Last Wednesday’s twin terror attacks in Tehran have come as a huge surprise for a number of reasons, not least because of the brazen breach of the Islamic Republic’s formidable counter-terrorism defences.
Whilst Daesh has had its sights on Iran for more than three years, and just three months ago released its first Farsi-language video threatening attacks inside Iran, Iranian leaders were likely taken aback by the assault on two highly symbolic targets, namely the Majlis (parliament) and the mausoleum of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
This is despite the fact that Iranian security officials have been warning for some time of the possibility of major attacks by Daesh-aligned terror networks. Last June Iran’s powerful intelligence ministry reportedly foiled one of the “biggest” terror plots directed at the nation’s capital.
The reaction from Iranian leaders was typically defiant, with Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei describing the attacks as “fireworks”, whilst parliamentary speaker Ali Larjani (who was reportedly inside the parliamentary chamber when the gunmen struck) brushed them off as a “minor issue”.
One reason for downplaying the incidents is a fear of exploitation by the country’s enemies, notably the United States. Immediately after the attacks US Republican Congressman, Dana Rohrbacher, not only appeared to praise the terror attack but went as far as to suggest that the US should work with Daesh against Iran.
But beyond double standards and gesture politics, the terror attacks in Tehran are highly significant for two reasons. First, they are the inevitable outcome of the Islamic Republic’s lack of engagement with Salafi-Jihadi groups, notably Al-Qaeda. Second, a reappraisal of Iranian regional policy can go a long way in mitigating the terror threat.
Iran and Al-Qaeda: an untold story
Conspiracy theories have long abounded in relation to Iran’s alleged links to Jihadist groups. Pro-Saudi polemicists and propagandists have spared no effort at developing sensational narratives placing the Islamic Republic in command and control position vis-à-vis jihadist groups.
However, stripped of its propagandist content, the notion of serious engagement between the Islamic Republic and jihadist groups is not too far-fetched. Following the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, and the subsequent US-led attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Iranian security establishment undertook a wide range of measures to control the emerging threat picture.
Arguably the most important measure was engagement with Al-Qaeda within a broader threat management strategy. Whilst American research centres have made strides in understanding some operational aspects of this relationship, they are less aware of the overall strategic intent as well as deeper ideological issues.
At an operational level, engagement with Al-Qaeda made sense to the Iranian intelligence community, for it created opportunities for threat management as well as intelligence collection. By developing the ability to reach into the darkest corners of the jihadist milieu, the Islamic Republic’s intelligence community was able to prevent the kind of terror attacks which unfolded in Tehran last week.
The ideological aspect is the least understood feature of this relationship. It is often described in simple terms as a marriage of convenience informed by the knowledge of a shared enemy, notably the United States. In view of its Salafist credentials, by definition Al-Qaeda has a less than positive attitude toward the Shia clerics who control the commanding heights of the Iranian government. Nevertheless, for the most part the jihadist group has been careful to avoid needless sectarian conflict.
On the Iranian side, it is worth noting that pan-Islamic elements have long had a small and embattled presence deep inside the Islamic Republic’s security establishment. These elements are strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood martyr and Islamic ideologue, Sayyed Qutb, who enjoys legendary status in jihadist discourse. These ideological connections are important in terms of understanding the overall context of the relationship.
It is also important to note that this relationship ended several years ago. The Syrian conflict brought Iran and Al-Qaeda into direct conflict, prompting the latter’s local commander to issue veiled threats of taking the war inside Iranian borders.
Beyond the ‘Axis of Resistance’
There can be little doubt that Iran’s regional policy is directly connected to the terror threat. Whether it exacerbates or mitigates the threat is open to question. It is not surprising that the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, believes the latter, arguing that Iran needs to be at the “centre” of regional strife in order to manage the threats.
Whilst it is unrealistic to expect a powerful state like Iran to change its foreign policy in the wake of a terrorist attack, it is worthwhile considering if alternative policies could have enabled the Islamic Republic to more effectively manage the threat picture in addition to advancing its key regional objectives.
Increasingly, analysts are dividing the Middle East and North Africa region into three distinct political-ideological blocks. These are best described as a conservative block led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE; an oppositional block led by Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and allied forces; and the “Axis of Resistance” led by Iran.
Read more: Why the campaign against Qatar is doomed
Whilst the Iranian-led block has the greatest strategic momentum (at least for now), the costs of a single-minded pursuit of national prestige may prove to be too high. Above all, the Islamic Republic risks relinquishing a 30-year peace and security dividend which it is has consistently touted as one of the defining features of its national power.
In terms of Iranian national security doctrine, the terror threat is inextricably linked to the Islamic Republic’s broader struggle with regional and international foes, notably Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. This is not to suggest an operational link between Daesh and these states, but to state the obvious, namely that these states welcome the prospect of insecurity inside Iranian borders.
In view of the broader threat picture, it makes strategic sense for Iran to reach out more proactively to state and non-state actors beyond the “Axis of Resistance”. The intensifying terror threat – coupled with the Saudi-led conservative block’s confrontation with Qatar – provide an opportunity for a regional policy rethink.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.