1 July 2017

*** Iran's Next Move in the Fight Against Terrorism

Sandwiched between Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it seems almost miraculous that Iran hasn't suffered a major act of domestic terrorism in over 15 years. But that changed on June 7 when twin attacks in Tehran left 17 dead and around 50 injured. The Islamic State swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Iranian security apparatus switched into high gear, working to round up suspects and prevent other plots from culminating. Iran has always tightly protected its core territory, even if the country's restive periphery has traditionally been a source of instability. Now Tehran is concerned about the southeastern and northwestern reaches of the country, especially growing militancy among the Kurdish and Sunni minority groups that live there. In response to the Islamic State's violent statement of intent, the pace of counterterrorism activity has increased across the country, and a June 14 raid in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan targeting suspected terrorists left two dead and five in custody.

The reason for the Islamic State's heightened activity in Iran is relatively straightforward: It is easier and cheaper to wage terrorism and insurgency than to fight conventionally in the hope of taking, holding and governing large swaths of territory. The Islamic State has suffered significant losses on the battlefield, which has damaged its reputation — a problematic result for an organization that thrives on its perceived ruthlessness and potency. Desperately needing to reinvigorate its brand, the group hopes that high-profile successes like the recent Iran attacks will energize its support base once more. 

This goal has informed the Islamic State's cross-border strategy, which will only become more lucid as the group's core territories are inevitably whittled away. The situation will become particularly grave when the group has no more ground left to hold, and the last bastions of Mosul and Raqqa have fallen. Unable to maintain the perception of being an invincible force, the Islamic State will devolve into a nomadic militancy, fanning the flames of sectarian unrest elsewhere and terrorizing a broad front in hopes of creating conditions that are ripe for exploitation. 

Striking Out 

In fact, the Islamic State has long sought to expand its reach into Iran, where it sees an opportunity to stir up sectarian factions in support of its cause. In recent months, the organization increased its volume of Farsi-language propaganda — an overt attempt to rile Iran's Sunni minority into insurgency. And the ploy appears to be working. The individuals implicated in the June 7 attacks are believed to be Iranian citizens from Kurdish or Arab minorities, operating under orders from the Islamic State core. 

Beyond fomenting a dedicated, homegrown rebellion, the Islamic State has an ulterior motive in targeting Iran: It aims to undermine al Qaeda's influence and standing in the region. Widely perceived as a more radical offshoot of al Qaeda, the Islamic State has been openly critical of the former organization's unwillingness to target Iranian Shiites for fear of reprisals. Osama bin Laden himself disapproved of direct action against Iran, but his ideals hold little sway over the Islamic State, a group not known for its restraint.

In an attempt to manage the situation, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani issued a balanced call for unity and cooperation against the Islamic State. He even suggested working with Iran's historical rival, Saudi Arabia, against a common enemy. Yet his influence in Iranian affairs is limited by the mechanisms of state. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leads the country's national security council and with it, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Khamenei's sway even stretches beyond security and into foreign policy. With his permission, the IRGC could find itself with a mandate to operate with more autonomy across the region, and not necessarily against just the Islamic State. 

The IRGC responded to the attacks with anger and calls for vengeance, but its collective displeasure is not reserved for the Islamic State alone. Hard-liners within the organization have accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of being complicit in the attacks, citing U.S. President Donald Trump's recent visit to Riyadh as evidence of some form of collusion against Iran. The IRGC already has an ax to grind with Washington after multiple U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against positions held by IRGC-linked militants in Syria, which resulted in threats of retaliation by the IRGC and Hezbollah.

Rouhani could choose to challenge this kind of aggressive posturing, but it would not benefit him to do so. Re-elected in May, he relied on moderate and reformist backing to win the presidential race. This puts him at odds with Tehran's hard-liners, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the majority of the IRGC leadership. Iran needs to present a strong outward face, but that does not mean that ideological debates will not continue behind closed doors.

What Follows

Internally, Iran's security forces will continue to ruthlessly pursue those linked to the attacks or the Islamic State. Externally, the IRGC's commitment to Syria and Iraq remains extant. But as IRGC-linked units and loyalist troops inch closer to coalition forces and their rebel allies in Syria, the possibility of repercussions will arise. Indeed, the day after the Tehran attacks, a loyalist airstrike reportedly hit Syrian Democratic Forces near Tabqa. 

Iran has shown more restraint in Iraq, though. Not only is Tehran unwilling to risk a backlash from its immediate neighbor, but it also recognizes the importance of external forces when it comes to stabilizing Iraq's tenuous security situation. Without direct U.S. support, the effort to dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul would likely falter. Tehran will settle for shoring up its influence in Baghdad, assisting the country's Shiite militias and lending support to select political figures and parties. In the long run, this approach could work well for Iran while at the same time undermining Washington's influence in Iraq.

Beyond the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields, Iran could use its proxies to sow discord throughout the region, though this is less probable. If Tehran sought to undermine U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf, it could seek to further destabilize Bahrain, which is well within its reach. Furthermore, the ongoing spat between Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council states provides ample opportunity for Iranian meddling. Ironically, the pressure from other Gulf states on Qatar to harden its position against Iran could be the very thing that makes the country a target for Iranian proxies. Either way, it is clear that Iran feels confronted and now has the motivation — as well as the ability — to fuel discontent in a part of the world that is already quietly aflame.

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