Terrorism in Tehran: ISIS intensifies its subversive activity in the Middle East
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
A Blow to the Symbols of Islamic Rule
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated simultaneous terror attacks on Iran’s parliament (Majlis) building and on the tomb of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. The group issued a statement in its media arm, as well as a short video from a camera carried by one of the assailants at the parliament. Indeed, it took responsibility even before the attack on the parliament building had ended. The coordinated attacks killed 13 people and wounded more than 40.
The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency proclaimed the organization’s first major attack in Iran in several Arabic messages:
This was the largest terror attack that the Islamic State has perpetrated in the heart of the Iranian capital. It was aimed at civilians and prominent symbols of the regime. Organizations affiliated with the Islamic State (jundalhaq) have carried out terror attacks against the Iranian Border Guard and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), particularly in the mainly Sunni-populated province of Sistan and Baluchistan in southeastern Iran, but so far have not attacked civilians. Over the past year, Arab separatist elements have also carried out attacks in the Khuzestan province of western Iran, which has an Arab majority and numerous oil facilities.
“Death to America, to Israel, and to Saudi Arabia”
The Iranian leadership and senior IRGC officials lost no time accusing Saudi Arabia of the attack, claiming the Saudis had been encouraged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit and his efforts to form an anti-Iranian alliance. IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami issued an explicit threat by promising “to avenge the blood of the martyrs who were killed in the terror attack by striking the terrorists and those who sent them.” The IRGC’s deputy intelligence chief accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of “inviting” attacks by mercenaries within Iran. In an allusion to a statement by Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (who said Saudi Arabia would not wait for Iran to take over Yemen and would bring the campaign to Iran), Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted:
In a speech that concluded the Majlis session (which continued during the terror attack), Majlis Chairman Ali Larijani called for a harsh crackdown on terror, and cries were heard in the chamber of “death to America, death to the Saudi regime” and “death to Israel.”
The Islamic State Calls on the Sunnis to Revolt against the Regime
In recent months, the Islamic State’s propaganda mechanism has stepped up its efforts to recruit Iranians with messages in Persian. At the end of March 2017, the group issued a video called “Persia between yesterday and today” in which Iranian militants call on Iran’s Sunni minority to form terror cells and carry out attacks against Shiite forces. Persian-speaking Islamic State militants (not all of them necessarily Iranian) describe the persecution and the executions of Sunnis in Iran and urge them to revolt against the regime, and specifically, among other things, “to burn mosques in Tehran and Isfahan.” The video accuses Iran of hypocrisy in opposing Israel since, whereas the Sunnis in Iran are persecuted, the Jews in Iran live in freedom. It also says Iran practices hypocrisy in its relations with the United States. Since then, the organization has issued several more calls in the Persian-language version of its magazine Rumiyah (which means Rome in Arabic). Rumiyah, also published in Arabic, Russian, Indonesian, and French, propounds the Islamic State’s prophecies of expansion and conquest.
Khamenei: Our Involvement in Syria and Iraq Prevents Terror
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei drew a connection between the terror attack and Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq. He said that if Iran had not been actively fighting the Islamic State in those two countries, “in the heart of where the intrigues are plotted, we would have many similar incidents within the country.” Khamenei’s words dovetail with Iran’s national security strategy, according to which the country’s borders must be defended from afar – hence its ongoing support for Syria, Hizbullah, and the Palestinian terror organizations, which Iran views as a forward defense line against Israel. The coordinated strikes in Tehran will likely have important repercussions for Iran both domestically and externally.
More Trouble for Rouhani
On the domestic front, the attack will add considerably to the difficulties of President Rouhani. Elected to a second term on May 20, 2017, he dispensed campaign promises of reforms in the domain of individual and citizens’ rights. The security forces will exploit the incident to beef up security measures, particularly, though not only, against Sunni and Kurdish minorities, and will crack down harder on any show of opposition to the Islamic regime by the reformist camp. Indeed, the Iranian population has not yet paid a real price in blood within Iran for the IRGC’s adventurous policy in different Middle Eastern arenas. (Although large numbers of IRGC and Basij fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq, the Iranian population in the major cities has not been harmed.) Hence, in the aftermath of the attack in Tehran, criticism of the high price of this ongoing involvement may mount, but probably will be harshly repressed. After the incident, Khamenei already emphasized the need to fight seditionists in Syria, Iraq, or anywhere else.
An Increase in Foreign Subversion
In the external sphere, Iran will probably ramp up its activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere under the pretext of its war on Islamic State terror, even where there is no real connection to its terror, because doing so will suit the interests of the IRGC. The Tehran attack may afford the IRGC an opportunity to boost economic and military assistance to organizations under its patronage and even to dispatch additional Iranian forces to Syria and Iraq ostensibly to conduct the “war on terror.” Furthermore, Iran may expand and intensify its activity against the Kurdish organizations operating against it near the Iraqi border and against the Sunni groups operating near its border with Pakistan. Iran would thereby risk escalating the tensions with Pakistan after some incidents along their common border in recent weeks. The rise in IRGC activity will likely make it still harder for Rouhani to promote his foreign policy goals as frictions with Saudi Arabia and the United States, which also are fighting the Islamic State, are liable to mount.
The Islamic State’s Next Target?
Since the beginning of the year, the Islamic State appears to have changed its policy on terror attacks against Iran. For its part, Iran has been fighting the Islamic State on several fronts in Iraq and Syria, whether directly or with various Shiite militias as proxies. Iran, however, has been allowed some mitigations because it is also fighting organizations operating against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, groups that the Islamic State is fighting as well. It is also possible that, as the Islamic State loses land in Syria and Iraq, its fighters will make their way eastward toward Iran and Pakistan. Iran may be facing a new and unfamiliar struggle with terror not only on its borders but within its large cities as well. Terror of the Islamic State variety will probably aim for a sympathetic response from Iran’s many ethnic minorities.
The Sunni organizations (jundalhaq) fighting Iran in the southeastern tri-border area of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan – groups that are inspired by the Islamic State – will probably be encouraged by the double terror attack in Tehran and try to step up their activity. The double attack may also drive separatist organizations and various ethnic elements that are active among Iran’s Arab minority, which is concentrated in Khuzestan, to escalate their attacks on the oil and gas facilities. In July 2016, the organization Suqour al-Ahvaz (Hawks of Ahvaz) took responsibility for an attack on the Boul-Ali-Sina Petrochemical Complex in Bandar-E Mahshahr. In any case, it appears that as the Islamic State continues to lose territory, Iran will increasingly find itself confronting the group both within Iran and along its borders. That, in turn, is likely to further aggravate Iran’s relations with the United States and with the Gulf states, most of all Saudi Arabia.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.