July 5, 2017


ISIS Hits Iran : Terror Comes to the Islamic Republic (Ariane M. Tabatabai, 7/04/17, Foreign Affairs)

For Iran, ISIS was an entirely different beast from previous Sunni groups because it controlled territory and resources, created real chaos in Iran's neighborhood, harbored a strong anti-Shia stance, put Iran on its target list, tried to create an offshoot in Iran, and displayed barbarism rare even for terrorist groups.

As the group gained strength, Iran quickly deployed the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force to Iraq and then to Syria, where those troops were later joined by the country's military. The regime was initially reluctant to publicize its presence in Iraq and Syria. But with the Iranian public more anxious about the group's presence in Iran's neighborhood and the international community increasingly involved, Iran began to do so--effectively. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani became an icon when his photos with various Iraqi and Syrian forces were made public on Instagram and other platforms. Today, Soleimani is widely popular. He has managed to make the Guards, which have typically been viewed fairly negatively, more popular too.

Tehran also made use of its connections with various groups on the ground, including the Shia militias and the Kurds, as well as Baghdad and Damascus. Through its own version of the U.S. "Train Advise Assist" program, Tehran helped support and equip the anti-ISIS forces. And it beefed up its defenses and its counter-messaging efforts at home by emphasizing development in predominantly Sunni border areas (which had previously been ignored by Tehran), working with local Sunni clerics and leaders to undermine ISIS' message, and appointing a minister to oversee religious minority affairs.

These efforts were fairly successful. Approximately one year before the twin attacks in Tehran last month, Iran's ministry of intelligence and security had uncovered and foiled an ISIS plan to hit 50 different targets in the capital. Details of the plot were released later: It involved 600,000 euros, 100 kg of explosives, and a number of operatives. Later, Iranian officials stated that they had dismantled a network of over 1,000 operatives in the country. ISIS had even reportedly tried to create an offshoot in Iran to increase its effectiveness in the country. 

Given that, for three years, ISIS had reportedly placed Iran among its top three targets, it is impressive that there have been no major incidents until now--especially given some shortcomings in Iran's counterterrorism efforts. [...]

The Tehran attacks only make it clearer that ISIS is not containable. The Iranian public already saw ISIS as a major threat. Now it has proof. In some ways, this will allow the government to justify its activities in Iraq, Syria, and potentially Afghanistan--where the ISIS offshoot the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP) has been gaining ground, which the Iranians saw as a threat when NATO didn't. The increasingly unpopular Iranian intervention in Syria may gain momentum as a result of the attacks too. And the Guards can enjoy unprecedented popularity.

Against this backdrop, Iran is boosting its counterterrorism operations at home and abroad. Since the twin attacks in Tehran, the government has already killed the assailants, arrested a number of other suspected operatives, and quietly beefed up its counterterrorism efforts in Sunni-majority areas, such as Sistan-Balochistan, where the Guards killed the leader of Ansar al-Furqan, a Sunni terrorist group, last week. The Guards also launched missile strikes targeting what they described as ISIS headquarters in the ISIS-controlled Syrian town of Deir ez-Zour. The missile launches are the most visible action Iran has taken against ISIS yet in a campaign that has become increasingly public. And the missile strikes serve a dual purpose: They allow Tehran to deter ISIS as well as the country's Gulf Arab neighbors, whom Iranian leaders believe can only be held back by Iran's missile program.

Posted by at July 5, 2017 6:07 AM