ISIS a new challenge for Iran as ‘caliphate’ crumbles
Iran claims to have rounded up the Islamic State (ISIS) group behind the June 7 attacks in Tehran that killed 17 people. Arrests just west of the capital and in Larestan, a mainly Sunni region in southern Iran, were followed by arrests in Hormozgan province also in the south.
Four alleged ISIS operatives were killed in Hormozgan and Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi announced Iranian security forces had “sent to hell” the “mastermind” behind the attacks in a neighbouring country, presumably Iraqi Kurdistan.
And that is the end of that. Or is it?
True, Iran has much experience with armed opposition groups, including the Mujahideen-e Khalq, allied with Saddam Hussein during and after the 1980-88 war, Baluchi militants in the south-east and, in the west, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and others.
ISIS, however, is a new challenge, especially as its caliphate crumbles and the group goes underground. Its virulent anti-Shiism may find little resonance in Iran’s mainly Shia population but, like 19th-century terrorists in Europe, their aim is not to engage security forces but to terrorise and divide. They seek the widest impact from the simplest actions.
The choice of targets for June 7 resembled the London attacks of March 22 and June 3. Just as the Westminster parliament and London Bridge are part of the national psyche, so Iran’s parliament building and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini symbolise the country’s long struggle for democracy and its 1979 revolution. The attacks on London and Tehran differed in the weapons used and in the levels of sophistication and training but both sought to create shock and fear.
British politicians, police and intelligence all show understanding of ISIS intentions. They have rejected calls for internment, which proved disastrous with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1970s, and refused to demonise Muslims.
The reaction from Iran’s political class has been mixed. Amid strong words, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, said the attacks would increase hatred for Saudi Arabia and the United States. Officials have stressed unity between Sunnis and Shias, with some pointing to the 20 Sunnis in parliament and five in the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the supreme leader.
At one level, the fact that at least some of the ISIS operatives of June 7 were Kurdish came as a surprise. In general, the mainly Sunni Kurds, among whom Sufi orders are strong, have not proved fertile territory for al-Qaeda or ISIS; more suspicion has been directed at Baluchis, in south-eastern Iran, another Sunni nationality but one that has produced Islamist groups such as Jaish ul-Adl.
One June 7 attacker, Serias Sadeghi, was named by the KDPI in 2014 as an ISIS recruiter in Kurdish Iran. Failure to arrest him suggests complacency in Iranian security.
The bigger issue is the relationship between the Sunnis — at least 10% of Iranians — and the mainly Shia wider population. Many Iranians see the Kurds as wild, even relaying stories of beheadings during clashes between Kurds and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) after the 1979 revolution. By contrast, many Kurds allege that discrimination and high youth unemployment in Kurdish areas could favour ISIS recruitment just as it does among young Muslims in parts of Europe.
Iran officially celebrates ethnic diversity going back to ancient times. Reliefs at the Persepolis Palace of Darius the Great, ruler from 552-486BC, famously show differently clad nationalities bringing tributes to the king.
But the Islamic Republic has strengthened the Shia nature of the state to the disquiet of Sunni minorities. The reaction now of Sunnis will depend in part on how the authorities behave.
Since elected in 2013, President Hassan Rohani has talked of improving the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, who make up about 50% of the population, and bringing new investment to poorer regions such as Kurdistan and Baluchistan.
Rohani’s principlist opponents have been sceptical or opposed. While several newspapers after June 7 ran headlines such as “United We Stand,” the hard-line Javan splashed “They will be Eliminated,” words from Khamenei and stressed an IRGC statement promising “revenge.”
Pressure will increase for tougher security, especially in Kurdistan, probably for arrests and even executions. Plans to improve opportunities for Sunnis may be shelved. This is exactly what ISIS wants.