By Edward Carney
On Tuesday, the Iranian government carried on with its response to Saturday’s terrorist attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz. As reported by UPI officials announced that nearly two dozen people had been arrested, supposedly on the basis of direct connections to weapons caches and the Arab separatist group that claimed responsibility for the attack, in which at least 25 people died.
However, NBC News reported that as of Tuesday, little evidence was publicly available to substantiate any of the claims made by terrorist groups themselves, by their accusers, or by Iranian authorities. The same report suggests that whatever the identity may be of the attackers in this case, their bold plot was likely implemented in response to a situation that showcases the historic vulnerability of the Iranian regime.
NBC further suggests that this same situation is a driving force behind the separate, peaceful protests that have been going on throughout the country since the beginning of the year.
This, alongside the possibility of Iran taking action before the complete gathering of evidence, may add to concerns about the regime utilizing the terror attack as an excuse for expanding upon its general repression of the Iranian population and particularly the Arab rights activist community.
This would certainly be in keeping with Iranian authorities’ response to the peaceful protests, both during and after the mass uprising that started that movement in late December and early January.
According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, approximately 8,000 people were arrested for participation in that uprising and more than 50 others were killed either in the streets or as a result of torture.
Furthermore, Iranian security forces conducted multiple raids on known activists in the aftermath of that uprising, targeting a number of individuals who did not directly participate.
Iran’s prospective use of the terror attack to expand the repression of minority groups would also be in keeping with the regime’s early exploitation of that attack as justification for lashing out at perceived enemies abroad, both among neighboring Arab countries and in the broader global community.
Indeed, the two types of activity are closely linked, as evidenced by the regime’s announcement that some of those who were arrested in the aftermath of the attack were individuals with supposed links to Iran’s regional adversaries.
Al Jazeera quoted a spokesperson for the Iranian Intelligence Ministry as saying that “five members of a terrorist squad affiliated to jihadist separatist groups supported by Arab reactionary countries were identified.” The Ministry’s statement went on to say, even more vaguely: “Foreign sponsors and supporters of this terrorist act have also been identified. More information will be provided on them in due course.”
The initial withholding of information by Iranian authorities is frequently cause for alarm, since those authorities have a long track record of making arrests on the basis of unsubstantiated suspicion or political motives and then building a case through long periods of interrogation, often involving torture and false confessions.
In the present case, it would be easy to identify political motives, since the arrests and relevant public statements come in the wake of Iranian officials immediately blaming Saturday’s attack on a “triangle of enemies” consisting of Saudi-led Arab nations, the United States, and Israel.
The regime’s commitment to that narrative was underscored on Tuesday when, according to the Associated Press, a video was released by an Iranian media outlet with close links to the Revolutionary Guards, in which footage of Iranian ballistic missile tests was accompanied by the graphic of a gun scope aiming at the Arab capitals of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
Iran’s ballistic missile program has become a particular source of rhetoric in recent months as the Islamic Republic confronts rising levels of pressure from the US and its traditional allies, while also contending with unrest at home.
When US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in May, he cited its failure to address the Iranian missile threat as a major justification. In August, the Revolutionary Guard resumed testing of potentially nuclear-capable missiles for the first time in more than a year.
Also in August, an advanced, Russian-made missile defense system known as S-300 was moved from Tehran to Mashhad, apparently following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on a visit there, according to recently released satellite imagery.
Last week, Quartz reported upon this and other such incidents and suggested that they could be indicative of the Iranian regime’s paranoia regarding foreign attacks, or the moves could be intended to enable surprise attacks on foreign adversaries even as officials point to defensive purposes as a form of political cover.
In either case, the regime’s missile activities point to its growing tensions with traditional adversaries. And whether or not the regime’s concerns about foreign-linked separatists and efforts to promote regime change are justified, they are evidently guiding principles behind its current foreign policy, and perhaps its domestic policy as well.