Published at The Telegraph
In its choice of target and timing, ISIL has shown, once again, its skill in exploiting the rivalries of its enemies—setting them against one another to buy itself greater room for manoeuvre.
Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian regime has spread its influence by placing itself at the forefront of anti-Western radicalism, supporting jihadists without regard to sect. To this day, al-Qaeda’s primary facilitation network (handling money and weapons), which feeds its branches in the Arab world from the group’s headquarters in Pakistan, operates on Iranian territory, under a “secret deal” exposed by the US Treasury in 2011. Documents in the possession of Iranian spies and operatives in Iraq also made it clear that Iran was coordinating with ISIL, which had received weapons from it, and other Sunni jihadists as a way to foment chaos in Iraq during the US regency.
Yet in recent years Tehran has changed tack. It is increasingly turning to a sectarian strategy, specifically arming and equipping Shi’a proxies in an effort to destabilize and dominate its neighbours, most notably Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. There is also an increasingly visible Iranian presence in Yemen, where Iran’s allies interrupted the post-Arab Spring transition with a military coup which triggering the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015.
That intervention, and the announcement of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance later that year, did significant damage to ISIL’s reputation, because it highlighted a Sunni alternative to resisting Iran’s imperialism. Since that time, though ISIL has been retreating territorially, Iran seems to have regained the initiative. Bashar al-Assad, head of its client regime in Syria, re-conquered Aleppo in December, squashing the last urban stronghold of the rebellion. Likewise, Iran’s proxies are finding their feet in Iraq as the country’s professional armed forces suffer manpower losses in and around Mosul. By striking at Iran directly, ISIL therefore hopes to capture from the Islamic Military Alliance the mantle of Sunnidom’s defender.
The timing of the attack is also significant. For many years, Iran has mobilised allies and proxies by advancing the fiction that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, all support ISIL and other Sunni jihadists as a weapon against Iran and its allies, especially Syria. This attack comes just over two weeks after US President Donald Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia to reset the US’s troubled relations with the Kingdom. Front and centre throughout the discussions was the notion of pushing back against Iranian aggression in the region. Tehran has taken advantage of this timing and moved quickly to slot the attack on its parliament into its anti-American, Israeli, and Saudi narrative, releasing a statement that read: “This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the US president and the (Saudi) backward leaders who support terrorists. The fact that Islamic State has claimed responsibility proves that they were involved in the brutal attack”.
At the same time, the attack won’t be welcomed by the Sunni states, who find themselves embroiled in an intra-Gulf crisis following the Saudi-led bloc’s decision to break ties with Qatar. The dispute is partly explained by Doha’s more conciliatory approach towards Iran, which has long angered its Gulf allies. More important is that Qatar has sponsored a range of Islamists throughout the region—not just Sunnis, but also Shi’is, allegedly including Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen, and Iran-linked groups operating in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich, Shi’a-majority Eastern Province. It has also acted as host for fugitive Islamists from across the Gulf, enabling them to agitate against their nations of origin through the media.
Tehran’s reaction to today’s attack is likely to involve an escalation of tensions with Riyadh, which might contribute to widening the diplomatic rift with Qatar, consuming Gulf attention and resources. For ISIL, that polarisation between its various foes helps to maintain a role it has cultivated over a number of years: everyone’s problem, nobody’s priority.