Analysis

Iran Attacks: ISIS Assault on Tehran May Lead to Surprising Alliances in the Middle East

The ISIS attacks on parliament and Khomeini shrine should change how the U.S. sees Iran - from a state that undermines the region's stability to one potentially operating in America's interests

Women are seen inside the parliament during an attack in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017.
TIMA Agency/ Reuters

ISIS’ claim of responsibility for Wednesday's attacks in the heart of Tehran has added Iran to the unofficial list of states hit by Islamic State terrorism.

>> White House: We grieve for the innocent victims, underscore that state sponsors of terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote

These are not the first terror attacks to occur in Iran in recent years. Similar, but less impressive attacks, have been carried out by Sunni terror organizations like Jund al-Islam (The Army of Islam) in the southeastern part of the country on Pakistan’s border and by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (The People’s Holy Warriors). Iran, designated as a terror exporter, has suffered for years from terror within its borders. But this is the first time since ISIS took over territories in Iraq and Syria, and despite its declared war on the Shi’ites and their forces in these two countries, that it has targeted Iran.

Speculation was rife as to why ISIS “exempted” Iran from terror attacks until now. Some cited the conspiracy theory that Iran had a pact with ISIS and was financing it generously in exchange for not being attacked. Others have speculated that ISIS, which cooperated with Assad’s regime and even traded oil and goods with it, spared both Iran and Syria because of their massive activity against Sunni rebels, ISIS’ rivals.

But these conjectures couldn’t explain why ISIS kept silent when Iranian forces, including Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq, sponsored and financed by Iran, attacked the ISIS base in the war on Mosul. Why didn’t ISIS act against Iran as it had acted against Turkey, where it carried out mass attacks in the last two years? After all, Iran fought against ISIS bases in Iraq and Syria with no less resolve than did the Syrian regime. In President Obama’s term Iran even coordinated its activities, unofficially, with the American forces acting against ISIS in Iraq.

An Iranian policeman takes cover during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017.
Tasnim news agency/ Reuters

Perhaps the explanation lies in the difficulties ISIS encountered in setting up terror cells in Iran, in contrast to the organizations that joined it in Egypt, Algiers, Morocco and East Asia or the cells working in its name in Europe. In March this year ISIS published, for the first time, threats in Farsi against Iran and reported that an ISIS branch existed there. According to the activists’ names listed in the video, one apparently hails from the Balochistan district and another from Ahvaz, a predominantly Sunni district. If this assumption is correct, then the infrastructure is much broader than the cells that carried out yesterday’s attacks and Iran is in for a bloody period unlike anything it has experienced until now.

Iran is expected to take advantage of these terror attacks to justify sending more forces to battle sites on the Iraqi and Syrian borders and to beef up the Shi’ite militias operating near Mosul. It may even send more forces to the Raqqa area in Syria where an international campaign, led by the United States and the Syrian Kurds, began two days ago to liberate the region from ISIS.

The war against ISIS has provided all states in the region with an excuse to intervene in these campaigns and could also legitimize Iran’s moves, even if they’re not aimed at ISIS.

The opposition to ISIS has created strange coalitions in the Middle East, like the one between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose relations were extremely tense until King Salman’s coronation. He added Turkey to the Sunni coalition despite Ankara’s nearly severing ties with Egypt. Another alliance was formed between Turkey and Russia about a year and a half after Turkey intercepted a Russian aircraft. Relations between Iran and the Sunni Taliban also strengthened as part of Iran’s anti-terror defense strategy.

So far Trump has granted a stamp of approval to any state willing to join the war on ISIS in particular, and against terror in general. Now the United States will have to examine Iran’s status not only as a state that undermines the region’s stability, but as one operating in America’s interests. If the American (and global) interest is to act together against ISIS and radical Islamic terror, Iran can and should be part of this alignment.

This approach could shake up Saudi Arabia, which initiated the Arab boycott on Qatar with the excuse that the latter is supporting terror and cooperating with Iran. If Iran now becomes a state that fights terror, the case against Qatar will also fall apart. Also, some 10 days ago Iranian President Hassan Rohani said he was planning to improve his country’s relations with all the states, hinting mainly at relations with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps yesterday’s attacks will serve as a launching pad for a new reconciliation initiative with the kingdom as part of the diplomacy war against terror.

But these developments are just starting because Iran hasn’t presented its war plans against terror yet, and must first find out how ISIS’ terror network operated under its nose.