For the first time since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, a Sunni extremist group managed to successfully carry out a terrorist attack in Tehran. Iranians sat mesmerized in front of their TV sets, watching the unfolding events in disbelief and waiting for any information on the terrorists, their motivation and their affiliation.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks against two potent symbols of power in Iran, which left at least 12 dead and 42 wounded. By attacking the Imam Khomeini mausoleum, the final resting place of the founder of the Islamic republic, the terrorists targeted the Islamic revolution itself. And by attacking the parliament, they assaulted Iran’s vibrant yet imperfect democracy. These were attacks on Iran’s political institutions, not Shiism.
By targeting both the symbols of Iranian democracy and the autocratic system of the velayat-e faqih (governance of the jurist), the terrorists, paradoxically, ended up uniting an Iranian society fractured by the recent presidential campaign that saw Hassan Rouhani get reelected. Reformists, moderates, conservatives and hard-liners are now part of a new “sacred union” against terrorism that will most likely enable the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to reinforce its involvement in Syria and increase support for its local militias.
The attack will harden nationalist feelings and legitimize the IRGC’s rhetoric that such an intervention was necessary to fight terrorists in their locations to avoid having to fight them on the streets of Tehran. In a rare message of national unity, Rouhani’s chief of staff for political affairs, Hamid Aboutalebi, encouraged Iranians to applaud the security forces, the IRGC, the Basij militia and police for their “power and firmness.”
This alliance will, however, only be temporary, as the people will soon increase pressure on their government to focus its attention on Iran and its economic woes rather than distant Syria. Conservatives will also use the tragic event to force political change in the next presidential election in four years.
The next few days are crucial to understanding whether Iranian moderates will be able to rein in the IRGC and its Shiite allies, such as the armed Lebanese group Hezbollah, the Afghan militia Fatemiyoun and the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun brigade — which are all doing Iran’s bidding in the war in Syria. Because the Islamic State did not touch any religious symbols, even though the mausoleum site is sacred for Iranians and many Shiites, the government might be able to control the reaction of the more ideological Iranian forces.
But Iranians are not immune to conspiracy theories and are already questioning the timing of the attack, linking it to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s threat a few hours before the attack, when he said that “Iran must be punished for its interference in the region and its support for terrorist organizations.”
Soon after the attack, social media in Iran was abuzz with messages on different platforms such as Telegram and Twitter with every detail of the terrorist operation. The military gear — one of the attackers was found with eight grenades and 12 AK-47 magazines — and the flawless, classical Arabic spoken by one of the attackers have been used to point the finger at Saudi Arabia and raise suspicions about its involvement. Even official confirmation that the attackers were all Sunni Iranians converted by the Islamic State to extremism was met with suspicion.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said: “These fireworks have no effect on Iran. They will soon be eliminated … They are too small to affect the will of the Iranian nation and its officials.” However, the IRGC belligerently and publicly said Saudi Arabia was behind the attack and added that the “spilled blood of the innocent will not remain unavenged.” At a time when regional tensions are at a historic high with the ongoing Qatar crisis, the prospect of an Iranian retaliation through the IRGC or one of its Shiite allies is petrifying, as the consequences for Iran and the region would be unfathomable.
The terrorist attacks will have serious consequences on foreign direct investments, as international companies and governments were waiting for the first signs of economic improvement to enter the Iranian market. And a retaliation in any form would be catastrophic, as it would most likely trigger new U.S. and, possibly, European sanctions against Iran, and once again brand the country as a state sponsor of terrorism.
If the Iranian authorities — not only the government but also the supreme leader — are able and willing to control their most extremist forces, they will be able to maintain the moral high ground by taking advantage of the Shiite tradition of victimization.
The Islamic State attacks show that Iran is a de facto part of the international community, as its democratic institutions and existence are a threat to the terrorist group. This will force countries and individuals to review their analyses. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, for example, will no longer be able to question Iran’s relations with the Islamic State (“What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One, that is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m sure.”) or state that “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS.”
But by stating that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” President Trump proved to many Iranians that their suffering is not considered equal to that of others.
Marc Martinez is a senior analyst at the Delma Institute, an international affairs research consultancy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.