By Raman Ghavami
The recent terrorist attack in Iran has exposed the fragility of the country’s security.
On June 7, terrorism came to Tehran as 17 people were killed and many more wounded. While the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dismissed the attack as mere “fireworks,” in reality it shocked the nation and has revealed that internal security is much more fragile than many had thought.
The Quds force, a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has been involved in regional conflicts in the Middle East. Many believed this had strengthened the country’s national security as well, but the recent attacks have exposed its weakness. The Iranians may have fought well in Syria and elsewhere as the government flexes its regional muscle, but it would appear that the forces they have been fighting against are now hitting back — this time in Iran.
Tensions in the Middle East have been running high since US President Donald Trump visited Riyadh in May. After he left, Saudi Arabia and its allies led a regional effort to put pressure on Qatar in order to end its ambiguous Iran policy, particularly since Tehran aims to engage more with the West after its re-election of President Hassan Rouhani.
But neither the Trump administration nor Saudi Arabia and its allies are prepared to accept this. They seem more intent on isolating Iran rather than allowing the regime to grow stronger by presenting a so-called progressive president to the world. According to Al Arabiya, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on June 7 that Iran must be reprimanded for its interference and support of terrorism in the Middle East. The assault on Tehran comes after recent attacks in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a Shia-majority region.
After the attacks in Iran, the IRGC released a statement: “The public opinion of the world, especially Iran, recognizes this terrorist attack — which took place a week after a joint meeting of the U.S. president and the head of one of the region’s most backward governments, which continuously supports fundamentalist terrorists — as very significant.” This was in reference to Saudi Arabia. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also took the opportunity to criticize a US arms deal with the Saudis in a recent tweet. In May, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, the deputy crown prince, stated: “We know we are a main target of Iran. We are not waiting until there is a battle in our country, so we will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.” This all reflects the mounting tension and bellicosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
While Saudi Arabia and Iran have a war of words, militant Sunni groups could become a key challenge for the Iranians. As the Syrian Democratic Forces advance into Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State (IS) caliphate, the attack in Tehran shows that the terrorist organization is willing to target Iran in order to gain support and make up for its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. In the past few years, IS has showed it is capable of finding new targets and thus keep motivation high amongst its members and supporters when it is under pressure and losing ground. This time, the group is being more pragmatic by shifting its focus from Sunni-majority countries to Shia-majority Iran.
Although Iranian authorities have since announced the arrest of IS militants, it is claimed they were aware of the presence of extremists and had been using them against secular opposition in the country — a risky policy that has clearly backfired. A report in 2014 by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an Iranian-Kurdish opposition group, indicated that Seryas Sadeghi — one of the Tehran attackers — had been leading an IS cell and recruiting members under the Iranian regime’s watch in the Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces. The report also adds that Sadeghi and other IS members held meetings publicly in mosques, cities and villages in order to gain support for the group.
Khaled Azizi, the secretary general of the KDP, told this author that: “[The] Iranian government has been using Islamic extremists in [the] west of Iran against secular opposition parties for decades. Also, by providing them a safe zone in Iran, the regime tried to push people to focus on their religious beliefs rather than moving towards more progressive movements.”
IRANIAN NATIONAL SECURITY
So, with this in mind, Iran is reluctant to admit the weakness of its national security. Simply put, the Iranians don’t want anyone — inside or outside the country — to ask how terrorists could penetrate parliament and the Ayatollah Khomeini mausoleum and kill people. Tehran, therefore, is trying its best to portray the attack as small and ineffective despite targeting the most secure and symbolic places in the country.
The reason Iranian authorities have accused the US of supporting IS following the terrorist attack is to unite Iranians against any Saudi-Trump plans to destabilize Iran and also to cover up the big hole in the country’s internal security.
The policy of allowing extremists to move freely inside Iran in order to isolate secular parties is backfiring. If Iran now attempts to go after these groups, there could be further attacks on Iranian soil. IS and other militant organizations could look for support from regional and international countries who would be willing to destabilize Iran regardless of whom that would entail supporting. If that happens, the Middle East could become even more volatile.
Raman Ghavami is a Middle East analyst. He has worked for various social and political organisations across the Middle East and Europe. He is currently working for a consultancy firm based in the United Kingdom. Ghavami holds an MA in International Relations. He is the senior advisor to the Kurdish Knowledge Centre (KKC).