June 7th 2017
FOR years Iran, a predominantly Shia Muslim
state, has battled Sunni extremists inside Iraq and Syria, making it a prime
target for terrorism. Yet it had somehow gone several years without suffering a
big attack. During his successful presidential campaign this year, Hassan
Rouhani often celebrated this achievement. The jihadists of Islamic State (IS),
though, may have seen it as a challenge. In recent months they have increased
their propaganda efforts, hoping to incite Iran’s Sunni minority. And indeed,
Iranian intelligence claims to have foiled several plots inspired by IS.
But on June 7th, IS claimed success.
Assailants armed with assault rifles and suicide vests attacked two of the
country’s landmarks. Four of them stormed the parliament in central Tehran, the
capital, where heavy gunfire could be heard for hours. At least one of the
assailants blew himself up, and the others were killed by security forces.
Meanwhile two other assailants attacked the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder, also in the capital. According to
reports, one attacker detonated a suicide vest and another was killed by
security forces. In all, at least 12 people are dead and dozens more wounded.
The attacks come just over two weeks after
a summit in Saudi Arabia, during which the kingdom and its Sunni allies, as
well as America, blamed Iran for most of the region’s problems. Iran controls
and finances militias in Iraq, where it supports the Shia-led government, and
in Syria, where it backs Bashar al-Assad its support and direct action have
been critical in the war against IS. But it is also accused of destabilising
countries. In Yemen it has supported the Houthis, a rebel group fighting the
government and its Saudi allies. In Sunni-led Bahrain it has backed the
repressed Shia majority.
Iran, for its part, accuses Saudi Arabia of
supporting extremists in the region, including IS. Many Iranians, including the
powerful Revolutionary Guards, were thus quick to blame the kingdom for the
attacks in Tehran, even as IS was claiming responsibility. Much attention has
been focused on comments that Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s powerful
deputy crown prince, made last month. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in
Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them
in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.” He then accused Iran of wanting to take control
of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
Saudi Arabia appears to have been
emboldened by the support of Donald Trump, America’s president. “From Lebanon
to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other
extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” said Mr
Trump on a visit to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last month. Just weeks later, on
June 5th, the kingdom, along with the UAE, Egypt and Yemen, cut ties with
Qatar, in part over its support for Iran.
But in examining the attacks on June 7th, a
more important factor seems to be the state of IS. As the jihadists lose ground
in Iraq, Syria and Libya, they are lashing out more abroad. Moreover, judging
by its propaganda, IS really wanted to hit Iran. Its past failures were a
source of some shame in jihadist circles. But the successful attack may not
boost morale for very long. American-backed forces launched an operation to
capture Raqqa, IS’s de facto capital in Syria, this week.