A week after Donald Trump stirred up tensions in the Middle East with his visit to Saudi Arabia, and just after Qatar was ostracised by several other countries for its supposed links to terrorism, a brace of terror attacks in Iran have turned up the heat even further.
In Tehran on June 7, four men attacked one of the gates of the Iranian parliament building. After opening fire on a guard, they entered the lobbies and shot a number of visitors and staff. After several hours and exchanges of gunfire, they were killed by Iranian special forces. At the same time, several attackers fired on visitors at the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. All in all, the two events left at least 17 dead and more than 43 injured.
Iran’s Supreme Leader dismissed the attacks as “fireworks … too small to affect the will of the Iranian nation and its officials”. Sure enough, the display of unity inside Iran was immediate and powerful, with social media booming with expressions of solidarity and defiance of terror (#درکنار همیم).
The so-called Islamic State (IS) soon claimed responsibility for the attack, reiterating that “in the holy month of Ramadan the reward of killing misbelievers” – that is, the Shia Muslims who constitute the majority of Iran’s population – “is multiplied”.
If the claim of responsibility is to be believed, this isn’t the first time IS has invited its followers to exterminate Shia populations, or attacked them. In recent months, it has attacked a Shia neighbourhood in Baghdad, Iraqi Shia pilgrims near Damascus, and a 12th-century Shia mosque in Herat in Afghanistan. It also left a bomb near Shia stronghold al-Dahiyeh in south Beirut, which was found and dismantled.
The day after the attack, Iranian authorities announced that the terrorists were allegedly connected to Wahabi cells operating under the IS network in Mousul and Raqqa, and that they followed Abu Ayesheh, a high-ranking commander of IS, who had tried in August 2016 to carry out terror attacks in Iran’s religious cities. If this account is accurate, these were therefore IS’s first successful attacks in Iran proper.
That said, the attack was also sophisticated enough that it might have been beyond IS’s abilities inside Iran – and according to Iran’s own Ministry of Intelligence, the attackers were themselves Iranians. Given that IS doesn’t have a popular base inside Iran, this might point to the tactical support of the exiled revolutionary group MEK or the Baluchi separatist group Jundullah.
Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is an Iranian terrorist group dedicated to violently overthrowing Iran’s government and which had been expelled from the country since the early 1980s. The Obama administration removed it from the US’s list of terror groups after an intense lobbying campaign in Washington DC, but its involvement in violence is well-known in Iran. In 1981, it was blamed for planting a powerful bomb in the headquarters of the ruling Islamic Republic Party, killing dozens of leading state officials.
Then there’s the Jundullah group, a violent separatist organisation that’s previously received the backing of both Saudi Arabia and the US in the hope of undermining Iran’s domestic security and stability. In 2009, it killed 42 Revolutionary Guards, including a top general, with an explosive device in a mosque in Baluchistan.
As with many terror attacks, the timing of these incidents is particularly relevant. The Revolutionary Guards’ statement after the attacks overtly connected them with Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East, during which the US president met with his Saudi and Israeli counterparts and decried Iran for supposedly sponsoring terrorism and extremism – basically putting the country back in the George W. Bush-era “Axis of Evil” hall of shame.
This view has gained currency among several Arab countries since Trump’s election. Only a month ago, the Saudi crown prince, while ruling out any possible dialogue with Tehran, stated that the struggle for regional influence will “take place inside Iran”, implying that regime change and support for armed resistance inside Iran were cards on the table.
When the latest attacks struck, the world’s major players found themselves on two sides. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, condemned the attack and invited everyone to join forces to fight terrorism; the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, expressed solidarity with her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and heads of state from all corners sent missives of condolence and support. Similarly, France, Italy, Germany as well as most of the countries in the Global South expressed their condolences to the Iranian authorities. The UK’s Theresa May remained silent, a sign that indicates alignment with the US-Saudi front.
In fact, the Saudi foreign minister declined to address Iran directly, while the Trump White House’s statement was predictably both pointed and tactless: “States that sponsor terrorism risk falling to the evil they promote.” Zarif, for his part, called the statement “repugnant” and claimed it was mounted by IS terrorists with US backing.
The rifts on display here are growing. On the one hand, as Iran-backed military efforts help drive IS back in Iraq and Syria, Tehran is starting to look like a logical strategic partner for the EU in its efforts against radical Islamist terrorism. But on the other hand, this is precisely the sort of cooperation that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are keen to curtail.
These hawkish powers look set to keep up sanctions on banking, threaten retaliation against companies willing to invest in Iran, invest in propaganda and intense lobbying, and may yet mount military operations, covert or otherwise.
Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia yielded a proposed but unconfirmed arms deal that the president announced would amount to more than US$110 billion. Whether or not that’s true is highly disputed, but as a statement of intent, it clearly signals where Trump’s sympathies lie as far as the Middle East’s major powers are concerned.
Hence, Tehran finds itself part of the web of terror attacks that had already touched upon London, Manchester, Paris, Kabul and many other cities. But the stakes at play here risk leading to a regional confrontation with dangerous international underpinnings.