The terrorist attacks in Iran: Outlier or sign of increasing instability?
On 22 September 2018, a major terrorist attack was carried out at a military parade in Ahvaz, a city in the Khuzestan province, which left at least 25 people dead. While the ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, no proof was offered and officials in Teheran came out to quickly accuse Arab separatist groups of the region. Later on, the Arab separatist group Ahvaz National Movement came out to also claim responsibility.
The attack has been the second mayor terrorist incident recently, after the ISIS carried out attacks against the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini in Teheran on 7 June 2017, leaving 17 dead. Previously to this, the last significant incident took place almost seven years ago with the 2010 Zahedan bombings. Therefore, Iran over the years has been seen as a rare example of a stable state in the Middle East. Now however, a growing number of analysts begin to question this narrative.
One could argue that both incidents might be unrelated because they could have been perpetrated by two different groups with different underlying political motives. Yet, whoever turns out to be responsible, two structural factors indicate that it is likely Iran will further destabilize in the future.
First, Iran’s involvement in the regions intense geopolitical competition and the self-identification of its government might come back to haunt Teheran. Although Tehran’s strategic use of militant proxy groups wherever power vacuums emerged was efficient to project power, it also intensified conflicts mostly along sectarian lines. In order to fully utilize on the weak statehood of its neighbors, the leadership in Iran pushed for the strengthening of sectarian identities by pronouncing the Shiite character of the Iranian political system and its underlying principles. Thereby, the country portrayed itself as the security-guarantor for Shiite minorities in the Middle East, which has been traditionally dominated by Sunni regimes. This put forth a narrative for the regional great power rivalry that allowed the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to venture out in order to establish bonds with Shiite militias and set-up new ones to increase its leverage.
Yet, contrary to being perceived as a Persian-Shiite state, Iran is made up of a diverse mix of ethnicities and religions itself. This is a gateway that could potentially let the Middle East’s political violence spread into the country. By its actions, Tehran strongly antagonized Sunnis not only throughout the region but within its own borders by marginalizing and discriminating against its Sunni minorities. The Kurds in the north-west and the Balochis in the south-east are only the largest groups that come to mind. Of those two, the Kurds have historically had a better relationship with Tehran but have expressed their frustrations through protests recently, while separatism is a lingering issue with Iran’s Balochis that could always cause trouble if stability generally deteriorates.
Additionally, the regime failed to stick to its own claims of legitimacy at home. Even if the regime mostly considers itself as a representative of the Shia community, it still holds on to old patterns of ethnic divisions, undermining the ideal of equality even among its Shiite citizenry. The political elites in Tehran are dominated by Persians, and Shiite minorities like the numerous Azeris in the north, which account for about a quarter of Iran’s population, or the Arabs around the Persian Gulf coast also suffer from discrimination and oppression.
While protests about the economic situation and repressive actions of the regime generally increased throughout Iran lately, these can become particularly threatening to the political leadership when they are connected to deeper ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
Source: Wikimedia, CIA World Factbook
Second, the international pressure on Iran is going to further increase after the Trump administration reversed the Obama era realignment with Iran. This turnaround was signaled by the scrapping of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) earlier this year and is going to encourage Iran’s regional rivals, mainly the Gulf monarchies and Israel, to go on the offensive. In the course of this, regime change seems like the most attractive option for an anti-Iran coalition to deal with their adversary, especially when sectarian and ethnic divisions are there to be exploited.
Ayatollah Khameini’s stated after the attacks in Ahvaz: "Based on reports, this cowardly act was done by people who the Americans come to help when they are trapped in Syria and Iraq, and are paid by Saudi Arabia and the UAE." As an outsider, it is almost impossible to find out if there are indeed intelligence operations underway against Iran and to which degree that would be. Therefore, we cannot be certain if these comments on the attacks suggest that the regime believes an external regime change campaign to be a real danger or if this is just a new attempt to scapegoat and rally Iranian’s around the regime. Yet, the fact that the U.S. consulate in Basra was closed down on Friday by the Americans due to fear of retaliation, indicates the regime is actually trying to take action.
Moreover, the above mentioned economic crisis is going to get much worse once the primary sanction package will take effect on 4 November 2018. Tehran already struggles to sell its hydrocarbons because of the recurring U.S. sanctions and many main buyers try to find saver options for their supplies. Consequently, its revenue is shrinking with oil exports down at the end of August by 62% from its record sales in May. This could become a serious challenge to Tehran at times when protests already loom. Alternative options for recovery seem to lack with an overall stagnating economy and its currency troubles of late.
In his annual speech at the UN, President Trump took aim at Iran and mentioned additional sanctions. The amount of time he devoted in his speech to criticize the Iranian regime is symbolic of the importance the U.S. administration puts on the containment of the Islamic Republic, which experts say has again to be seen as Washington’s main rival besides China. All of this is bad news for Tehran and it is unlikely that the international pressure is going to be lowered in the medium-term future.
Overall, the recent attacks might turn out to be outliers in a state that was traditionally known for being domestically secure. Yet, if considering the minority issue and the increasing international pressure, one can well understand why analysts see Iran’s stability deteriorating. These claims are not alarmist in nature but well substantiated. If there has ever been a window of opportunity for anyone who wants to challenge the Islamic regime - it is now.