Islamic State has claimed responsibility for two deadly attacks in the Iranian capital on June 7, targeting the parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.
The attacks, the first of their kind in the Iranian capital in more than 30 years, have unsettled Iranians, coming as they did after a long period of relative tranquillity. As he begins his second term in office, President Hassan Rouhani will now have to actively work towards firming up his ties with foreign countries, especially European states and Russia, to ward off any further instability.
The support extended by some of Iran’s oldest foes – among them officials from the US and UK – shows just how the global community has moved in its position towards Iran since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by world powers under the previous US administration of Barack Obama in 2015.
The attacks also coincide with a frenzy of interest from foreign investors after the lifting of nuclear sanctions; prices on the Tehran Stock Exchange slumped on the day of the attacks and unless the government manages to convince observers that they will maintain security, they could cause would-be investors to think twice.
Launched on the morning of June 7, they involved at least four suicide bombers dressed in female Islamic clothing, who killed 13 people and wounded up to 41 others.
Gunmen with Kalashnikovs and pistols swept through the fourth floor of the vast parliament building in downtown Tehran, injuring and killing anyone who was unfortunate enough to be in their way, including one senior cleric, the former head of a local news agency and a woman visiting her MP.
Down in the main chamber of the parliament a session continued uninterrupted as the police and anti-terror security forces descended on the building from the northern entrance. Iranian state TV kept a rolling feed of the parliament going in the corner of its main channel whilst gunfire was heard outside.
A second cell of men, believed to be three in total, entered the Holy Shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini. One killed at least one volunteer before blowing himself up in the courtyard of the complex. Another assailant was arrested and taken in for interrogation.
The Sunni extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks through its own news agency Amaq, which also published a video of its attack inside the parliament building. In that clip men believed to be speaking a dialect of North African Arabic are saying, “You cannot get rid of us, we are here to stay”.
United against terror
The attacks in Tehran have served to unify the population, liberal and conservative, following the divisive presidential election campaign. Irrespective of who was behind the outburst of terror, the attacks have enraged all quarters of Iranian society against groups such as Islamic State.
“Rightly or wrongly, the perception inside Iran is going to be that Saudi Arabia is behind the attack,” commented Amir Handjani, a non-fellow resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He noted recent comments by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who accused Tehran of wishing to “control the Muslim world”, and said conflict would happen in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.
The attacks also came at a time of heightened tensions in the region, as Persian Gulf countries cut off air, land, sea and diplomatic links with Qatar, accusing the state of supporting Islamist extremist terrorist groups. Rivalry with Iran – with which Saudi Arabia is engaged in a series of proxy wars across the region – is thought by analysts to feature heavily in the dispute. Tehran has extended its support to Qatar, offering food supplies and allowing Qatar Airways flights to reroute via its airspace.
Already, the EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini has expressed her solidarity with Iran, saying, “Today is again a very sad day”, and adding, “Condolences with the victims of the attack in Tehran”. Mogherini also noted that Europe is following the events closely as they develop in the Iranian capital.
The UK’s ambassador to Tehran, Nicholas Hopton, tweeted: “My sympathy to all the innocent victims and those affected by the terrible incidents in Tehran today”. The British government has yet to comment on the events, which came one day before the UK’s general election.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with Rouhani, expressing his sympathy over the tragic incidents and saying the attacks on Tehran once again proved the need for international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
By contrast, the US administration was slow to comment on the issue, but US Senator Bernie Sanders offered his condolences to the Iranian people over the event and urged a delay on the vote on sanctions against Iran, due to take place on July 8.
While Islamic State was quick to claim responsibility, some details of the latest double attack have left people questioning whether the terrorist group acted alone or were they in fact working with other groups – such as Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) – to carry out the attack.
This latest outburst of violence follows more than three decades of relative peace since Khomeini’s forces managed to oust his main opponent in the tumultuous years of the revolution, the MEK, which opposed the Islamic Republic in its current form and called for a Marxist outcome to the ousting of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
In the early years of the revolution, the MEK waged a guerrilla campaign against Khomeini’s forces, setting off bombs that killed many of the founding members of the Islamic Republic including then prime minister Ali Rajaei. The judiciary ultimately ordered the execution of up to 30,000 of their members, after which they fled to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The runner-up in Iran’s recent presidential elections, Ebrahim Raisi, is believed to be one of the people responsible for sending many to their deaths. However, any remaining sympathy for the MEK in Iran disappeared after they gave the Iraqi forces key details about Iranian military personnel and sites in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Reports from several media sources and social media accounts by journalists suggested at least one of the attackers was female, while the others were men. A female assailant was also believed to have been carrying a cyanide pill in case she was caught. Both fit the profiles of MEK attacks. The cyanide pill is not something that IS is known for, but previous MEK attacks on Iran were usually committed by a mixture of men and women, all of whom carried such pills.