- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Attacks by the self-proclaimed Islamic State on Iran’s parliament and the shrine to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, symbols of the republic and Iranian revolution, left seventeen dead on Wednesday. They mark the group’s first assault on Iran and come at a time when its purported caliphate, which spans the border of Iraq and Syria, is under increasing military pressure by U.S.- and Iran-backed forces, among others. In the face of this pressure, the Islamic State hopes to demonstrate its resilience and wide reach, says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. The group’s attacks are also meant to burnish its credentials as “a defender of Sunnis everywhere” and “vanguard of the struggle against the Shia,” Hoffman says, since even as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers rail against Iran for how it wields influence in the Middle East, only the Islamic State has struck it directly.
What was your initial reaction to the attacks?
Unprecedented. ISIS sees itself in literally an apocalyptic battle with the Shia, and to be able to strike in the capital of the nation-state that encapsulates that enmity—not only against its legislature but against the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and one of the most venerated figures in modern Iranian history—is quite significant.
Shouldn’t it be surprising, then, that in all the years that ISIS in one form or another has been around, that there hasn’t been an attack like this in Iran until now?
Why it hasn’t happened in the past may not have been for a lack of desire but lack of capability. Coordinated attacks are difficult in terms of the logistical, personnel, and surveillance and reconnaissance challenges that have to be surmounted.
It plays into what, for the second summer in a row, are ambitious and expansive ISIS terrorist operations to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan. Following so closely on the heels of the Manchester and London tragedies, I think ISIS is trying to convey that at a time when Mosul is besieged and [its capital,] Raqqa, is beleaguered, ISIS still has enormous relevance to the sectarian conflicts that are roiling the region. The message ISIS is trying to communicate is that it is here to stay, despite whatever battlefield reverses ISIS may be experiencing to their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Just three years ago, there were many who thought that ISIS was an entirely local phenomenon that would remain confined to the always-volatile Levant. But since then, ISIS has built not only the capacity to carry out international terrorist attacks, but also to establish sanctuaries and safe havens in over a dozen different countries to facilitate these operations.
This attack comes soon after President Trump’s visit to the region, in which much of the rhetoric focused on isolating Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism in the region. Iran, for its part, has made the same accusation against Saudi Arabia. How does this attack play into that dynamic?
ISIS, like al-Qaeda, has always styled itself as a defender of Sunnis everywhere, and the group is asserting itself as being at the vanguard of the struggle against the Shia, who they see as infidels. Being able to strike in Tehran, especially at a time when many countries are inveighing against Iran, is designed to thrust ISIS into the limelight and demonstrate its importance.
While the United States and other countries in the region, for example, talk about Iran as one of the major threats to the region, only ISIS can now claim to have taken the struggle directly to Iran and struck these dramatic blows in Tehran. That ISIS is willing to take action when nation-states won’t may be intended to garner support from wealthy Sunni patrons in the Gulf and elsewhere, and also attract a flow of recruits.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Iranian–allied militias have been deeply involved in the fight against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Do you foresee a change in Iran’s foreign policy?
Probably a redoubling of their efforts to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and to attempt to crush ISIS and its ilk. The attack will be of concern to the Iranian authorities, not least because of the tragic loss of life, but also the humiliation of ISIS being able to strike in the Islamic Republic’s capital, and symbolically against the Republic’s founder and first leader. ISIS has brought the war home to Iran in a way that hasn’t occurred since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. A terrorist group is doing what in the past only Saddam Hussein and his military were capable of achieving.
This comes as the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are launching the battle for Raqqa, and Syrian government forces and their allies, including Iranian-backed militias, are fighting the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor. What will be the consequences for Syria?
Syria has always been [an arena] for broader conflicts—the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, the confrontation between religious and secular [forces], the interests of regional powers. [The Iran attacks] just sharpen and complicate that conflict and, much as Russia’s intervention in support of Assad did, could send the conflict in an unanticipated direction.
Terrorism is always designed to provoke some reaction from the target government. In this case, ISIS likely hopes to undermine the Iranian public’s confidence in its elected and clerical leadership right after its national elections, and hopefully to cause deeper divisions within Iranian society over Iran’s “adventurism” in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
It’s a classic terrorist gambit, one we usually see directed against the West. The attack was likely also designed to demonstrate that Iran will pay a price for its support of the Assad regime and its campaign in Syria and for its other subversive activities in the region. That would play into ISIS’s narrative that it is the most effective defender of Sunni interests.
Is the Islamic State’s competition with al-Qaeda factoring into its calculations?
Al-Qaeda is quietly rebuilding, but nonetheless doesn’t seem as relevant as ISIS. Attacking Iran is a way for ISIS to gain yet another notch on al-Qaeda and also, potentially, embarrass al-Qaeda, given its dealings with Iran.
While al-Qaeda has done sectarian messaging as well, it had all sorts of tactical alliances with the Iranian regime during the period that Osama bin Laden’s family and other senior al-Qaeda operatives were variously sheltered or imprisoned in Iran. In addition to serving as an al-Qaeda sanctuary, Iran always was also an important conduit for both al-Qaeda finances and personnel.
Will this attack shift U.S. thinking about how best to address the group?
It’s the kind of unexpected operation that will result in a reassessment of ISIS’s strength, capabilities, ambitions, and potential longevity, no matter what may happen on the battlefield in western Iraq and in Syria. [Even if it loses its] caliphate and proto-state there, ISIS will still have its sanctuaries and safe havens across the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and West and East Africa to use as a launchpad for continued terrorist attacks elsewhere.
That sounds like al-Qaeda.
Precisely. Differences with al-Qaeda are less about strategy or ideology than tone and tactics. This [attack] is borrowing a page from al-Qaeda’s book to enhance its longevity and sustain the movement by broadening the battlefield by reverting to the group’s essential DNA, which is as a terrorist organization—but in this case, with more formidable international capabilities than we may previously have assumed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.