The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday — in bright daylight and at two very different yet entirely related locations — up the ante in what has become a battle royale for influence in the Middle East, and in the fight against the terrorists wreaking havoc in the region and in the West. While Iran may seem to Americans a million miles away, what happens in Tehran most definitely does not stay there.
On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, President Trump joined many of his Arab counterparts in denouncing Iran as the foremost sponsor of terrorism, perhaps unaware of the irony of doing so while being feted in the country of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ideological forefathers. Qatar, whose emir met with Mr. Trump in Riyadh and who was perhaps alarmed by the carte blanche being given to Saudi Arabia, subsequently reached out to Iran in an attempt to calm tensions in a combustible region. He was rewarded with the cutting off both political and economic relations by a Saudi-led coalition: Arab unity be damned.
Two days later, terrorists struck in Tehran. The timing is significant, but so are the locations: The sites of the Islamic State’s attacks demonstrate what Iran’s enemies hope to destroy and how these goals are tied to the wider instability facing the Middle East.
One of sites of the jihadists’ terror was the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the founder of both the Islamic revolution and the republic it gave birth to, a figure revered by both conservatives and reformists in Iran’s Islamic political structure. Khomeini’s political ideology, known in Farsi as “velayat-e-faqih,” or guardianship of a supreme jurist, is a uniquely Shiite concept. By its very nature, it conflicts with Sunni beliefs and especially Wahhabism, the ideology that all the terror groups inflicting misery on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria — as well as London, Paris and Brussels — adhere to. The political concept is that in the absence of the Messiah, a qualified jurist cleric — an ayatollah for Shiites — must be the guardian over the Muslim faithful, thus the position of Supreme Leader in Iran; the Shiite interpretation is anathema to fundamentalist Sunnis’ worldview.
To attempt to blow up the resting place of the father of the velayat — a conspicuously huge structure on the outskirts of Tehran — and to kill Shiites from different countries who had come to pay their respects to Khomeini is hugely symbolic for the Islamic State’s supporters. But it pleases Wahhabists everywhere. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, recently declared that there is no point in talking to Iran because the country adheres to an “extremist ideology,” seemingly a reference to velayat.
Prince Mohammed also threatened to ensure that “the battle is for them in Iran,” which many Iranians, including the government, took as a military threat. Indeed, already in Tehran, and in spite of the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility, some Iranian fingers (especially military ones) are pointing to Saudi Arabia. Many Iranians, no strangers to conspiracy theories, will believe Saudi complicity at best and direct instructions at worst. This will only exacerbate tensions between the Middle East’s two behemoths, who are already battling it out in Syria and Yemen. It is also likely to put further strain on the relationship between Iran and the United States, where an uneasy truce left over from the Obama administration has been threatened by the Trump administration and Congress’s saber rattling, as well as the president’s recent sword dance in the Arabian desert.
The other location of the terrorist attacks, Iran’s Parliament building — which has symbolized Iranians’ democratic aspirations since the constitutional revolution of 1906 — was also certainly chosen for its symbolic significance.
Iran’s unique form of government since 1979 incorporates elements of democracy with theocracy. The legislative branch, whose members are elected by the people, is an important if not vital element in the stability and longevity of the Islamic Republic. (The Parliament is also where in 1953 Iranians thought they’d finally achieved true democratic rule under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, only to see their hopes dashed by a C.I.A.-backed coup.) In attacking the building, the Islamic State has tried to send the message not only that it hates Shiites and their doctrine but it also hates the Iranian version of democracy — parliamentary or Islamic.
Until now, terror in Iran had been visited inside its borders by radical Iranian opposition organizations, or by separatist groups. Iranian intelligence services and the Revolutionary Guards have been quite adept at foiling plots over the years. Hardly a week goes by in Iran without some announcement that a terrorist cell has been dismantled. But Wednesday’s attack shows an unexpected vulnerability in its security, especially in what should have been among the best-protected sites. For years, Iran has boasted — not without merit — that it is the safest and most stable place in the Middle East. The Islamic State and others have been determined to prove Iranian leaders wrong.
Saner minds — beginning at the White House — should take immediate, serious steps to defuse the combustible situation in the Middle East. There is simply too much at stake. While the Trump administration has not hesitated to voice its intense dislike of the Iranian government, it must rethink its policy toward the country, which has fought against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and whose people are now victims of that group’s terror attacks on two important symbols of their national character. The administration should try to come up with a policy that requires more than 140 characters.
Hooman Majd is the author, most recently, of The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay: An American Family in Iran.