What the Islamic State wants in attacking Iran

Iranian police stand near the parliament's building during a gunmen attack in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. - RTX39DS2
Editor's note:

After years of waiting and wanting to strike Iran, the Islamic State claims to have finally done so. Presuming the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the attack is authentic, why did it strike now? Will McCants outlines the tactical and strategic reasons. At a time when the Islamic State’s caliphate is crumbling and its morale flagging, he argues that the strike won’t reverse the groups ill fortunes, but is still a vital shot as it transitions from a proto-state to an insurgency. This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

After years of waiting and wanting to strike Iran, the Islamic State claims to have finally done so. According to recent news reports, four militants went on a shooting spree in Iran’s parliament, while other operatives detonated a bomb inside the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, killing 12 people. If the Islamic State indeed ordered the attacks, it has struck at the temporal and spiritual heart of the Iranian revolutionary government.

The Islamic State has aimed to strike Iran since at least 2007, when it openly threatened to attack the country for supporting the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. It regards Persian Shiites as apostate traitors who have sold out the Sunni Arabs to Israel and the United States. This determination to strike Iran marked a key difference with al-Qaida, which long held off attacking the Islamic Republic in order to use it as a rear base and financial hub.

In 2007, Osama bin Laden wrote a private letter to the leaders of the Islamic State urging them to cease and desist. “You did not consult with us on that serious issue that affects the general welfare of all of us,” the al-Qaida chief wrote. “Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages,” bin Laden went on to explain. “There is no need to fight with Iran, unless you are forced to.”

Bin Laden’s concerns were well placed. After 9/11, a contingent of al-Qaida operatives and members of bin Laden’s family fled to Iran, where they were kept under house arrest or close surveillance. Among them was Bin Laden’s son Hamza, now promoted by al-Qaida as its heir apparent. The Iranian government loosened or tightened its leash on the operatives and family for strategic reasons, and al-Qaida refrained from attacking the government to protect its people and to preserve its corridor to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Islamic State did not like the directive but bent the knee to its emir, bin Laden. But when al-Qaida and the Islamic State split in 2014, an Islamic State spokesman used this disagreement to paint his organization as the more committed jihadi group. He revealed that its rank and file had long pressed for an attack, but al-Qaida forbade it because the organization wanted to “protect its interests and its supply lines.”

Presuming the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the attack is authentic, why did it wait three years to carry out a strike if it had been free to do so since 2014? Absent internal testimony from the organization, there are several ways to think about the timing. The Islamic State may not have had operatives capable of carrying out the attacks until now. During the past few years, it steadily assembled and trained a cadre of Iranian commandos. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some of them were able to return home and carry out a sophisticated attack, as French and Belgian jihadis have done over the past two years.

There may also be strategic reasons, as found in one of the group’s favorite insurgent manuals, The Management of Savagery. Reasons for attacking Iran might include punishing an adversary for attacking its territory, provoking an all-out sectarian war to force Iraqi Sunnis to side with the Islamic State, or provoking the Iranian government to launch a domestic crackdown on Sunnis that would lead them to turn to the Islamic State for protection.

Finally, the Islamic State wants to win its struggle with al-Qaida for the hearts and minds of global jihadis. The group badly needs recruits in order to replenish its decimated ranks in Syria and Iraq. A daring attack on Iran’s capital makes al-Qaida look foolish for refusing to carry out a siege of its own. The timing of the assault is also significant. To prove that it is still relevant in order to attract new recruits, the Islamic State seeks to inspire or direct global attacks during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Last Ramadan was incredibly bloody, and this Ramadan is on pace to match or surpass it.

Whatever the case may be, if the claim proves true, the Islamic State will have succeeded where so many other Sunni jihadi groups have failed. It has struck at the heart of the hated theocracy of “Safavids,” as the group describes Iran. At a time when the Islamic State’s caliphate is crumbling and its morale flagging, the strike won’t reverse its ill fortunes—Iran may decide to hasten the demise of the Islamic State in response. But it is a vital shot in the arm for the group as it transitions from a proto-state to an insurgency.