution. But the government reportedly does not enforce the law effectively. Spousal rape is not addressed as sex within marriage is considered consensual.

Iran’s laws do not specifically prohibit domestic violence. Little data is available, but a 2011 University of Tehran study suggested that a woman was physically abused every nine seconds in Iran.

Women make up some 60 percent of university students. Yet quotas and restrictions limit subjects women can study, notably medicine and engineering. Only about 16 percent of the workforce is female, according to a U.N. estimate.

In the workplace, women reportedly earn about 61 percent as much money as men in similar jobs. The law does not require equal pay for equal work. Women must have a man’s consent to work outside the home.

Women serve in parliament and hold high positions in government ministries. But all of the approximately 30 women who registered as candidates for the 2013 presidential election were disqualified by the Guardian Council.

Iranian women are educated, capable & powerful. In this Gov. we're hoping to ensure equal opportunity

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 2, 2013

Women's Dress Code

The Islamic State

The Islamic Republic of Iran

“To the honorable women: God is in decency and loose jackets and robes.” - From an ISIS city charter

“Women…are completely forbidden from showing their eyes [and wearing] open abayas that reveal colorful clothes worn underneath.”

“[Clothing] must not be decorated with beads, sequins, or anything else.”

“[Women] must not wear high heels.”

“Anyone who violates this will be penalized.”

- ISIS statement distributed in Deir Ezzor (translation via the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)

In practice:

ISIS requires that women over the age of ten veil from head to toe when leaving the house. A November 2014 UN report said police regularly evaluate women’s clothing at multiple checkpoints in ISIS-held towns.

ISIS also inflicts harsh punishments on women who do not comply with dress requirements. ISIS documents do not detail punishments, but a woman in Mosul was reportedly sentenced to 40 lashes for violating the dress code. Men are also punished if ISIS determines that a woman within their family is not dressed properly.

Article 638

"Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.

“Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab [veil], shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials.

- Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran –Book Five

In practice:

Iran lacks a clear definition of appropriate dress for women. Hijab literally means covering and could describe many different types of clothing. Some women wear traditional chadors, while others boldly express themselves. The prevalence of leggings led lawmakers to summon the interior minister in June 2014 to questioning on lax implementation of dress codes. Women risk being fined or sentenced to lashings based on the opinion of male and female members of the Basij militia who enforce the dress code on the street.

The dress code, however, does not prevent female athletes from participating in international competitions. Eight out of 53 of Iran’s competitors at the 2012 Olympics were female. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iranians should be proud of female athletes who make it to the medal podium wearing hijab. President Hassan Rouhani has congratulated female athletes on their accomplishments several times. 


#Syria: latest Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham advertisement for modest dress for women in #Raqqa:

— Aymenn J Al-Tamimi (@ajaltamimi) November 28, 2013

Particularly proud of our women's historic performance in #AsianGames while upholding Islamic values.

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) October 4, 2014

Religious Minorities


ISIS has tried to cleanse its territory of people it deems unbelievers, including Shiites and non-Muslims. It has reportedly killed hundreds of Shiites and Yazidis, among others. The militants have also destroyed property belonging to minority groups, including ancient holy sites.

Iran has not attempted to wholesale convert, expel or kill its religious minorities. According to Iran’s interpretation of Islam, some minorities are considered “People of the Book,” and are thus entitled to protection and some autonomy. The constitution provides for representation of Armenians, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. But Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority, are not protected under the law, are not allowed to practice their faith, and have faced persecution. Although minorities face discrimination from wider society and the government, they generally do not fear for their safety on a daily basis as minorities in the Islamic State do.

The Islamic State

The Islamic Republic of Iran

“Be very wary of allying with the Jews and Christians, and whoever has slipped by a word, then let him fear Allah, renew his faith, and repent from his deed. […] Even if he supported them just by a single word. He who aligns with them by a single word falls into apostasy– extreme apostasy.” - Issue # 4 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine

On Yazidis:

“Their creed is so deviant from the truth that even cross-worshipping Christians for ages considered them devil worshippers and Satanists.”

“Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations.”  - Issue # 4 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine

In practice:

ISIS does not permit Christians to build new churches or display religious symbols in public places. There have also been reports of Christians being forced to convert to Islam or face execution. In Iraq, ISIS has destroyed Christian property and churches.

ISIS deals with other religious minorities even more harshly. Militants invaded Yazidi communities in Sinjar in August 2014, killing those who refused to convert, and driving tens of thousands from their homes. ISIS has also killed Shiites in newly captured territories. One ISIS member stated that the Islamic State’s territorial gains in 2014 “purged vast areas in Iraq and Syria from the filth of the Safavids,” referring to the sixteenth century Persian Shiite dynasty.

ISIS is also widely reported to kidnap, sell and rape women and children who are deemed unbelievers, most notably Yazidis. In late 2014, ISIS released a pamphlet attempting to justify the kidnapping, enslavement, and rape of non-Muslim women and children.

Article 12

“Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi, are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.

Article 13

“Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.

Article 14

“In accordance with the sacred verse ("God doesn't forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [60:8]), the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran."

In practice:

Iran does not differentiate between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in reporting statistics. But Sunnis are thought to number between 4 and 8 million, or five to 10 percent of the population. Sunnis reportedly face discrimination and restrictions on building mosques and schools. Marginalization of Sunnis in Balochistan led to the formation of Jundallah, an armed separatist group, in the early 2000s. Sunnis in Iran are from several ethnicities, such as Baloch, Arab and Kurd.

Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians collectively make up less than one percent of Iran’s population. Yet they are guaranteed places in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to the size of their communities:

• Two seats for Armenian Christians,

• One for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians,

• One for Jews,

• One for Zoroastrians.

But minorities  reportedly still face discrimination in education, employment and property ownership. Authorities also sometimes charge them for moharebeh (enmity against God), “anti-Islamic propaganda” or threatening national security for their religious activities.

But Iran’s largest religious minority, the Baha’is, are not protected under the law or allowed to practice their faith. They reportedly number up to 350,000 and are considered apostates by the state.  

Other Christians not associated with an ethnic group, such as Protestants, are not represented in parliament. And conversion from Islam is punishable by death. So proselytization is banned.

The #ISIS pamphlet on which women are eligible to be slaves

— Newsweek Europe (@NewsweekEurope) December 12, 2014

Cameron Glenn writes for The Islamists Are Coming, hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

Garrett Nada is assistant editor of the Iran Primer hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is on Twitter: @GarrettNada.

The views expressed are their own.

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