On Sunday, six ballistic missiles launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched from western Iran, and came crashing down on their targets in Syria’s eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor. The attack, Iranian officials said, was retaliation for the Islamic Sate’s June 7 terror attacks in Tehran, which left 18 people dead. An IRGC spokesman said the attack was also a “warning message” for the terror group’s “regional and international allies.”
Iran’s top leadership has left little doubt who it believes those allies are. In an earlier speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to President Donald Trump’s remarks accusing Iran of being the godfather of terrorism in the Middle East. “You [the United States] and your agents are the source of instability in the Middle East,” the Iranian leader charged. “Who created the Islamic State? America.”
Iran’s terror problem, however, cannot be resolved by lobbing ballistic missiles at eastern Syria or rhetorical bombs at the United States. The June 7 terror attack by five lightly armed but well-organized terrorists against two of Iran’s top landmarks — the parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic — serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of blowback from Iran’s multiple interventions in the Arab world. Without some kind of introspection, Iran will likely remain in the line of fire of Sunni jihadis for a long time to come.
Invincible no more
While all five of the Islamic State terrorists were Iranian nationals hailing from Kurdish-populated regions on the border with Iraq, the deadly sectarian worldview that they espouse is very much imported from the vicious, years-long wars in Iraq and Syria — wars that Iran, through its military interventions, has helped intensify and prolong.
The Islamic State is vowing more attacks are to come. In a video claiming responsibility for the attack, the group promised, “Tehran [will be] transformed into open battlefields for the soldiers of the Islamic State.” In a video released from the attack, the Sunni Iranian recruits are heard saying: “Do you think we will go away?”
There is no reason to think they will. About 10 percent of Iran’s 80 million people are Sunni. This large minority lives predominately in the border regions: in southeastern Balochistan and the coastal regions of the south, and in Iranian Kurdistan, a region that spans much of Iran’s border with Iraq. The community has many grievances with the central government, from political marginalization to socioeconomic deprivation. But the vast majority of Sunni Iranians continue to see themselves as part of Iran, and hope for serious political reform someday. It is not a coincidence that reformist candidates have done best in Sunni areas: In the last presidential election, Rouhani scored his two biggest victories in Balochistan and Kurdistan.
For decades, Balochistan and Kurdistan have experienced limited, localized anti-government militancy motivated by ethnic nationalism and leftist ideology. This began to shift in the mid-2000s, when a growing number of ethnic Balochs and Kurds joined the bandwagon of Sunni jihad in neighboring Iraq. The focus of their attacks on the central government in Tehran shifted from it being “Persian” to it being “Shiite.”
The internationalization of Iran’s Sunni jihadis really took off with the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014. In Balochistan, the Sunni jihadi group Jundallah began to express solidarity with the Islamic State in its propaganda, and the Iranian Kurdish Sunni jihadi group Ansar al-Islam declared its outright allegiance to the group. Both groups, which are designated as terrorist entities by the United States, have remained small. Still, their transformation was nonetheless a direct result of a regional sectarian rage in which Iranian state policies are partly guilty of fanning.