Iran’s response to Tehran attack shows threat from Kurdish jihadists, but Government’s approach will help limit escalation risk
The Intelligence Minister said on 10 June that security forces had undertaken a cross-border operation and killed the “mastermind and commander of the team” that carried out the major 7 June Islamic State (IS) attacks, who he said had fled the country after the attacks. No further details of this operation were given, but the security forces had identified one of the IS attackers as an Iranian Kurd from the city of Paveh in the western Kermanshah Province on 8 June. At least three of the other four attackers are also reported to have been Sunni Kurds. The security forces have claimed that all the attackers had returned to Iran in mid-2016, having fought for IS in Iraq and Syria.
The majority of Iranian citizens that have travelled to fight for IS in its self-proclaimed Caliphate are members of the country’s mainly Sunni Kurdish minority, principally due to the proximity of Kurdish-majority areas in Iran’s North-West to the Iraqi and Turkish borders. Long-established cross-border smuggling networks will have facilitated this travel, despite the security forces’ efforts to secure these border areas. Such networks also likely permit militants to evade detection when returning to Iran. It is therefore credible that the 7 June attackers were mostly Kurds, likely veteran fighters, who had travelled from IS territories in Iraq and Syria. This also suggests that Iran’s operation to eliminate the group’s leader also occurred in the Iraq-Iran border area, as the commander behind the attack was also likely to have been of Kurdish origin.
In addition, Iranian media reported the arrest of numerous other suspected Kurdish jihadists, most recently on 14 June when the Intelligence Ministry reported the arrest of a seven man militant team in Kurdistan Province. This reflects the Government’s desire to be seen as responding firmly to the 7 June assaults and its concerns that other returned IS fighters are plotting further attacks, especially against prominent Shia targets. The security forces have also increased their activities against Sunni militants in the south-eastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province, killing three members of the Ansar al-Furqan (AaF) Salafi-jihadist, ethnic Baloch group in a major raid in Chabahar city on 14 June. Baloch jihadists are less likely to have direct links to IS than Kurdish radicals due to their greater distance from Iraq and Syria, but many will be sympathetic to IS. The Government raids are therefore likely intended to prevent IS establishing a further foothold in this region.
These ongoing security force efforts will ensure that the capabilities of jihadist groups in Iran remain limited, meaning the tempo of violence is unlikely to exceed more than a few major attacks per year. Those convicted of involvement in jihadist violence are likely to face harsh sentences, including executions, which could make it easier for jihadists to recruit. However, Iran’s security forces are likely to avoid any sustained or indiscriminate crackdowns against Sunnis, which will limit the potential for any large-scale jihadist insurgency to develop over the coming few years. That said, IS will continue to attempt high profile attacks, especially around the end of Ramadan, and also during Ashura, a highly significant month for Shias, which begins in September.