The two coordinated Islamic State (IS) attacks on the Iranian Parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini are not only the first IS attacks in Iran, but also the first terror attacks of this kind in the country. These attacks are the realization of threats articulated by IS in late March to strike Iran. This was also the first “official” threat to Iran in the Persian language.
The level of execution, preparedness, and magnitude of the attack suggest professional intelligence gathering. These factors combined leave little room for doubt that the Islamic State is behind the attacks. IS generally prioritizes the targeting of symbolic sites, as was the case in Iran. The locations of the attacks–the parliament and the tomb of the founder of the Islamic Republic–were not chosen at random. There is certainly some irony in the fact that Khomeini’s tomb was attacked by suicide bombers. Hizballah, which is an Iranian creation, was the first to introduce suicide attacks, in 1982 and 1983 against Israel in Tyre and against the Multinational Force in Lebanon. During the second intifada, Iranian politicians and clerics also glorified the suicide bombers of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
The most puzzling question that remains be answered is the precise identity of the attackers. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence announced that it had managed to identify all the assailants, whose names are Ramin, Abu Jihad, Saryas, Qhayoum, and Faridoun. The ministry did not reveal their last names for “security reasons.” All five attackers were Iranians. IS had been threatening to strike Iran since March, when it published a clip in Persian. As IS becomes more and more cornered, its motivation to carry out attacks abroad is growing. Still, one should bear in mind that IS did not emerge as a clone of al-Qa’ida, and attacks abroad were not its first priority. One can only assume that the attack against Iran will boost the image of the Islamic State as a formidable force, which despite heavy losses continues to fight the archenemy of Sunni Muslims, Iran.
Shortly after the attack, IS issued a new video in which the five supposed perpetrators, all masked, conveyed their message. The most striking detail is that they speak Iranian-Iraqi Kurdish (Sorani). They announce the formation of the first brigade of the “soldiers of the Caliphate” in Iran. They depict Iran and the Shi’a as apostates (kuffar; rawafidh, ahl ul-shirk; Islamic terms are originally in Arabic). They add that Iran must be fought, as it spills the blood of Muslims everywhere throughout the Muslim world, from Yemen to Libya. “Iranians and Shi’a are… followers of the Jews” (atba’ al-yahud). No less important, the attackers also address the message to Saudi Arabia, which is referred to as “al-Salul” (a humiliating reference to the al-Saud dynasty): “Finally we tell Al-Salul that after Iran, your turn will come, and we will strike you in your own backyard. All this is because the soldiers of the Caliphate are vassals of no one and fight only for the sake of Allah.”
Thus, everything fits perfectly with the patterns and modus operandi of the Islamic State. It was revealed that IS had managed to recruit Sunni Kurds inside Iran that were capable of carrying out such a complicated attack. IS also released a video filmed by one of the assailants during the attack. One can hear the assailant cry in literary Arabic (and not in any spoken dialect), “Do you ever think we will leave? We are here to stay, with Allah’s permission.” IS Farsi-language telegram channels celebrated the terrorist attack.
The reaction of the Iranian leadership has been somewhat predictable. The Supreme Leader Khamene’i referred to the attack as “merely a firework.” In a speech delivered at a meeting with students, he provided what could be seen as a pretext for the Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq: “If the Islamic Republic had not carried out resistance in the points that are the original center of this turmoil [fitnah], we would have had many similar incidents inside the country [Iran].” The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was quick to blame Saudi Arabia for the attack, as did countless pro-regime Twitter users. The pro-IRGC Fars News Agency declared that “the cowardly act of DAESH will produce nothing and represents the face of Wahhabi -Zionist terrorism.”
Overall Iranian social media reacted with ire, shock and calls for unity in face of the terrorist atrocities. Yet some users also raised tough questions. One Twitter user, Shabnevis, said, “”Weren’t they supposed to fight in Syria so that they would not have to fight DAESH in Tehran? What have these claims of security been for then?” Another user wrote, “Didn’t they say the situation was under control?”
Iran will surely exploit the IS terrorist attack to embolden its own image as the victim of jihadi terrorism. However, the regime’s next move is unclear. This is also due to differing approaches toward the problem of the Sunni minorities. Greater crackdown on the Sunnis is likely to lead to an increase in those who wish to join IS, particularly given that the IS propaganda resonates with reality in the case of Iran. Whether the attackers were Iranian nationals or Iraqi Sunni Kurds, IS still managed to infiltrate and create an operational network in the Shi’i country, no easy task. The people of Iran thus became the victims of barbaric jihadi terrorism, but this tragedy should not persuade anyone that Iran is part of a solution and not a part of the problem.