Last week, ISIS-sponsored terror attacks hit the symbolic sites of Iran’s parliament and the shrine of revolutionary founding father Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum, revealing a massive internal security failure and Iran’s vulnerability stemming from its involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. What do the attacks mean for Iran and its foreign policy?
The attacks will bolster public support for Iran’s regional activities. The leadership has long trumpeted its position at the forefront of the global war on terror, arguing that its military involvement in the Syrian civil war and in supporting proxy and militia groups in Iraq and Yemen puts it on the front lines against ISIS. But public support for the conflicts abroad has been waning, with the Iranians questioning the value and increasing loss of Iranian life in foreign conflicts.
In the aftermath of these attacks, though, Tehran will have renewed motivation and public support to defend its regional involvement while stepping up its anti-ISIS operations to thwart future attacks. The result will be a continuation of Iran’s activities rather than any withdrawal or retreat.
Iran will now look to further divide the Gulf Arab states. The immediate government reaction was to see Saudi Arabia’s hand in the attacks, especially in light of recent comments from Riyadh calling for Iran’s ‘punishment’. The two countries have been long been engaged in a fight for regional influence that has exacerbated sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East. President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia has seemingly given Riyadh the upper hand, with Trump seeming to accept the Saudi argument that Iran is on equal footing with ISIS and Al Qaeda as a sponsor of terrorism and promoter of regional instability.
These events might appear to leave Iran on the defensive, but the regime is adept at translating insecurity into national unity at the elite and popular level as well as exploiting divisions among Arab states. In the recent Gulf dispute between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, Tehran has offered to come to the aid of Doha with the aim of creating a more permanent divide among the GCC states. This move can create further economic and political opportunities down the road.
‘National resistance’ has been bolstered. The terror attack and overt shift in the Trump Administration’s position however will help bolster Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s calls for economic, political and regional independence from foreign interference under the narrative of national resistance. The Revolutionary Guard will have a renewed mandate to fortify Iran’s borders and continue its support for like-minded state and non-state actors. This will force elite unity and factional political convergence in the name of regime stability and security – a win for hardliners but not so for those hoping for a change in Iran’s regional posturing.
Dr Sanam Vakil, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.