Terror Attack in Tehran: Internal and External Contributing Factors

04 October 2017
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On June 7, 2017, terrorists targeted two sites in Tehran, the Parliament building, a symbol of the republic, and the tomb of its revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, a symbol of the revolution. Seventeen people died in the attack and 45 were wounded. ISIS took responsibility for the violence and promised to inflict more harm on Iran.


Reportedly, Iranian Kurds on behalf of the ISIS were carried out the attacks in Tehran. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS, also known as Vezarat-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Keshvar or VEVAK) released a statement detailing information on the five terrorists and “affiliated nuclei”. According to the MOIS statement, the individuals who carried out the attacks were five elements with a history of past terrorist activities and linked to Wahhabi and Takfiri groups, a clear reference to Saudi Arabia.


The individuals were identified as Seriyas, Fereydoun, Qayyoum, Abu Jahad, and Ramin. They had left Iran after being recruited by the ISIS and had been trained in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqah. They returned to Iran in July-August 2016 under the command of “Abu Ayesheh Kurdi” – the self-declared leader of ISIS in Iran - and planned to carry out terror attacks in religious cities in Iran, but “had fled the country following the full obliteration of the network and blows to the case’s main elements, including the killing of Abu Ayesheh,” as the MOIS statement read.


This coordinated attacks were unprecedented since the Mujahedeen el-Khalq (MEK) bombed a gathering of the upper echelons of the regime in 1981 which killed scores, including President Mohammad - Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, and Mohammed Behesthi, second in command to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Since then, Iran has gained extensive counter-terrorism experience fighting an array of domestic and foreign terror groups. In fact, observers credited this sophisticated apparatus for shielding Iran from the type of high profile attacks which ISIS has perfected.


Although ISIS quickly claimed credit for the attacks, the immediate reaction of the Iranian government was to see Saudi Arabia’s hand in the attacks, especially in light of recent comments from Riyadh calling for Iran’s ‘punishment’.  A statement from the Revolutionary Guards linked the “brutal attack” to Donald Trump’s visit last month to Riyadh, where the US president singled out Iran for fueling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” “This terrorist act took place a week after a joint meeting between the US president and head of a reactionary regional country [Saudi Arabia] which has been a constant supporter of terrorism,” the statement said. “The fact ISIS claimed responsibility proves that they [Saudi Arabia] were involved in the brutal attack.”


Saudi Arabia has had a long history of strife with Iran. Immediately after it seized power in 1979, the new regime, intent on exporting its particular brand of Islamism and undermining the Sunni kingdom, launched operations against Riyadh and its Gulf neighbors. In its latest venture, Iran has promoted the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, arguably the most direct challenge to Saudi interest in decades. Riyadh has also taken a dim view of Iran’s steadfast support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is not surprising thus that the monarchy has considered the Iranian nuclear ambition as a protective umbrella for pursuing hegemony in the region. Unlike his predecessor, King Salman vowed to respond strongly to Iranian provocations, a decision which led to the Saudi intervention in the civil war in Yemen.


President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia has apparently given Riyadh the upper hand, with Trump seeming to accept the Saudi argument that Iran is on equal footing with ISIS and Al Qaeda as a sponsor of terrorism and promoter of regional instability. Seen within this context, the visit marked a dramatic upgrade in the role of Saudi Arabia in Washington’s new Iran containment policy. Analysts pointed out that “a possible covert Saudi operation to destabilize Iran” was discussed with president Trump during the visit.


Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Defense Minister, and the son of the King noted that Iran was working to undermine the Sunni Kingdom and its control of the holy sites. He warned that Saudi Arabia would preempt by “taking the battle into Iran.” While bin Salman did not elaborate, the Iranian authorities reacted harshly. Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, Minister of Defense, threatened to destroy Saudi Arabia, except for Mecca and Medina. In the past, the United States has launched several covert operations in Iran – either on its own or with Israel – to roll back the regime’s nuclear project. In 2016, the Iranians blamed the Saudis and the Israelis for several sabotage acts on oil field facilities. Because of their highly clandestine nature, the reports on the new venture cannot be verified. Conceptually, counterterrorism plans derive from the rational choice theory which stipulates that attacks on Iran’s soil would raise the cost of “doing business” for the regime.


Some observers attributed the attacks to Iran’s own regional policies and the allege that Iran is the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, so that its normal to be hit with the same kind of terrorist ideology it promulgates. One observer noted that the attacks “illustrated the truth behind the well-worn adage: you reap what you sow." The Hill, a website which is known for its hardline stance towards Iran noted that "From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror….and now it is burned by the same fire it has been stoking for decades.”


As predicted by the psychology of Islamic radicalization, the fact that Iranian Kurds were carried out the Tehran attacks suggest that marginalized, angry and alienated minorities exposed to Salafi ideology are vulnerable to recruitment by terror groups like ISIS. Unofficial reports indicate that approximately 20-25 percent of Iran’s population is Sunni, mainly representing Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, and Turkmen minorities. These minorities live on the country’s periphery and suffer unduly from unemployment and discrimination. These socio-economic factors that drives ISIS recruitment pushed number of people from these minorities to join the terror group. In fact, in addition to its aggressive regional policies, the socio-economic condition is another contributing factor in creating a homegrown terrorist problem in Iran.


Yet, in spite of the fact that who was behind the attacks, there is little doubt that the hardliners would use the ISIS onslaught to derail Rouhani’s normalization project, most notably his call to end the interventionist foreign policy. The old argument that the involvement in the Syrian civil war is an investment in the security of Iran has moved front and center in the public discourse. Added to the likely rally-around-the-flag effect, it strengthens the view that engagement in Syria, Iraq, and further afield would keep the country “an island of stability” in the regional “sea of chaos.” As if on cue, a video began circulating on social media bearing the caption “if we don't fight ISIS in Syria, you would fight it in Iran.” The recording showed an interrogation of an ISIS jihadist captured in Iraq who promised to “cut off the heads” of Iranians because they are even “dirtier than the Jews.”


It is also possible that the situation would lead to a further securitization of Iran. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) oversees the investigation, but other security forces such as the Intelligence division of the IRGC would probably step up its activities in the guise of looking for subversives. So far, the authorities refrained from imposing emergency regulations but asked the citizens not congregate unless necessary.


Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where he researches Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared in Harvard-Iran Matters,  the National Interest, and Atlantic Council among others. His new books are Iran’s Foreign Policy after the Nuclear Agreement: The Politics of Normalizers and Traditionalists, (Palgrave Macmillan), and Iran, Israel and the United States: The Politics of Counter-proliferation, (Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield) forthcoming. He tweets at @Farhadrezaeii

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