Middle East in Focus
The twin terror attacks carried out in Iran against two symbolically important sites—the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomenei’s mausoleum—have once more laid bare the internal tension between the hardliners and the reformists in Tehran. In the short to medium term, the attacks are likely to strengthen the hand of the hardliners and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Many Iranian officials are casting blame at what they see as their perennial enemy, Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran’s Kurdish population. But not all are willing to accept the official narrative.
The initial reaction from Iranian military officials was one of defiance. According to the Iranian news agency Press TV, some have gone so far as to promise retaliatory actions against those who may have supported the attackers: “Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Baqeri has pledged that the Islamic Republic would give ‘new unforgettable lessons’ to terrorists and their allies after recent twin terrorist attacks in Tehran....He added that the Iranian Armed Forces and intelligence and security bodies would give new unforgettable lessons to terrorists and their regional and extra-regional supporters at the suitable location and time in order to uproot the ominous phenomenon of terrorism in cooperation with other Muslim nations. The top Iranian commander warned those who still seek to hatch plots and draw up anti-security plans against the Islamic Republic to take lessons from the terrorists’ fate and avoid repeating their mistakes even in their minds.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wasted no time in blaming Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, for “promoting terror in Iran’s borders.” Staff writers for Tehran Times report: “Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Tuesday that Iran has obtained intelligence showing that Saudi Arabia is actively involved in activities promoting terrorism in Iran’s eastern and western border areas.... One day prior to the terrorist attacks in Tehran, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Iran had to be punished’ for what he called ‘its interference in the region’. Also, on May 2 Saudi [Deputy] Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outrageously claimed that Iran is seeking to take over Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia and ‘we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia… we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran’. Though the [deputy] crown prince did not elaborate on his remarks, analysts say it cannot be anything other than doing terrorist activities inside Iran. Zarif told the Oslo forum that such remarks are a ‘direct threat and very dangerous provocation’.”
Meanwhile, Asharq Alawsat’s Adil Alsalmi turns his attention to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, highlighting some of the Iranian voices calling for a measured response and for reconsidering, perhaps, Iran’s involvement in the region: “The ministry said the attackers were part of a network that entered Iran in July-August 2016 under the leadership of high-ranking ISIS commander Abu Aisha intending to carry out operations in religious cities. Abu Aisha was killed and the network forced to flee the country, the statement said. It was unclear when the five men returned to Iran ahead of Wednesday’s attacks.... Iranian media, meanwhile, expressed shock at the attacks at a time when Tehran claims that it is interfering in Syria and Iraq militarily to fight ISIS and terrorism, and prevent bloodshed and war from reaching Iran. Also Thursday, Hesam al-Din Ashna, cultural adviser to President Hasan Rouhani, warned against executing people convicted of belonging to extremist organizations in response to the latest attacks. ‘ISIS is awaiting for vengeful reactions so that it lures more fighters and reproduces terrorism,’ he said on Twitter.”
It looks like the hunt has already begun, with the Iranian government also identifying Iran’s Kurdish community as one possible source of support for the terrorists. Rohollah Faghihi, writing for Al-Monitor, acknowledges such voices, while pointing out that the Kurds also have their defenders: “activists, artists and the media have come to the defense of Iran’s Kurdish community following the airing of negative sentiment in some quarters saying that at least several of the perpetrators of the June 7 attacks were Iranian Kurds. In its June 13 edition, Reformist Vaghaye Daily published its headline in Sorani Kurdish. ‘Terrorism knows no ethnicity, religion, race, law and many other things. In fact, terrorism has come to take lives. Without any logic, [terrorism] has come to scare [people] and put them apart from each other, and kill humanity,’ wrote Vaghaye Daily in defense of Iran’s Kurdish community.”
Al Arabiya’s Heshmat Alavi, meanwhile, gives voice to the fear within Iran’s reformist community that the terrorist attacks are a boon for the hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guards: “The remarks made by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can be viewed as seeking to capitalize on the recent attacks in Tehran that left 17 dead and dozens more wounded.... For a variety of reasons the IRGC will profit from establishing a certain high security atmosphere inside the country. Firstly, to begin an initiative to pressure Rouhani’s cabinet, and secondly, preparing the grounds for determining Khamenei’s successor, an issue discussed extensively in different circles across Iran....The Iranian regime desperately needs such an open hand to have any hope of confronting the status quo, especially since the Trump administration has yet to define its Iran policy, the future of the Iran nuclear deal is in questions, sanctions will not be lifted from Iran and Washington will most likely be demanding concessions from Tehran in the region.”
For Turkish commentator Murat Yetkin, however, the terrorist attacks signal a dangerous turn in regional politics. In a recent op-ed for Hurriyet Daily News, Mr. Yetkin worries about what blow-back effects may occur in a region already grappling with unpredictability: “this attack may have bigger consequential outcomes and may even trigger a chain reaction in the region if Iran and pro-Iran groups decide to retaliate. The attack also took place at a time when the U.S.-led coalition has just launched its offensive on June 3 to take the city of Raqqa from the hands of ISIL, amounting to another factor of strain in the region.... President Tayyip Erdoğan said during an iftar fast-breaking invitation in Ankara on June 6 that he has told U.S. President Donald Trump about the future drawbacks of trying to defeat one terrorist organization with the help of another. But he also said ‘may it be for the good’, indicating that Ankara is not likely to escalate the YPG debate until the end of the Raqqa operation, or until a direct threat is posed by the YPG against Turkish interests.... The Qatar crisis, the Saudi escalation and the Tehran terror attack have further increased uncertainties in the Middle East, which is becoming a powder keg that could go off at any moment with new, unexpected sparks.”