The terror attack in Iran’s south-western city of Ahvaz on 22 September has multiple local, national, regional and international layers in terms of causality and consequences. All point to an escalation of tension between Iran and its adversaries.
The much-vaunted “retaliation” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) against allegedly Daesh targets in eastern Syria may be a credible demonstration of force, but it is unlikely to diminish the terror threat in the foreseeable future. Iran’s immediate security challenge is that local militant groups in the oil-rich Khuzestan province appear to have established operational links with regional terror groups, possibly even with Daesh. This threat is compounded by regional and international tensions, and the plausible suspicion that Iran’s adversaries, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly even the United States, have a hand in instigating terror attacks.
Further terror attacks in Khuzestan and other border provinces are inevitable, eliciting more retaliatory strikes against specific terrorist targets outside Iran. However, in the event of a major attack, one aimed at targets in the Iranian capital Tehran, for example, there is a real risk of regional escalation as Iran may feel compelled to widen retaliatory strikes beyond non-state actors.
Who carried out the attack in Ahvaz?
Nearly two weeks after the attack targeting a military parade commemorating the start of the Iran-Iraq War, it is still not clear who was responsible. Initially, though, a spokesman for the “Ahvaz National Resistance” (ANR), took responsibility.
Spokesman Yaghub Hur Totsari told various broadcasters, including the London-based and Saudi-funded Iran International, that the attack was a response to the “oppression” of Arab-Iranians by the government in Tehran. The Iranian authorities appeared to have accepted this statement of responsibility at face value by lashing out at the Netherlands, Britain and Denmark for hosting political and media activists connected to the ANR and allied groups.
This was followed quickly by the reported detention of 22 local activists and militants by Iran’s main intelligence agency, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). The ministry claimed that communication equipment, weapons and explosives had been seized from some of the suspects.
However, the statement by the ANR spokesman was contradicted by a claim from Daesh. This was met with initial suspicion in Iran, not least as the Daesh video featured anomalies – the alleged attackers did not swear loyalty to Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, for example – and generally appeared to be markedly different to standard “Islamic State” media productions.
In the midst of this confusion, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to conflate Daesh with local militant groups by alluding to their common support base amongst “US-backed” regional states. This was, of course, a thinly-veiled reference to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The competing claims of responsibility by the ANR and Daesh have touched off widespread speculation about the motive and aims of the attackers. While most Western analysts now appear to believe that Daesh was behind the attack – and assume erroneously that Khamenei shares their belief – the reality is likely to be messier.
At the local level, historically a plethora of militant groups have claimed to champion ethnic Arab grievances, both inside Khuzestan and beyond. Most of these groups, such as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, were sponsored by the former Iraqi Baathist regime.
These groups have carried out a number of terrorist attacks, most spectacularly a siege of the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980. Inside Khuzestan, these groups have periodically attacked critical infrastructure, such as oil pipelines, as well as government buildings and softer targets such as banks and shopping malls. The last major bombing campaign occurred in the period 2005-2006 when a series of attacks by separatists prompted Iran to blame foreign powers, notably Britain.
Iranian security services will be concerned by any evidence or development pointing to a degree of convergence or cooperation between local militant groups and regional terror groups such as Daesh. Whilst, ideologically, Daesh and Shia-led Ahvazi separatists appear to be worlds apart, at the operational level these differences can erode in the face of exceptional common threats or opportunities.
How strong was Iran’s response?
Iran’s primary response has been in the form of missile attacks on alleged Daesh positions in eastern Syria. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps claims to have fired six medium-range missiles at the site near Albu Kamal, reportedly killing and injuring many of the “leaders” and “planners” of the Ahvaz terror attack.
This missile strike is in keeping with the IRGC’s national security doctrine which stipulates a strong military response to serious terrorist incidents. The Corps employed the same method in the aftermath of the Daesh terror attacks in Tehran in June 2017, firing ballistic missiles at Daesh bases in Syria’s Deir Al-Zour.
More recently, in early September, the IRGC fired seven short-range ballistic missiles at a base of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) in Koysinjaq in northern Iraq. This attack was in retaliation for the KDPI’s and splinter groups’ terrorist provocations inside Iran and proved to be devastating, as it killed over a dozen KDPI leaders and key officials.
In the latest case, though, it is noteworthy that the missile strike was preceded by sweeping arrests of local Khuzestani Arab activists and alleged militants by the intelligence ministry. This appears to indicate that despite the missile strike at a specific target – and notwithstanding growing national and international consensus that Daesh was behind the attack – the Iranian intelligence services haven’t quite made up their minds as to precisely who was responsible.
The regional and international dimensions
Apart from the obvious aim of hurting Daesh, the missile strike was foremost a deterrent action by the IRGC; as such, its real objective was to send a clear message to regional and international audiences.
Iran suspects that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE extend political and financial support to Ahvazi separatist groups and personalities operating in Western Europe, who in turn funnel some of the cash to militant networks inside Iran. Iranian suspicions that regional rivals had a hand – albeit an indirect one – in the terror attack was intensified by inflammatory comments by one Abdul Khaliq Abdullah – a former advisor to the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince – that the Ahvaz attack did not constitute an act of terrorism insofar as it was aimed at a military target.
The significance of this inflammatory remark lies in Saudi strongman Mohammad Bin Salman’s statement last year to the effect that Saudi Arabia will take the battle “inside” Iran. This has stoked fears in Iran that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are looking to sponsor terror attacks inside the country with a view to destabilising the Islamic Republic.
Set against this tense geopolitical backdrop, it is not surprising that Iranian military and political leaders reflexively blame regional rivals – and by extension the United States – for terrorist incidents inside their country.
The key question revolves around the prospect for escalation, specifically as to under what conditions (if any) would Iran consider directly attacking Saudi and UAE targets. At present, this prospect is remote but it cannot be ruled out, especially in the event of a spectacular attack which elicits the rhetorical support of Saudi and UAE leaders.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.