Iranian's watch the operation outside the Iranian parliament during an attack on the complex in the capital Tehran on June 7, 2017. Picture by: Parspix/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved. The traumatic experience of a terror attack has “finally” reached the streets of Iran. Some have long expected this to happen, and shivered at the thought of it. While some others, have politically used the lack of a terror attack in Iran as evidence of the country’s support for terror groups, most notably ISIS.
For those in Iran, however, the event was, more than anything else, a shocking tragedy. You could hear the grief in the words of Tehranis: ‘I never thought this could happen so close to home’, resembling the now too familiar first reactions to terror seen across the world. The face of the capital, the face of ‘home’, was now unfamiliar and wounded.
The spot chosen by the terrorists to carry out their attack was highly symbolic. The parliament building in Tehran has been a symbol of Iranians’ demands for freedom and democracy for over a hundred years, while the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini is one of the most powerful symbols of the Islamic Revolution and the current ruling system in Iran. Already by simply considering these symbols one reaches the conclusion that this highly political attack targeted the democratic elements of Iranian government. In essence, the attack targeted the Iranian people and the immense social force that only weeks before had come together at the ballot box, as the most recent show of desire for and movement towards democracy.
Much like everywhere else in the world, and with the first shockwaves residing, Iranians recognised the importance of being united. Social media was filled with graphics depicting a united force, and with different hashtags such as #westandtogether. By nightfall people were lighting candles in commemoration of lives lost. What made the importance of unity against terror even more apparent, was the bitter feeling left by statements from ultra-hardliners which blamed the atrocity on the diplomatic approach of Rouhani’s government. Although representing a minority, these statements showed the public ever more boldly the impossibility of overcoming the threat of terrorism without a united front. This was echoed by President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif.
But is the domestic unity enough to counter the threats of terrorism altogether?
Far from it.
It would be naïve to disregard the recent events in the region and the implications they have on the fight against terrorism. Three key goals for the region’s political and social movements, namely, democracy, development, and security, are not achievable without regional cooperation. In this regard, the terror attacks in the heart of Tehran, the crisis in Qatar, and the announced Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq, should all be analysed in one single framework: ‘a Middle East failure’. As such, the finger-pointing by different players and the accusatory tone of authorities towards one another, does nothing to help the crisis.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps released a statement accusing Saudi Arabia and the United States of being behind the attacks. However, there are indications that the attackers were Iranian, showing that ISIS has been somewhat successful in recruiting local forces, apparently from Iran’s Sunni minority. The Sunni minorities in Iran are under discrimination inside the country and the slightest signs of alignment with ISIS could be a sign of danger for the future sectarian unease in Iran. The kind of unease that can be seen in Iraq with the announcement of a pending Kurdish independence referendum, as a sign of a failure in building a united, democratic state in post-war Iraq.
The timing of the attacks in Tehran is also noteworthy, given the simmering rivalry and the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, indicating a more complex and dangerous situation in the region, and against Iran. Although Saudi Arabia has not yet been able to create a functional alliance against Iran in the Persian Gulf area, things can change quickly and dramatically considering President Trump’s new stance against Iran. The lack of a united front and the increasing fragmentation in the region adds to the escalations: Trump has directly supported Saudi Arabia’s actions against Qatar, while Turkey considers Qatar as a strong ally in the region, and Oman tries to play its traditional moderate role in the Gulf.
Taken together, these events and crises are seen as interconnected parts of one failure, namely, a failure to build a cooperative regional system. Without such a cooperative system, these events could happen repeatedly in different parts of the region, adding to the crises and they will abolish any hope for democracy, development, and security. The number of terror attacks could rise, and the economic and political achievements could be lost. The fight against terrorism, as the most important and pressing issue in the region, without regional unity, would be doomed.