Iran on the morning of June 7 found itself cast in the unlikely role of victim of terrorism. Unlikely, that is, to those who took Donald Trump at his word when – in Saudi Arabia of all places – he broadly condemned Tehran for being by far the Middle East’s most active sponsor of terror groups.
The twin gun and suicide bomb attacks on Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini – death toll so far 13, with 42 wounded – were something of a wake-up call to those who might think the Iranians are somehow entangled with groups who terrorise the West, such as Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda. In fact, it was the former that quite quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks on two of the Islamic Republic’s most symbolic places, even posting gruesome video footage of a bloodied body lying amid the battle that ensued in the building of the Islamic Consultative Assembly in central Tehran.
Sunni Islamist IS and Al-Qaeda both have funding and ideological roots, as well as many recruits, that experts trace back to Iran’s regional arch rival Saudi Arabia. The two groups are, of course, sworn enemies of the Shiite Iranians, though until now neither had ever claimed to have staged a terrorist attack in Iran. Tehran, in fact, has not experienced a major terrorist attack in more than 30 years, meaning the bloody episode it has just gone through has rather unsettled Iranian society after its lengthy period of relative tranquillity – notwithstanding the series of phlegmatic selfies posted by Iranian MPs from the parliamentary chamber, while the terrorists, who gained entry to other parts of the building dressed as women, were being besieged.
Far from the capital
The terrorism that Iran can be said to have faced in recent years amounts to attacks made by Sunni militant groups, and occasionally Kurdish militia, mostly in remote areas far from the capital. One group, Jundallah, also known as the People's Resistance Movement of Iran (PRMI), and its successor group Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice), have been waging a deadly insurgency for almost a decade. The terrorist militants are based in Pakistan’s unstable province of Balochistan and make murderous raids into the poor Iranian southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Iran sees Jundallah and Jaish ul-Adl as groups connected to the Taliban and their opium revenues, while officials often accuse Saudi Arabia of providing the militant terrorists with financial as well as ideological support.
In early April, a mid-ranking Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander was gunned down in Sistan and Baluchistan, while in an April 26 ambush in the province, Jaish ul-Adl killed 10 border guards. That led to Tehran warning Islamabad that it would hit bases inside Pakistan if the government did not confront the militants.
The region also suffered an attack on a mosque in 2010 that claimed 39 lives, but most analysts pondering terrorism in Iran think back to the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK, or the People's Mujahedin of Iran), an Iranian political-militant organisation which called for a Marxist outcome to the ousting of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 and opposes the Islamic Republic in its current form. Now based in exile in Albania, the MEK waged a guerrilla bombing campaign against the forces of revolutionary father Khomeini, killing notables such as the second president of the Islamic Republic Mohammad-Ali Rajai and former PM Ali Rajaei in 1981. The judiciary ultimately had 30,000 MEK members executed, while many of those not detained fled to Iraq. In more recent times, the MEK is said to have been utilised by Israeli intelligence for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Red mist for Riyadh
The red mist quickly descended on the IRGC. It wasted no time in blasting Riyadh for supporting IS in the attacks in Tehran and vowing revenge. Tying the terrorism to Trump’s May visit to Saudi Arabia, during which the American commander in-chief struck massive deals to deliver weapons to the Saudis, the Guards put out a statement which, according to semi-official Fars news agency, read: "World public opinion, especially in Iran, sees the fact that this terrorist act was perpetrated soon after the meeting of the US president with the heads of one of the reactionary regional states that has always supported ... terrorists as very meaningful… It shows that they are involved in this savage action.”
The attacks came at a very sensitive time for the IRGC, seen as the protectors of the nation. The “Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”, which is battling IS outside Iran by arming and supporting militia who are trying to preserve Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and kick the Islamist terrorists out of Iraq, was rattled in mid-May by the thumping loss hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi suffered at the hands of centrist President Hassan Rouhani.
Moreover, it is presently upping its state of readiness given the Qatar crisis. Tiny gas-rich peninsular Qatar goes against the grain by being a Gulf State that stays on relatively friendly terms with Tehran, but currently faces a land, sea and air blockade being led by Riyadh over a complicated dispute that again cuts into exactly who is funding whom in terrorism.
With the outside world praying nobody, including the IRGC, makes a rash move that could see the volatile Middle East hostilities spiral out of control, Iran in some ways has every reason to play down the attack. National prestige was partly shielded by very slender state TV coverage of the terrorist incidents, while Tehran’s determination to “Keep calm and carry on” – vital at a time when the country is at a crossroads in attracting post-nuclear sanctions era foreign investors – was evidenced by remarks from speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani. He referred to the events as a "minor issue,” adding in a statement: "As you know, some coward terrorists infiltrated a building ... but they were seriously confronted."
Not long after, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei struck a similarly defiant tone, saying: "These fireworks have no effect on Iran. They will soon be eliminated... They are too small to affect the will of the Iranian nation and its officials."
Gun ownership is heavily controlled in Iran, the people of Tehran are known as easygoing and the capital is far from an edgy environment when it comes to the chance of bullets flying around. The government will be anxious to keep it that way. Security will inevitably be tightened to ensure the capital or country does not suffer a series of headline-grabbing terrorist strikes that could make investors or tourists – the tourism industry is another of Iran’s greatly untapped industries – think twice.
Nevertheless, given Trump’s unremitting hostility – hours elapsed before a statement of condolence was put out by the president’s administration and Trump later qualified the expressed sympathy by stating that "We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote" – and some unusually aggressive sabre-rattling by the Saudis in recent weeks, there is a genuine heightening of nervousness among Iranians who worry that things could take another turn for the worse. On May 2, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi defence minister, said he would guard his country against what he saw as Iranian efforts to dominate the Muslim world. Any struggle for influence between the two nations should take place "inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia", he said without elaborating.
Assessing the attacks mounted by the Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists, Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told the New York Times that they were an attempt by IS to finally address “one of the biggest talking points used against it in jihadi circles”, namely its perceived inability to attack Iran. “They have been ridiculed for this for a long time,” Awad said. “This is going to help them reach out to a broader population of Salafis and jihadis who will now see that the Islamic State is genuinely fighting all the enemies of Islam.”
Given language and cultural differences, typical IS terrorists have a problem when it comes to penetrating Iran and not standing out among the Iranians, hardly any of whom are sympathetic to Sunni Islamist thinking. This fact has led to some speculation among commentators on Iran that IS or the Saudis may have worked with the MEK to set up a terrorist cell in the country. In the released video of the attack on the parliament, the terrorists are heard talking in a non-Iranian Arabic, but late on June 7 Iran's national security council said all the terrorists were Iranian. IS propaganda videos apparently shot in Syria have lately featured Sunni Iranian recruits denouncing the Shiite republic.
In his response to the terrorism, wherever it came from, Iran’s supreme leader noted that Tehran had prevented worse attacks through its foreign policy. With Riyadh bristling at Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and IS’s need to claim some victories to raise morale after a string of defeats across Iraq, Syria and Libya, the diplomats have their work cut out to defuse more such threats.
On winning re-election on May 19, President Rouhani declared that Iranians had chosen "the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism". As Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said in a June 7 statement on the attacks: “The last thing Iran needs now – after Iranians voted for openness – is an excuse for hardliners to securitise the internal atmosphere.”