A terrifying terrorist attack occurred last week in the heart of Iran. Two iconic locations in Tehran were targeted, the Parliament and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini. At least 17 people were killed and dozens more were injured.
Iran’s reacted by blaming the USA, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Some say that Tehran’s domestic and regional policies contributed to the incident, citing it as a classic case of Iranian regime blowback.
“The conventional wisdom suggests that Iran would remain immune to ISIS as a global terrorist threat. Given Iran’s majority Shia population and the fact that ISIS is a deeply anti-Shia cult informed by an extremist Sunni neo-Wahhabism, it has been widely assumed that Iranian recruits to ISIS would be difficult to find.” writes Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver in his article for Newsweek.
He writes that that Iranian Kurds were behind the ISIS attack in Tehran, and adds, “Marginalized, angry and alienated populations exposed to salafi ideology are susceptible to ISIS recruitment.”
Sunnis comprise about eight percent of Iran’s population, representing Arab, Baluchi, Turkmen and Kurdish minorities. Unemployment and discrimination plague them, and they live on Iran’s periphery.
It’s been reported that a small number from these groups have joined ISIS as a result of similar socio-economic factors that pushes ISIS recruitment elsewhere. According to Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, the distinguished Iranian journalist, “border towns and villages and tribes along Iran’s east, west and southern borders are poor and vulnerable to extremism,” and this produces social conditions where “young unemployed men can be wooed and recruited.”
Hashemi writes, “ISIS has a genocidal view toward Shia Muslims. Partly because of this, Iran and its proxies are fighting ISIS on various battlefields across the Middle East. At the same time, Iran’s sectarian foreign policy has indirectly contributed to the rise ISIS.”
Tehran’s support for the Shia majority has marginalized the Sunni people, and indirectly added to the appeal of ISIS.
The advent of the war in Syria was also a contributing factor, as ISIS didn’t exist in 2011, when the Arab Spring protests reached Syria. Protests were mostly peaceful, slogans were chanted that confronted the 41-year rule of the House of Assad. However, the protests were met with state-sanctioned repression that escalated into crimes against humanity. The conflict that followed turned into the worst refugee crisis of the 21st century and resulted in the killing nearly half a million people.
“The Assad regime – backed by Iran (and Russia) – bears the lion’s share of responsibility for this state of affairs. It is from the killing fields of Syria that the ISIS variant of salafi-jihadism arose and expanded,” writes Hashemi.
Iran claims that by supporting Assad it is fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda. But, from the beginning of the conflict Iran backed the Assad regime, and the problem of ISIS didn’t exist in the early months of the Syrian uprising.
“Iran’s critical role in Syria has significantly contributed to the spread of sectarianism across the Middle East: ISIS has been a key beneficiary of this. Now the blowback has come to Tehran,” writes Hashemi, who adds, “ISIS is fundamentally the product of political authoritarianism in the Sunni Arab world. Its theological home is in Saudi Arabia. The legacy of political tyranny in the Arab world, buttressed by the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq, created social conditions that allowed this extremist cult not only to emerge but also to proliferate. Iran’s role in this equation has been generally unrecognized.”
Iran indirectly contributed to the expansion of ISIS with its domestic policies of discrimination against ethnic/religious minorities and its sectarian foreign policy in Iraq and Syria. Iran is feeling the repercussions of its own behavior.