Daesh attacks Tehran: Why Iran, Why Now?

Early on the morning of 7 June 2017, Tehran was rocked by news of an attack at the Iranian Parliament building. Soon, separate reports came in of an attack carried out at Khomeini’s shrine some distance away, as well as in a metro station in another district of Tehran. It became all too clear that these terrorist attacks were coordinated, but it remained unclear who was responsible. As often happens- the last report turned out to be false, the attacks were concentrated in the first two sites, with six total attackers, one woman and five men.

I logged off twitter, as it was late at night in Seattle, only recently having seen the first strange reports of Daesh claiming responsibility. They were strange because they didn’t take the normal form we’ve come to associate with Daesh media, but by the time I woke up the next morning in Seattle no doubt remained. Daesh claimed the attacks clearly through their official media channels, and the Iranian government confirmed the attackers were indeed from Iran. With those facts laid out, the gravity of the attack was confirmed: Daesh had carried out its first large coordinated terrorist attack in predominantly Shi’ite Iran.

While largely surprising, those following Daesh and their media closely had seen indications for some time that the organization has been attempting to reach Sunni Muslims inside Iran. A good report about the Persian language Daesh video can be found here. Another good report that details Daesh’s growing propaganda in the weeks leading up to to today’s attacks can be found here; it appeared before the attack. Not content to let media outlets report on the Tehran attack, Daesh uploaded video to their Telegram channel as it was happening, apparently the first time they’ve done this since an attack in Bangladesh (h/t Rukmini Callimachi).

When the attack was finally over, at least 12 people were dead and 46 more were injured. The IRGC, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, were quick to blame Saudi Arabia for the attack but have not provided any proof for this allegation. While the identities of the attackers remain unknown, it fits with a “truth” many have already accepted, that Daesh is at least funded, if not actively supported by the Saudi state.  I would urge extreme caution in making these kinds of claims, not because I want to defend the Saudis, and certainly not because I have an agenda. I take very seriously claims of fact and use of evidence;  I haven’t seen conclusive proof these allegations are true.

Significantly to the west, another event passed largely unnoticed in international media. A Daesh attack in a Shiite neighborhood in Beirut was foiled by Lebanese security services. Thankfully they weren’t successful, but it wasn’t the first time- Daesh bombed Dahiyeh in late 2015. When I saw this, a day before the Tehran attacks, I thought to myself, ‘they’re really trying to start a larger sectarian war.’ Lebanon has so far avoided slipping into an abyss of sectarian violence, now 27 years after the end of its own civil war, but Daesh clearly wants to rip that open.

The Overarching Questions: Why Iran, Why now?

It’s not Saudi Arabia; It’s not the Qatar Crisis; It’s not Trump’s recent visit. Instead, the answer here begins with major territorial losses for Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Mosul is almost completely liberated from ISIS after months of painful and bloody siege. Not only does Daesh have to deal with the materials losses- death, lost territory,  less seized resources- but it loses momentum, arguably the most important part of the group’s success. As we have seen since the group’s shocking seizure of Mosul in the summer of 2014, victories not only win spoils like weapons, new oil fields, bases, etc but they also serve to attract more recruits. Daesh needs war to legitimate itself (in the eyes of its followers), to achieve its genocidal aims, and to keep its flows of recruits coming.

Thus the context Daesh finds itself in is more than sufficient to explain their choice to attack Iran now. As Daesh is really on the ropes, what I see is that Daesh wants to start a much larger regional conflagration. When I saw the news about the Tehran attacks, I immediately thought back to the story about the foiled attack I’d seen barely 24 hours earlier about Beirut. This strategy of attacking Beirut and Iran and trying to draw all Shiites into war with Daesh is like the one pursued by Zarqawi (arguably the founder of Daesh), targeting the Golden Mosque in Samarra. Igniting a larger war would potentially benefit Daesh in multiple ways:

  • Relieve pressure on Raqqa and Mosul by drawing new actors into the war, if it spread to Lebanon/ parts of Iran and or drew Hizbullah deeper into confrontation with Daesh
  • This would create “momentum” for the group, news of successful attacks is sadly red meat for their base.
  • Momentum would translate into increased numbers of recruits as it did earlier, especially if Daesh can convince more that Shiites need to be targeted and killed

In conclusion, parts of the Middle East that are currently not engaged in the war engulfing Syria and Iraq are sadly ripe for sectarian provocation. They haven’t always been this way- barely 50 years ago the region’s political spheres were still dominated by political ideologies like Arab Nationalism and Communism. Those ideologies are largely if not completely gone and sectarianism has been a daily reality since 2003, with longer roots stretching back before that. Daesh’s attempts to throw gasoline on a fire that is relatively shrinking if still not extinguished must not be allowed to ignite the larger regional conflagration the group wants. Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, the GCC’s blockade of Qatar is basically a casus belli, and today news came that Turkey is sending troops to Qatar. May this all pass and cooler heads prevail, otherwise Daesh will likely be the “winner” and get what it wants: more bloodshed.

Is ISIS similar to Hamas, Hizbullah, or the government of Iran?

This piece will look at each of these groups/states individually, showing that all are very different, and none are truly comparable to ISIS in any meaningful way.

First, ISIS is not a political party and swears against ever being one. They instead claim to renew the Islamic Caliphate, something none of the others claim. ISIS emerged out of a power vacuum in Syria and Iraq. This was due to the confluence of the horrible results of the American invasion, destabilization, and occupation of Iraq with the civil war next door in Syria between various groups and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. ISIS has begun some service provision, though nothing comparable to Hizbullah or Hamas. ISIS makes its money smuggling oil and looted antiquities, along with seizing property from non-Muslims under its rule.  Neither  Hamas nor Hizbullah engages in these practices to my knowledge, while Iran has been coming up with creative solutions to selling oil since the economic sanctions were put in place against the government. ISIS has seized the women and young girls of any non-Muslim social group, something unprecedented among the others. ISIS has publicly executed hundreds of Iraqis, Syrians, and some foreign hostages in an explicit attempt to “manage savagery.” This is likewise practiced on a level more extreme than anything in Iran, and nothing Hizbullah or Hamas does to anyone under their rule can be compared to this. This is not to excuse the actions of Hamas, Hizbullah or the IDF for that matter. There indeed should be a debate about how those groups use violence and how justified they are or aren’t in doing so, but I explicitly argue that they are fundamentally different from ISIS. Finally, ISIS is heavily reliant on an influx of foreign jihadis who join the organization, something that is not true of Hamas, Hizbullah, or Iran.

Second, Hamas started as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and actually received help and funding from Israel in its beginning years because it was then seen as a counterweight to the secular, leftist PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Hamas is the dominant political party inside of the Gaza Strip, which is not under Israeli occupation but rather under siege. Israel withdrew all of its settlers from Gaza in 2005. Hamas’ role was solidified after elections in 2006 when Hamas won, and a complex series of events ensued. In short, there were clashes between Hamas and Fatah, and Hamas seized control of Gaza. Gazans cannot use their ports normally, nor can they easily leave the territory to the south into Egypt or to the north into Israel. We cannot speak of Gaza as a vacuum, it is a tightly sealed space with a dense population that is highly controlled. Hamas uses questionable means of violence that are often equated with terrorism such as indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel, as well as using suicide bombers. Hamas has been known from time to time to execute people it catches collaborating with Israel, and it has also angered women’s rights activists who claim that Hamas implements strict and oppressive rules about how women can act/dress in the public sphere. It has never been involved in selling women as sex slaves, nor taking the women of minority groups as war booty. It has never carried out mass beheadings, videotaped what it did and spread it around with the deliberate intent of inflaming violence. Hamas was part of an alliance in which it paired with Iran, Hizbullah, and Syria. This broke up when Hamas refused to continue to support the Assad regime after the civil war started, and Hamas officials in exile had to leave Damascus. This was the group taking a principled stand against the Assad regime, but not fighting it on the ground. Finally, Hamas participates in electoral politics, something that would make them targets of ISIS takfir, or labeling them as infidels to be killed. They have never undertaken smashing historical relics they see as false idols, destroying cultural heritage.

Third, Hizbullah also emerges in the very late 70s and early 1980s in southern Lebanon, and the exact timing of that is an ongoing argument among scholars. The standard narrative of the group’s beginning starts in 1982, but the group didn’t release its first manifesto until 1985. While some argue that a nucleus of members of what would become Hizbullah was already a coherent group in the late 70s, it’s widely agreed that the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon (‘82-‘85) was a huge catalyst, if not the beginning of the group. Hizbullah made an important decision to participate in elections in 1992, becoming an official political party which embraces electoral politics. This decision caused a large split in the group and some who refused to participate in politics left. Hizbullah is a Shiite group, so even if they didn’t participate in elections, ISIS would still view them as infidels, not Muslims. Hizbullah is not perceived to have had a central role in the fighting of the Lebanese Civil War, and emerges after the Taif Agreement to end the war as the only militia allowed to keep its weapons, as it was perceived to be the Lebanese resistance to Israel. This concept of “resistance” is central to the poltical discourse of Hizbullah (and Hamas too). Israel finally withdrew completely from Lebanon in 2000, something Hizbullah takes credit for. This entire time, Hizbullah developed networks to help distribute services to its supporters and anyone who lived in the neighborhoods where it was concentrated in southern Beirut, the Beqaa Valley, and southern Lebanon. It runs schools, trains Islamic scholars, provides water, housing, has militias, museums, a think tank and more. Hizbullah has never engaged in selling women as slaves, nor has it beheaded anyone to my knowledge. Unlike Hamas, Hizbullah has remained loyal to Iran and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and has been very engaged in fighting alongside Syrian regime troops, suffering heavy losses.

Fourth, the Islamic Republic of Iran is unlike Hamas or Hizbullah because it isn’t a party which operates inside a national political sphere, but rather is the sovereign ruling government of 80 million people. The Islamic Republic came into being after the 1979 Islamic Revolution which ousted Reza Shah Pahlavi, a secular autocrat, from power. It has since attempted to “export” the revolution by backing various Shiite groups around the region, like Hizbullah, Hizb al-Dawa in Iraq, and others. It cannot effectively be compared to parties that are a fraction of its size, have a fraction of its resources, and are both reliant upon it for money. As noted earlier, Hamas and Iran had a falling out and only recently has there been some kind of rapprochement between the two, though things are still not what they used to be. It should be noted that this is an exceptional case of a Shiite regime cooperating with and funding a Sunni party for geopolitical ends. Iran is criticized by many around the world for its abysmal human rights record, including continuing to regularly practice the death penalty, enforcing modesty policies on Iranian women in the public sphere, going after opposition political parties, and crushing the 2009 Green Movement which challenged the Iranian government after a presidential election that was widely perceived to have been rigged. All that said, Iran has proven to be a potent power inside Iraq after the US overthrew Saddam Hussein, and Iranian-backed militias are indispensable right now to check military advances of ISIS than anyone else.

Thus, each of these organizations is unique. They emerged from different historical and regional contexts, and we should avoid oversimplified comparisons, despite what some politicians might claim.