Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
After three years of trying to strike Iran, the Islamic State (ISIS) finally succeeded in June. The group attacked two highly symbolic and secure targets near Tehran: the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. With this attack, ISIS ticks off its list another important target.
In the summer of 2014, Iranians were panicking as ISIS gained ground in Iraq and its leader declared a caliphate. Iran has grappled with terrorism since the 1940s, but ISIS was a new breed. It controlled swaths of territory not far from Iran’s porous border with Iraq, had vast resources at its disposal, and deployed a large number of operatives, including foreign fighters. Making matters worse, the group was vehemently anti-Shia and exhibited barbarism rarely seen in modern times.
At first, Tehran played down the concerns: The Iraqi security forces were pushing back ISIS, Iranian state media asserted. But soon, it became clear that ISIS was becoming a bigger threat by the day and that Iran needed to tackle the issue rather than brush it under the rug. To that end, it deployed a counterterrorism force honed by years of experience. And with the country increasing its defense budget to allocate further resources to counterterrorism, this apparatus is likely to become even more robust.
Modern Iran’s experience with terrorist groups began in the 1940s, when for a few months during the transition of power between Reza Shah and his son and successor, Mohammad Reza Shah, the state was in turmoil. In the decades that followed, until his regime collapsed in 1979, the Shah was mostly concerned with Islamist, Marxist-Leninist, and Marxist-Maoist groups. Iran’s military, along with its first intelligence agency, known as the SAVAK, were in charge. With law enforcement agencies, the military and SAVAK conducted surveillance, identified terrorist networks, arrested their members, and collected intelligence to prevent, neutralize, and deter attacks. By the early 1970s, the SAVAK and law enforcement had created a joint task force to coordinate such efforts. The SAVAK and Iran’s armed forces also worked with various international partners, including the U.S. intelligence community and Israel’s Mossad, by sharing intelligence and conducting counter-intelligence operations.
To tackle terrorism in the 1990s and 2000s, Iran expanded on the foundations built during the Shah’s time.
The SAVAK and Iran’s armed forces and law enforcement had some successes, including arrests of several terrorist operatives and leaders. In the early 1950s, Iran picked up the leader of the first terrorist group to operate in the country, a man known as Navab Safavi, the head of Fadayian-e Islam—an Islamist group that conducted a number of terrorist attacks at that time. But these were tempered by its controversial tactics. For example, the agency became known for its use of torture to gather intelligence. And although there were and still are some myths around the SAVAK’s mandate and tactics, there was some truth to the rumors.
It was not surprising, then, when in 1978–79, the revolutionaries called for the dismantling of the SAVAK. Upon seizing power, however, even the die-hards realized that they needed a capable intelligence unit to complement the military and the embryonic paramilitary, the Revolutionary Guards, in their efforts to counter Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and terrorist groups alike. As Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, terrorist groups, including both the remaining leftists and some separatist groups, continued their operations against Iran.
The threat of terrorism shifted a bit in the two decades that followed. Islamist elements had integrated the regime, whereas leftist groups had largely left the country and stopped their operations, with the exception of the MeK (the People’s Mujahedin of Iran), which was established to target American influence in the country, oppose the Shah through terror, and promote an agenda blending communist and Shia elements. Now, the main domestic terrorist threats lie with the country’s separatist groups, including Jundollah, which is active in the Sistan-Balochistan province along Iran’s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and various Kurdish groups, such as Pejak, which is active in Western Iran. The foreign threat comes predominantly from Sunni extremist groups, such as al Qaeda.
To tackle the problem in the 1990s and 2000s, the country expanded on the foundations built during the Shah’s time. The counterterrorism apparatus now includes the Revolutionary Guards, the conventional military forces, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and law enforcement. And each organization serves as an umbrella for a number of smaller units, which tackle various operations. A key strength of this post-revolution apparatus is the Revolutionary Guards. The guards started in the 1970s as an unconventional guerilla force. Their experience has afforded them a significant edge in countering various non-state actors.
In addition to regular counterterrorism operations, the Revolutionary Guards and Ministry of Intelligence and Security had another trick up their sleeves. They were working with some terrorist groups to deter them from targeting Iran. For example, Tehran allowed the network to move operatives and transfer funds through its territory. It also granted family members of al Qaeda leaders permission to reside in Iran. As a result, the al Qaeda leadership was reluctant to strike Iran; Osama bin Laden himself advised against it.
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.
First, Iran’s domestic messaging campaign has been stymied by the country’s sectarian image. After all, Tehran supported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when he opted for sectarian policies that sidelined Sunnis and ultimately helped ISIS. And today, the Islamic Republic continues to prop up the Alawite Bashar al-Assad in Syria as his regime commits mass atrocities and deploys chemical weapons against a Sunni-majority population. And some of Iran’s Sunnis, whose grievances haven’t appeared to be among the central authority’s top priorities, have found an outlet in Islamist terrorist groups. For example, the five men and one woman who perpetrated the attacks in Tehran appear to have been Kurds. Following the attacks, a Kurdish member of the Iranian parliament went to great lengths to distance himself and the Kurds from the perpetrators, but he also highlighted his constituents’ grievances: Poverty and lack of opportunities, he argued, had pushed some to violence.
For Iran, ISIS was an entirely different beast from previous Sunni groups.
Second, although Iran has tried to push back ISIS in Iraq, it hasn’t done so as much in Syria. Iran sees ISIS in Iraq as a definitive threat to its own territory, population, and interests. But it views Syria as a good place to contain the terrorist group. There, Iran has focused on helping Assad and his proxies, without necessarily actively pushing back ISIS. And while this has helped keep ISIS in Syria and avoid a spillover, it’s also counterproductive, as it allows ISIS to operate there and plot attacks like the one conducted in June.
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.
Iran’s counterterrorism efforts have weaknesses, to be sure. But the country’s track record against ISIS is still strong. The attacks in Tehran have already galvanized the Iranian population. This will likely make Iranian efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria more popular. And to put the public at ease and send a strong message to ISIS, Iran is upping its counter-ISIS and broader counterterrorism operations and doing so more visibly.