June 8, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The Islamic State Strikes Iran
The June 7 dual attack in Tehran that killed 17 people and wounded over 50 was more than just the first major attack claimed by the so-called Islamic State inside Iran. It was a relatively complex operation that demonstrated that the group has more than a few supporters in a country it has long wanted to strike. Four men attacked the Iranian parliament, where they killed at least 11 people; one reportedly used a suicide vest. Security officials eventually killed all four, but the attack lasted several hours. At the same time, two men attacked the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran; that attack killed at least one person as well as the two attackers, and occurred at one of the most symbolic religious and political locations in the country.
Quite different than al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has long been open about its desire to attack not only Iranian interests in the region, but Iran itself. While Iran is still a state-sponsor of terrorism—with its direct support of Lebanese Hizballah and other groups—it has been helping to crush the Islamic State in Iraq for years. Iran directly and substantially supports the Iraqi military and Shi’a militias that have conducted the bulk of the battle against the Islamic State since the group took over Mosul and other cities in 2014. Iran is also fighting in Syria to support the Assad regime against rebel groups, some of which are extremists. It is no small matter for the Islamic State to have claimed the attacks in Tehran, especially at a time when the group’s fortunes are waning across the board in terms of control of physical territory. Iranian officials have arrested five people in connection with the attacks; it remains to be seen how large of a capability the Islamic State has in Iran and if it will retain the ability to strike again.
The timing of the attack is extremely problematic. Tensions in the Gulf region are at historic highs, and the prospects of conflict—whether proxy or more direct—are quite real. The complexities of the regional machinations and relationships defy simple explanations, though the main driver of tensions is the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is playing out in countries from Yemen to Syria and elsewhere. One of the main issues that led to the June 6 rupture in relations between the Saudi-led bloc of Sunni Arab Gulf states and Qatar was the latter’s relatively decent relations with Iran. The ongoing sectarian conflict and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran—which the U.S., through President Trump’s statements during his recent visit to Riyadh, has very openly injected itself into on the side of Saudi Arabia—is among the most significant drivers of destabilization and conflict anywhere in the world.
A sign of how deeply and openly the U.S. is intertwining itself in the long-running Saudi-Iranian conflict was the statement of condolences issued by the White House to Iran in the aftermath of the attack—usually a polite and non-controversial expression of sympathy for the victims, even when the governments are not on good terms. The U.S. statement ended with the line, “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” The somewhat aggressive ending was immediately denounced by Iranian officials, who needed no additional reasons to try to find larger conspiracies behind the attack. Iran will undoubtedly respond to the attack, though in what fashion remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that by openly aligning with Saudi Arabia in its sectarian conflict with Iran—and by portraying the highly complex and murky issue as one of simply countering Iran-sponsored terrorism—the U.S. is involving itself in a conflict with no clear-cut exit.
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