TERROR ATTACK IN IRAN
By Donnelly McCleland
Iran was holding funerals on Monday [24 September] for the victims of the weekend terror attack on a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, the deadliest attack in the country in nearly a decade. Thousands of mourners gathered at the city’s Sarallah Mosque on the Taleghani junction, carrying caskets in the sweltering heat. Others, mainly young people wearing ethnic clothes of the region’s Arab minority, held large photographs of those slain at Saturday’s parade in Ahvaz, the Khuzestan provincial capital, where militants disguised as soldiers had opened fire at marching troops and onlookers. (Associated Press)
Claims and accusations
Various Iranian officials have vowed a crushing response to Saturday’s terrorist attack that killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 70 others. They accused US-backed regional rivals of fomenting insurgent separatist groups. On Sunday 23 September, President Hassan Rouhani echoed these accusations, also blaming an unnamed US-allied regional country for supporting the perpetrators. Saturday’s attack took the lives of soldiers, many of whom were fulfilling their two-year obligatory military service, as well as civilians, including children and a veteran of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war who was killed in his wheelchair.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the Western-backed Shah monarchy, Iran’s powerful security forces, the Revolutionary Guards, have maintained a tight grip and the country has mostly avoided the large-scale terrorist violence seen elsewhere in the Middle East. Last year, Islamic State (IS) militants attacked the parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, killing at least 18 people and wounding more than 50.
Khuzestan, the province where the most recent attack took place, has seen political unrest before. In 2005 and 2006, Arab separatist groups reportedly carried out a series of bombings at government and commercial buildings, killing more than two dozen people and injuring hundreds. Although Khuzestan, on the Iraqi border, is the source of much of Iran’s oil and hydropower, it remains one of the least developed parts of the country. Like many Iranian cities over the last year, there have also been demonstrations in Ahvaz.
As for those responsible for the shooting, confusion reigns over the names of groups that have either claimed responsibility or were blamed for the attacks. According to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the separatist group Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz (PADMAZ) claimed responsibility for the attack. The group is said to be supported by “foreign antagonists”, including Saudi Arabia, the agency reports. PADMAZ later rejected IRNA’s report that it had claimed responsibility for the attack. According to unconfirmed Twitter and Facebook accounts, they refuted their involvement: “On behalf of #PADMAZ organisation we reject all accusations and we insist that PADMAZ organisation is a civil political movement and has nothing to do with what happened today in #IranMilitaryParade attack.”
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) spokesman Ramezan Sharif said the attackers were affiliated with the al-Ahvaziya terror group, which he claimed is supported by Saudi Arabia. Another group, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz, was also accused of perpetrating the attack but its spokesman, Yacoub Hor Al-Tustari, told CNN his group was not to blame.
According to Reuters, the Islamic State’s Amaq agency posted a video of three men in a vehicle supposedly on their way to carry out the attack. In the video, a man wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with what appears to be a Revolutionary Guard logo discussed the impending attack in Farsi. “We are Muslims, they are [non-believers],” the man says in the video. He added: “We will destroy them with a strong and guerrilla-style attack, inshallah (God willing).”
Internal tensions and external pressures
Strategic analyst Gregory Copley (writing for Oil Price, 8 September 2018), maintains: “Strenuous domestic and international posturing by political leaders in Iran during July, August, and into September 2018 highlighted the degree of stress which Iranian leadership groups and individuals have felt as a result of compounding and interacting internal and external pressures.” He goes on to highlight the key threats that Iranian leadership currently faces: domestic unrest, international isolation and loss of prestige, and an unpredictable external military threat regime (there is genuine belief on Iran’s part that the US, Saudi Arabia or one of their allies could act militarily, directly or indirectly, against Iranian interests).
President Rouhani has long been considered a ‘moderate’ who tried to reduce the IRGC’s control over politics and the economy, especially in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal, which he backed vociferously at home. However, amid internal power struggles and the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions, he has been forced to take a harder stance. The Trump administration has attempted to apply pressure on the Iranian economy and government simultaneously, in an endeavour to weaken the Iranian government’s influence in the region.
President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, spoke in his personal capacity on Saturday (23 September), saying that US sanctions against Iran are leading to economic pain that could lead to a “successful revolution”. He was speaking in New York at an Iran Uprising Summit held by the Organisation of Iranian-American Communities, which opposes Tehran’s government. In response to Giuliani’s comments, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley told CNN: “The United States is not looking to do a regime change in Iran. We’re not looking to do regime change anywhere.”
Domestically, the Iranian government has had to contend with growing dissent across the country as re-imposed sanctions, a struggling economy and a falling currency have pushed the civilian population to breaking point. There have also been hints of sectarian dissent in the form of attacks on Iranian forces from Kurdish militant groups in the north-west of the country.
Some analysts believe that the Iranian government may try to use the attack to deflect domestic attention from serious social and economic issues and focus attention on perceived external threats. Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, said to Deutsche Welle: “Propagating the siege mentality could help change the subject domestically from complaints over mounting economic troubles to a nationalistic rallying round the flag to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, which inherently requires a strong central government.”
In this week’s UN meetings, it will be interesting to see how the recent attack will influence President Rouhani’s address before the General Assembly. A diplomatic confrontation of some kind between Iran and the United States is anticipated as President Trump addresses Iran’s “destabilising aggression and sponsorship of terrorism”, and Iran is expected to rally international support against the United States for “unilaterally violating the nuclear deal”.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
There may only be a small window of opportunity to diffuse the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iran. For Iran, with a population four times that of Syria, to potentially end up in a similarly catastrophic war would be an unimaginable humanitarian disaster. That outcome is not inevitable, however, and there are diplomatic means to address various concerns. Recent reconciliation efforts with nuclear-powered North Korea has demonstrated that the seemingly ‘impossible’ is indeed possible. However, it will require a mammoth effort and some key people demonstrating a ‘Caleb spirit’: an opposite spirit to that of the world. Operation World points out: “With nearly two-thirds of Iran’s population under the age of 30, with disillusionment at an all-time high and with frustrated desires for freedom, there is a unique opportunity to impact this generation with the liberating good news about Jesus.” Iran is on a knife-edge, however, because this very same group of young people could be radicalised for jihad, rather than liberated, which is why the manner in which key nations deal with Iran in the immediate future is so critical.
- For a miraculous shift in the Iranian leadership towards a peaceful resolution to the internal strife
- For international leaders to seek a constructive, diplomatic solution with Iran
- For believers in Iran to continue reaching others with the Gospel, especially during these times of uncertainty and fear