Pot, Kettle: Why Iran Blames Saudi Arabia For Islamic State Attacks – JMD

  • Terrorist killings at Iranian parliament and mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini bring into focus something Riyadh and Tehran have in common – the stoking of ethnic tensions and proxy wars they use to destabilise each other

by James M. Dorsey,

Islamic State’s targeting of key religious and political symbols in Tehran is likely to aggravate an already escalating proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A war of words in recent weeks between the two Middle Eastern heavyweights offered Iranian officials a rich background to justify their pinning of responsibility on the Saudis for Wednesday’s simultaneous attacks on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. At least 12 people were killed and 42 others wounded in the attacks, the first in Iran to be claimed by Islamic State (IS).

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview last month with Middle East Broadcasting Corp, warned the battle with the Islamic republic would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia”.

Iranian Defence Minister General Hossein Dehghan responded that if Saudi Arabia engaged in “such stupidity” nothing would be “left in Saudi Arabia except Mecca and Medina”, Islam’s two holiest cities.

The irony is that Wednesday’s attacks laid bare a picture of the pot calling the kettle black, highlighting mirror images that both the Islamic republic and the kingdom would have like to have kept hidden.

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Saudi Arabia and Iran both discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities that populate their oil-rich provinces: primarily Sunni Muslim ethnic Arabs in Iran’s Khuzestan as well as Sunni minorities elsewhere in Iran, and Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The perpetrators of Wednesday’s attacks appear to have been Sunni Muslims, including an Iranian Baloch and an Arab with a Gulf or Iraqi accent.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard secure the area outside the Iranian parliament during the attack by Islamic State. Photo: AFP
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard secure the area outside the Iranian parliament during the attack by Islamic State. Photo: AFP

Saudi Arabia and Iran moreover both employ proxies to fight their battles. Saudi support for militant groups opposed to the Islamic regime in Tehran does not by definition implicate the kingdom in the attacks in Tehran. Yet, the dividing lines between militant groups are often fluid in the murky world of militancy and the possible covert operations of intelligence agencies.

Iran has recently recruited at least 3,000 Pakistani Shiites into its Xenobia brigade that is fighting in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Pakistan also detained in May a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was on a recruiting mission in Balochistan. The commander has since been released.

Wednesday’s attacks moreover came amid mounting indications that Saudi Arabia is hoping to exploit ethnic and Sunni Muslim grievances to destabilise Iran. Pakistani militants report an influx of funds into viscerally anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian religious seminaries in Balochistan, the troubled Pakistani province that borders Iran’s province of Sistan and Baluchistan, a crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Balochistan has witnessed a series of devastating attacks in the past year, some of which were claimed by IS, others by groups with past links to the kingdom, including cross border operations against border guards in Iran.

Saudi thinking was further reflected in the publication by a government-backed think tank in Riyadh of a roadmap for instigating unrest among Iran’s Baloch written by an Iranian Baloch activist.

Wednesday’s attacks, wittingly or unwittingly, served the purpose of both Saudi and Iranian hardliners. The attacks came weeks after a resounding electoral victory for Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, who has allowed official representatives of the Iranian Arab community to voice grievances.

“The more that this happens, the less the Saudi-backed separatists win. What the separatists want is the polarisation of views and to incite the regime to attack the [Iranian Arab] community, thereby securing a popular backlash. In recent weeks, they have conducted more murders, mostly of security personnel but also of non-security officials. They want mass arrests and public executions in order to establish themselves as the vanguard of the Ahwazi resistance,” said an Iran watcher with close ties to the Iranian Arab community that refers to itself as Ahwazi.

Featured image: An image released by Islamic State shows a person inside the Iranian parliament in Tehran. Photo: Reuters