Today, ISIS executed simultaneous terrorist attacks against the Iranian parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini – the spiritual and political leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As of this writing, 12 people were killed and dozens more injured in the first major ISIS attack in Iran. This horrible attack targeting Iran is a worrying development, first because it puts another country under the threat of the terror group, but also because it can increase tensions in the region, thereby contributing to ISIS propaganda and recruiting.
Why Iran and Why Now?
ISIS rhetoric, propaganda and actions has always targeted Shia Muslims, which ISIS sees as legitimate targets because they do not see them as “true Muslims.” This genocidal ideology towards Shia Muslims in part dates back to one of ISIS’ founding fathers, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led a bloody campaign against Iraq’s Shia population. Iran, as a Shia majority country, is a valuable target for ISIS. Moreover, as Iran is militarily involved in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the organization justifies attacks against it as it justifies attacks against the U.S. and other European countries.
Past incarnations of ISIS, when it was under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda, did not target Iran. The reason was that Al-Qaeda had an understanding with Iran. While the organization will refrain from attacking it, the regime will allow Al-Qaeda to operate somewhat freely in the country, including letting Al-Qaeda operatives to pass from Afghanistan to Iraq through Iran. Today, with ISIS unaffiliated with Al-Qaeda, this arrangement is no longer valid. Important to note that this is by no means the first time ISIS has tried to target Iran, but it is the first time it succeeded in a significant way. In recent years, different reports from Iran indicated that security agencies were able to stop numerous terror plots, some possibly connected to ISIS.
The timing of the attack is also not surprising. This attack happened during the month of Ramadan, when ISIS and other Jihadi groups tend to increase the frequency and lethality of their attacks. The attack in Tehran comes after numerous deadly attacks in the past two weeks, including the two attacks in the U.K., the attack targeting Coptic Christians in Egypt, the attack in Baghdad and more. Furthermore, as ISIS is losing territory in both Iraq and Syria, the organization wants to maintain this image of “success” in targeting its enemies, and as mentioned, Tehran is a valuable target for ISIS.
The nature of the attack, namely the targets and execution, indicate that ISIS was preparing this act for quite some time. Both targets, the parliament and the tomb, are probably heavily guarded, meaning that the attackers would have needed to scout out the place first to find out how to pass through security. Also, its statement about the attack mentioned that five attackers were involved; meaning that this was a terrorist cell that probably received some training from ISIS. All these preparations take time, demonstrating that ISIS has been planning this for a significant amount of time.
The ISIS attack in Tehran will likely increase tensions in the Middle East as some political players in Iran, such as the Iranian revolutionary guards (IRGC) for example, will use this attack to add more fuel to the already big fire of sectarianism in the region.
The IRGC has already blamed Saudi Arabia for this attack in a statement, although they did not present any evidence backing this statement and ISIS had already claimed responsibility. An IRGC official added that Iran will take revenge on the Kingdom and the U.S. It is unlikely that Iran will follow up on these statements, but if they do, it will not be a direct attack against Saudi Arabia. The regime has many proxies that they can use to do its bid while concealing Iranian involvement.
This terrorist attack can also allow some Iranian figures to justify expanding Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq in order to “fight terrorism” and crack down on domestic opposition groups. Iran is already militarily involved in Syria and Iraq, but any increase in their presence will serve to further alarm regional rivals and the U.S.
ISIS, for its part, will use this attack to increase morale among its fighters, which is particularly important for the organization as it continues to lose territory.
The terror group will most likely be able to use this incident to increase recruitment by saying that it is the only group that was able to target Iran’s capital, in a time in which Iran is helping different regimes in the region to “kill Sunnis.” Al-Qaeda never executed a significant attack in Iran, so as part of the competition between these two terror organizations, ISIS will be able to claim superiority over Al-Qaeda. Should Iran decide to expand its military operations in Syria and Iraq due to this attack, it will also play into the ISIS narrative of a sectarian war in which they are the only true defender of Sunnis.