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Will Iran Descend Into Chaos?

By Christopher De Bellaigue

June 11, 2017

Almost since the beginning of this millennium, Iran has been an island of calm amid instability and violence. Afghanistan, its neighbour to the east, descended into chaos following the American-led invasion of 2001; Iraq, across its western border, suffered the same fate after 2003. Eight years later, in 2011, Syria erupted into civil war.

Although Shiite Iran has been involved in the conflicts that have ensued in all three of those neighbors — sending men, money and arms to advance the fight against Sunni chauvinists and their sponsors in the Gulf — its own territory has remained remarkably untouched.

Iran has been a functioning nation state where the central authorities have enjoyed a monopoly of force and people out of uniform have been overwhelmingly unarmed. Last year, on a trip to Europe, the country’s reform-minded president, Hassan Rouhani, boasted that Iran was “the safest, the most stable country” in the Middle East.

In the view of many Iranians, wherever they stand on the country’s reformist-conservative axis, any lack of political or social freedom in the Islamic Republic is a price worth paying for a secure state, and they have dreaded the day when — if — that security would come to an end.

It is possible that June 7 was that day—when the ordinary business of a Tehran morning was broken by suicide attacks and the idea that the Islamic Republic was exempt from sectarian murder was revealed to be false.

About 10:30 a.m., the modern, sloping Parliament building, a symbol of the democratic element in the Islamic Republic’s complicated power structure, along with the more traditionally conceived mausoleum of the regime’s clerical founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were the object of coordinated assaults by gunmen and suicide bombers.

At least 17 people were killed in the terrorist attacks, along with the six assailants, one of them female; more than 40 people were injured. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, and Iranian social media were flooded with expressions of grief and worry, denunciations of the attackers’ barbarism, and howls of defiance: the mood music of another pitiless Jihadi attack.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard quickly, but with deliberate vagueness, incriminated Saudi Arabia and the United States. It was fodder for conspiracy-minded Iranians who believe that Islamic State is the joint creation of its main Sunni adversary and its main Western adversary. In the days to come, however, once the blood has been wiped off the walls and the dead have been honoured, more sober attention will turn to the security lapses that permitted squads of suicide bombers to penetrate two of the country’s most iconic buildings.

Ever since the Islamic State declared its caliphate in 2014, Iran’s armed forces have prided themselves on their ability to prevent the Jihadis from entering Iran; indeed, commanders used to speak of a “red line” about 25 miles into Iraqi territory, which Iran would under no circumstances let the Islamic State cross.

But as early as mid-2014, reports were spreading — denied by Iran — of Islamic State militants crossing the Iraqi border, while two years later the commander of Iran’s land forces admitted that the Islamic State had drawn recruits from among Iranian Sunnis. (About 9 percent of Iran’s population of 79 million is thought to be Sunni, most of them members of the Kurdish and Baluchi minorities.)

In February Iran’s chief prosecutor announced the arrest of Islamic State operatives “in the vicinity of Tehran”; they had been planning “mischief” to coincide with a ceremony to commemorate the 1979 revolution.

A warning of unprecedented publicness came a month later, when Islamic State operatives in eastern Iraq posted a video in Persian on their social media networks. In this video an Islamic State militant vowed, “We will invade Iran and return it to Sunni control,” and Shiite militiamen — thought to be Iraqis — were executed.

The Islamic State video singled out Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for abuse and excoriated his regime for its relatively lenient attitude toward the more than 8,000 Jews who live within its borders. “Iran shouted slogans against America and Israel,” a narrator asserted, “in order to deceive the Sunnis, while the Jews of Iran live in security under the protection of the Iranian state.”

That Islamic State should criticize the Islamic Republic for being too nice to its Jews suggests that a great deal other than sectarian identity separates the two. This distinction clearly eluded President Trump when he appeared to lump Iran and the Sunni Jihadis together as part of the same “evil” in a speech to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia on May 21. And it seems to elude many others in the West.

The ideology of the Islamic State has more in common with that of the more radical elements of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment — including their shared disparagement of Shiites as apostates who deserve death.

In Iran, by contrast, the discourse has been more tolerant. While Iranian Shiites are taught that their version of Islamic history and practice is the correct one and while Sunnis are routinely discriminated against, nowhere have I heard ordinary Sunnis described as anything other than Muslims. Being a Sunni in Iran may not be comfortable, but it is not life-threatening.

More than a statement of sectarian rigidity, the Revolutionary Guard’s statement implicating Saudi Arabia in Wednesday’s attacks should be seen in the context of ever-worsening strategic tensions between Tehran and Riyadh.

For all its attachment to its coreligionists, Iran takes a pragmatic attitude to foreign relations, as demonstrated by its decision to supply food to the tiny Sunni monarchy of Qatar, after Saudi Arabia, and several other Gulf states, cut ties with the Qataris as a punishment for their cordial relations with the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s leaders and media gleefully anticipate the destruction of the Islamic State in its strongholds of Iraq and Syria, as if this will end the problem of Jihadi violence. It will not. Even if it is annihilated and the organization dissolves, or more likely mutates, its capacity to inspire and commit atrocities remains formidable. The Middle East will not be wiped clean of the poisonous anti-Shiite sentiment that the Islamic State has disseminated, and which will test the Islamic Republic for years to come.

The fear now is that if Iran is increasingly exposed to Jihadi attacks, attitudes toward Sunnis — in particular the country’s Sunni minority — will harden. “If we don’t slap the enemy” outside our borders, Iran’s public prosecutor told the public in March, “he’ll come to your door.” And what if he is perceived to be already inside?

The attacks on Tehran are likely to bear down on Iran both domestically and externally. Reformists have already criticized Iran’s support for the secular tyrant in Syria; those criticisms may grow in volume.

Is Iran, whose military involvements around the region have brought it into conflict with the Islamic State while also ratcheting up tensions with Saudi Arabia and its fellow-Sunni clients, overreaching itself?

Add to this President Trump’s recent expressions of hostility, and it is clear that the world outside Iran, a complicated and treacherous place indeed, has landed in the middle of Tehran.


Christopher de Bellaigue is the author, most recently, of “The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason.”