The terror attacks in Tehran on June 7, at Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine, which claimed 17 lives and left 42 people injured, happened just as President Rouhani settles into his second term. This is a difficult situation as he prepares to redefine his Middle Eastern policy, including Iran’s engagement against the IS. The attacks raise the question of how the Rouhani government’s perception of threats and anti-terror calculations may evolve.
The White House issued a statement that seemingly condoned the incident by holding Iran responsible for the terrorism it had faced: This was a slap in the face of moderates in the Iranian leadership who, after 9/11, expressed sympathy with the United States and offered to assist in the fight against al-Qaeda. It was also a show of disrespect to Iranians as a whole, many of whom lit candles at 9/11 vigils to express their empathy with the Americans. Surprisingly, in the same period as the IS attack against Iran, the US Senate advanced a new sanctions bill against the Islamic Republic, primarily targeting its ballistic missiles programme. This could further complicate the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.
The messaging from the US to Iran, on the day of the attacks, could have focused on the mutual threat of the IS. This could have been an opportunity to explore cooperation in countering IS-radicalised militants opposed to both US and Iranian interests. Of course, it is no secret that President Donald Trump’s hostile messaging to Iran follows his recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Rather than encouraging regional stability and dialogue, Trump allowed the visit to be turned into a Tehran-bashing contest. As a response to the Saudi enmity against Iran, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad
Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of being linked to attacks in Tehran. Immediately after suggestions that the Saudis could have been behind the attack, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir denied the accusation. Questions remain about the number and nationality of the terrorists involved. Iran’s Interior Ministry has put the number at six; the Revolutionary Guards announced that five attackers were involved, a number confirmed by the IS itself. Reza Seifollahi, deputy to the secretary of Iran’s High National Security Council, said on TV that the assailants were Iranians who’d joined the IS and “worked with ISIS in the areas under its control in the region.” It is hard to know how this IS attack against Iran will change Iranian foreign policy regionally, and to what level diplomatic tensions will escalate.
Let us not forget Iran’s significant role in shaping the international politics of the Middle East: Acting as a balancing force in regional crises such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon; being situated between the two major bases of global terrorism, that is, Afghanistan and Iraq; having important influence among Shiite factions in the Middle East’s politics. All these put Iran among the first countries to be under terrorist threat.
In the past four years, Rouhani and his government made outreaches to the Gulf states a priority, but amid regional turmoil, their initiatives have landed off the mark. The powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards is less interested in rapprochements: This view is seemingly shared by Iran’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The reality is that, even before the Islamic revolution, relations with the Arab world had been a significant focus of Iranian foreign policy. Secondly, by its presence in Arab politics, Iran had balanced its relations with the great powers.
But now, rising anti-Shiite sentiment prevalent across social media in the Gulf states and anti-Iran media messaging will erode what little is left of Iranian soft power. Salafist jihadism will fuel new recruits — not only satisfied with targeting Shiites, but also Iranian interests. The recent Tehran attacks indicate that the sectarian rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is far from over.
The writer is professor and executive director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre, Jindal Global University