Opinion: ISIS attacks in Tehran – why now?

An Iranian police guard stands outside the parliament building in Tehran
Tehran, June 7, 2017: A guard outside the Iranian parliament. Twin attacks by ISIS militants there and at the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini left 17 civilians dead and 43 wounded (source: dpa)

The deadly June 7, 2017 terrorist attack against two targets in Tehran by the so-called Islamic State – also known as Daesh, or ISIS – was not particularly surprising. The only remarkable fact about the twin attack was that the terror organization has only now, so late in the game, decided to turn its wrath against its archenemy: Shia Iran.

Until recently, ISIS was happy to murder opponents that they saw as relatively marginal: Yazidis, Sunni Kurds, sons of Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq and Syria who refused to join their ranks, sometimes Middle Eastern Christians and many Shia Arab Iraqis. The tough talk of conquering Rome, “liberating” Al-Andalus (a medieval Muslim enclave in the Iberian Peninsula) and defeating Christianity attracted gullible young Western Muslims to ISIS recruiters like bees to honey, but these have always been very long-term goals.

Explosive mix

The terror group’s killing spree in Europe and the United States has been mostly a reaction to the Europeans’ and Americans’ attacks against its fighters in Iraq and Syria. Strangely, the Shia Persians whom ISIS calls “the Safawis” (after the Safawi dynasty that imposed the Shia branch of Islam on Iran at the beginning of the 16th century) were left alone. For ISIS, the Shia are a criminal sect that seceded from Islam and deserve only to be put to the sword. In the terror group’s strategic thinking the Shia main religious centers in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq and in Qom, and Mashhad in Iran, must be eliminated.

This vitriolic hate springs from two mutually reinforcing sources. Religiously speaking, ISIS is an extreme Sunni-Salafi movement akin to the Wahhabi (or “Tawhidi”) Islam that was born in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century. Even though the Saudi regime is fighting ISIS today, theologically speaking their interpretations of Islam are close, and both see Shia Islam as an apostate movement. For ISIS, Teheran is the strategic and political center of the Shia world, and the ultimate enemy.

The objective of ISIS is to undermine Iran

The other fountainhead of this intense animosity is political. At its core, ISIS is an Iraqi Sunni-Arab movement. Most of its military commanders are former officers who served under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1979-2003), while the most influential personalities of its religious leadership (the first among them being Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai, aka “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”), are Salafi Iraqis. The goal of these commanders and clergy has been to return Iraq to the hands of the Sunni-Arab leadership that ran the country between 1921 and 2003. The Shia are their main enemy.

Tehran in the crosshairs

Closest to home are the Shia Arab Iraqis who came to power in Baghdad at the point of American bayonets. These days, though, the main power behind Shia hegemony in Baghdad is Iran. If the objective of ISIS is to undermine Iran, why is it starting its terror campaign there only now?

The main reason seems to be military considerations. As long as the group’s strategists could hope to keep not only Mosul and most of the Euphrates valley, but also Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala and the territories all the way to Basra, they concentrated their limited military resources on Iraq. This way, they also avoided a massive Iranian intervention there. However, now that Iraq cannot be recovered, at least in the medium-term, ISIS has turned against its main, much stronger enemy, Iran.

The body of an ISIS fighter fallen on the Mosul battlefield
East Mosul: The Iraqi Army’s battle vehicles pass near the body of an ISIS fighter during the battle to wrest control of the city from the terror group (source: dpa)

What does the future hold? The Iranians are putting the blame for the Tehran attacks squarely on Riyadh. But while it is true that the Saudis made threats to move the battle into Iran, this time their denial seems genuine. This conflict may develop into an all-out war, but both sides are loath to go that far. Their allies, too, fear an escalation, as an open war would drag the rest of the Persian Gulf into the fray. Sunni Arab states in the region, with the exception of Qatar, Oman, and possibly Kuwait, would have to support the Saudis. Likewise, Jordan and Egypt. Iraq would likely back Iran, or at least would quietly support it. The U.S., too, could be dragged into a runaway conflict.

All bets are off

This is a horrific scenario that no one wants to see materializing. If Iran insists that the terrorists were sent to its capital by the Saudi government, far more likely is a script with which the Middle East is quite well acquainted: a war of terror by proxies. The Iranians may use agents from the Shia community in Saudi Arabia. This community is concentrated near the richest oil fields in the east of the country.

The local Saudi branch of Hezbollah already executed, in collusion with Iran, a devastating bombing attack against American servicemen and Saudi civilians in the Khobar Towers near Dhahran in June of 1996. This time around, terrorist attacks will probably be aimed at oil installations rather than Christian foreigners. Sabotaging the oil industry would deal a major blow to the Saudis who are already under financial duress due to low oil prices. Shia sabotage and murder could also be directed against symbolic Saudi targets, with the notable exceptions of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which are also revered by the Shia.

The U.S. will find it difficult to sell itself as an arbiter

Iran’s main oil production zone of Khuzestan has a large Sunni-Arab minority which includes some Salafi groups. The Saudis may seek to recruit them and other Sunni minorities, in turn, to launch terrorist operations against the Iranian oil industry. Here too, a war by proxy will be very costly.

Who could help

Iran may decide to let the Saudis off the hook and concentrate instead on ISIS alone. Some positive international results may be achieved if Iran presents itself as one of ISIS victims and works to establish a closer intelligence cooperation with the West. Domestically, this would probably entail a sweeping anti-terror campaign involving a crackdown on the Iranian Sunni population. If too sweeping, such a campaign may stoke up resentment and opposition rather than pacify the country.

If the Iranian-Saudi tension persists, there will be attempts at mediation. President Donald Trump’s U.S. will find it difficult to sell itself as an unbiased arbiter, but with Washington’s nod Turkey could mediate, and Sultan Qaboos of Oman has a reputation as an effective go-between. Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, may present himself as an arbiter. Alternatively, European countries such as France and Germany that are keener than most to reenter the Iranian market may be seen by both sides as honest brokers. And yet it has to be said that, on top of the struggle in Syria and the tense situation involving Qatar, the first direct confrontation between the Saudi and Iranian giants may have ramifications for the Middle East that are impossible to predict now.

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