Attack on military parade in Iran deals blow to security establishment
A deadly assault on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps parade dealt a stunning blow to Iran’s security establishment, which has often said it can repel any threat no matter how big, even from the United States and Israel.
The September 22 attack, among the worst ever on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), illustrated that Iran’s elite force, which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can be vulnerable to guerrilla-style operations.
The IRGC vowed to retaliate for the attack.
Iran had enjoyed relative stability compared to Arab neighbours, which have grappled with political and economic upheaval touched off by popular uprisings in 2011. Tehran blamed the United States and its Gulf Arab neighbours for the bloodshed but has presented no evidence.
An Iranian ethnic Arab opposition movement called the Ahvaz National Resistance, which seeks a separate state in oil-rich Khuzestan province, claimed responsibility for the attack.
So did the Islamic State, which said it carried out the 2017 attack at the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, which left 18 dead.
Neither group presented proof of its involvement.
Arab opposition groups have a long list of grievances against Iranian leaders and their frustrations are growing.
The city of Ahvaz, where the attack took place, is the capital of Khuzestan, a region bordering Iraq where most of Iran’s Arab minority lives. The community has long felt neglected by the Persian-dominated central government in Tehran.
The area has been hit particularly hard by the economic problems afflicting the country and the unemployment rate in Khuzestan is 14.5%, higher than the national rate of 11.8%.
Poor living standards have been compounded by electricity shortages and a severe drought, which locals blame on mismanagement by the central government. Residents of Ahvaz have been forced to stay inside their homes on some days because of severe sandstorms linked to drought.
Armed opposition groups have played on this discontent to drum up support for their actions, which have included attacks on oil pipelines in the region. Civil rights activists say these violent attacks undermine their peaceful efforts to help the community and lead to widespread arrests.
The Kurds in western Iran and the Baluch in the south-east, both prominent minority groups, also complain of central government neglect. Armed Kurdish opposition groups have clashed with the IRGC in the border area with Iraq in recent months, leading to several dead and wounded on both sides.
In early September, the IRGC fired seven missiles at a base of a Kurdish opposition group in northern Iraq, killing at least 11 people. Such attacks tend to unite Iranian reformers and hardliners despite sharp differences over domestic and foreign policies.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani has pushed back against the growing economic and political influence of the IRGC but, after the Ahvaz attack, it will be difficult for Rohani to challenge it. The violence led to a boost in support for the IRGC, analysts said, which they would likely use to silence their critics, including Rohani.
US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from an international nuclear deal from Iran also gives hardliners political leverage because they argued that the United States should not be trusted.
Senior commanders said the Ahvaz attack was carried out by militants trained by Gulf states and Israel and backed by the United States. However, it is unlikely that the IRGC would strike any of those foes directly.
They will probably present a show of strength by launching missiles at groups operating in Iraq or Syria that may be linked to the militants who carried out the attack.
Days after the Tehran attack by the Islamic State in 2017, the IRGC fired missiles at militant groups in eastern Syria and, after a series of clashes with Kurdish opposition groups in recent months, the IRGC unleashed missiles at a Kurdish opposition base in northern Iraq in early September.
The IRGC is likely to enforce a tight security policy in Khuzestan province for the foreseeable future, arresting any perceived domestic opponents, including civil rights activists.