Iranian officials offer disjointed response to Islamic State terrorist attacks in Tehran

Purported Tehran attackers in photo released by the Islamic State.

Iran’s government has scrambled to explain Wednesday’s terrorist attacks in Tehran, the first major attacks by the Islamic State on Iranian soil, leading to contradictory messages. Select officials such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei have tried to downplay the severity of the attack, attempting to dissuade criticism.

Terrorist teams attacked the Iranian parliament and the Mausoleum of the founding father of the Islamic Republic – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – on Wednesday morning. At least 17 have been killed and 40 wounded, according to Iranian official media. The intelligence ministry identified five terrorists. Authorities have reportedly arrested five Iranian suspects including a female who “guided” the attackers. The Islamic State accepted responsibility, claiming five assailants and vowing to launch more attacks.

As the attack was unfolding in a parliament office building, it was simultaneously being uploaded to Amaq, the Islamic State’s media outlet. According to translations provided to The Long War Journal, at least two attackers spoke native Arabic.

Authorities have identified the assailants as being Iranian nationals from “various parts of Iran,” according to the deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Reza Seifollahi. The Imam of the Sunni-Kurdish village of Paveh in the western provinces of Kermanshah, relayed that several attackers came from that village. A social media account belonging to one of the terrorists lists Paveh as the place of his birth.

According to Thursday’s Intelligence Ministry statement, the five assailants had a history of activities “related to Wahabbi and takfiri groups” who joined the Islamic State and traveled to Raqqa and Mosul. The operatives returned to Iran in Aug. 2016 under the command of “Abu Ayesheh” – who allegedly was appointed emir of the group in Iran – but slipped past Iran’s security services, who instead killed the emir and a smaller team. This claim matches last year’s statements of Iranian officials about neutralizing Abu Ayesheh and his network.

Undetected, the attackers communicated with Islamic State directors outside Iran and benefitted from a domestic network to organize the attack on high-value targets in Tehran.

The last string of high-profile bombings in Tehran occurred during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Since then, incidents targeting the largest state-sponsor of terror were limited to attacks by ethno-sectarian and separatist groups against security personnel in periphery provinces. Yet those grievances remained localized.

The deliberate targeting of the parliament and the mausoleum of the founding father of the regime issued a violent rebuke of Tehran’s governing system and ideology.

Official Iranian declarations yield competing narratives of the attack, indicating that they were caught off-guard. The Interior Ministry claimed the first attack started at 10:30 a.m. local time, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) countered with 10:15. Brigadier General Mohammad-Hossein Nejat, the deputy commander of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, said three young assailants opened fire while security was preoccupied with checking their packages. Conversely, the Interior Ministry claimed four assailants were involved in the parliament attack. Another official from the same ministry reported the assailants had cloaked themselves in women’s clothing.

All accounts agree that the assailants failed to reach their intended targets: the parliament’s open floor, which security had blocked off. The two assailants who sought to attack Khomeini’s Mausoleum did not reach the shrine’s interior, the first blew up his suicide vest and the other was reportedly shot by authorities.

The IRGC and select Iranian elites immediately blamed Saudi Arabia as the attack’s sponsor. Some even used the opportunity to deride the US. Regime officials claimed the recent Arabic Islamic American Summit in Riyadh allegedly constitutes proof of this sponsorship. Following that narrative, Brigadier General Nejat claimed last week’s meeting between President Donald Trump and Saudi officials implicated Washington and Riyadh in the attack. Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif similarly cited the Saudi Defense Minister’s call last month to “bring the fight” to Iran as proof.

Other Rouhani administration officials, however, did not blame Saudi Arabia, towing the president’s policy to improve diplomatic relations with neighboring countries. Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, told the media on Thursday that “we still cannot judge if Saudi Arabia had a role in this terrorist action.”

Downplaying the episode, Khamenei called the attacks “firecrackers” that would fail to impact the nation’s “will.” He also implicitly defended Iran’s military involvement abroad: “if the Islamic Republic had not resisted … we would have had much more trouble of this sort in the country.”

The Islamic State has recently campaigned for violence against the Islamic Republic. In a March video, the group’s Iraqi Wilayat Diyala branch threatened to attack Iran and called on Iranian Sunnis to rise. This was followed by additional calls for violence in the group’s propaganda as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Since the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, Iranian officials claimed to have thwarted dozens of schemes by the group to infiltrate Iran and form cells. An Iranian official asserted that Tehran prevented 58 attacks. Yet contrary to the pre-existing practices, none of the apprehended individuals were publicly displayed, nor did Tehran reveal any evidence about the alleged plots, except in minor instances.

While Iran has mobilized assets to fight the Islamic State, it has also exploited the opportunity to further its maligned regional activities. In Iraq and Syria, Tehran feeds a vicious sectarian cycle, which has contributed to the Islamic State’s rise. A frequent talking point espoused by Iranian elites is that if Tehran doesn’t take the battle to its enemies abroad, it would have to fight them at home. Recent developments, however, have proven this strategy to be folly, highlighting Tehran’s vulnerability to regional crises.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Amir Toumaj is a Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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