Four gunmen attacked a military parade in the south-western city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province on 22 September, killing at least 25 people and injuring over 70 others, including soldiers and civilians. The assailants, disguised in military uniforms, fired on a viewing stand where officials had gathered to watch an annual event marking the start of the Iran Iraq war in 1980. Both the Ahvaz National Resistance (ANR), an Iranian ethnic Arab opposition movement which seeks a separate state in Khuzestan, and Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack on the same day.
The ANR released no details of the incident, and several smaller Ahwazi separatist groups, for which the ANR acts as an umbrella organisation, denied their involvement on 23 September. However, the relative sophistication of the attack, which involved hiding the weapons several days in advance of the operation, requiring good knowledge of the area, suggests that local militants were likely involved. Moreover, Khuzestan has a history of militancy involving Ahwazi Arabs. For instance, the separatist movement sought to exploit elevated tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2015 by carrying out several small attacks against security interests in the hopes of building support for its cause among the Arab community. Further, the group has received indirect financial support from several Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It is therefore plausible that the ANR was involved, and that it aimed to capitalise on growing regional tensions following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, to further increase support for its separatist agenda.
That said, IS has also demonstrated capabilities in Iran, including coordinated gun and suicide bomb attacks in Tehran last year (see our 7 June 2017 Report). Moreover, IS released video footage on 23 September via its Amaq news agency of three men allegedly on their way to carry out the shooting, with one saying that they were targeting non-believers, as proof of its involvement. We assess that this footage is credible, and coupled with the rapidity of its claim, IS is therefore most likely responsible.
IS will have intended this attack to further assert its claim to be the chief defender of Sunni Islam, in a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda’s similar claims. Indeed, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned in an audio recording on 22 August of the threat of Shia militants. The group will hope that this can increase support among Sunnis globally, who regard Iran – and particularly its Shia political and security establishment – as a key enemy. IS will also hope that the strike increases sectarian tensions, not least because it took place one day after Ashura and ahead of Arbaeen, a period of major religious significance for Shia, enabling it to further boost its image among Sunni hardliners.
Most Ahwazis are Shia but some have converted to Sunni Islam in recent years, in part because of longstanding grievances against the Shia establishment over their perceived marginalisation. Indeed, there were credible reports in 2011 that a small number had trained with Jundullah, a now largely defunct Baloch group with ties to al-Qaeda. IS also recruited jihadists from Kurdish, Baloch and Ahwazi communities to join the group in Iraq and Syria, which may partly explain its ability to stage a sophisticated attack in Khuzestan. The province also shares a porous border with Iraq, where IS has a significant presence, which may have further enabled the group to provide cross-border logistical support.
Iran has blamed the US and its Gulf allies for the attack. For instance, on 23 September President Rouhani said the latter were providing “monetary, military and political support for these groups”. These comments were almost certainly referring to Saudi Arabia and the UAE given their prominent anti-Iranian stance. Iran has offered no evidence for its claims, but it is likely seeking to exploit the incident by portraying Gulf countries as aggressors, which are seeking to undermine stability in the country. Tehran will hope that this justifies its regional activity, particularly in Syria and Yemen, and increases public support for the Government in the face of growing socioeconomic discontent. Moreover, Tehran summoned the envoys of the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and the UAE following the attack, accusing them of hosting members of the ANR. This suggests the Government may also look to exploit this violence to press foreign governments to crack down on Iranian opposition groups that it considers terrorist organisations.
This firm Iranian rhetoric suggests that the attack is likely to increase regional tensions in the coming weeks. However, given the Government is under significant domestic pressure to deal with growing economic hardship, it is unlikely that it will want to engage in any significant practical escalation. That said, it is possible that Iran will take limited steps to demonstrate a strong response against this perceived Saudi-Emirati aggression. Indeed, Tehran could particularly look to retaliate via its regional proxies including the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the risk of Houthi ballistic missile launches targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE is therefore likely to rise somewhat in coming weeks.
Iran will also crack down strongly on suspected Sunni insurgents and activists, notably in Khuzestan, Baluchistan and Iran’s Kurdish regions. Security forces will also focus heavily on suppressing Salafi-jihadist groups such as Jaish al-Adl and Ansar al-Furqan in the South-East, which are sympathetic to jihadist groups’ agendas. This will reduce the likelihood of further IS attacks in Iran in the coming months, though it could aid IS’s recruitment in the longer term as this will increase anti-regime feeling among Sunnis. In addition, IS has an existing logistical network in Iran and strong knowledge of cross-border smuggling routes into Iraq and Pakistan, and so the risk of further operations in Iran will continue over the coming years. Any such strikes will however remain infrequent due to the Government’s extensive security apparatus and IS’s limited capabilities in the country.
Other separatist militant groups will also likely step up their activities in the coming months, ahead of the reimposition of US sanctions in November, which will further drive domestic political tensions. That said, the crackdown by security forces is likely to reduce the capabilities of militants nationwide in the coming months, meaning any attacks are likely to be limited. However, Kurdish groups have a greater presence in the North-West of Iran and so the risk of more significant, albeit sporadic, clashes between militants and the security forces will persist in these areas.
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