Despite the proclaimed defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2019 and the fall of its last stronghold in Deir ez-Zor, the organization retains operational capabilities in both countries. This resilience is particularly evident in its Afghan chapter, known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). The Afghan situation is compounded by the country’s intricate geography, security instability following the US withdrawal, and fierce competition between ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Despite the Taliban’s efforts, there remains uncertainty about its ability to fully suppress ISIS and fill the void left by the US withdrawal. The complex dynamics, including the ongoing power struggle, make it challenging to ascertain whether the Taliban can effectively curb ISIS’ capabilities in the region.
In the intricate landscape of regional tensions and insecurity, Iran faced a devastating blow on January 3, 2024, with two simultaneous bombings in Kerman. The attack targeted the Martyrs’ Cemetery, where Qassem Soleimani is buried, resulting in over a hundred fatalities and numerous injuries. ISIS claimed responsibility for this assault, marking a continuation of their previous attacks in Iran. Additionally, in June 2017, ISIS targeted the shrine of Khomeini and the Parliament headquarters in Tehran. Subsequent attacks occurred in September 2018 during a military parade in Ahwaz, causing around 30 casualties, and in February 2019, during the 40th-anniversary celebration of the revolution, when ISIS targeted Revolutionary Guard members in Balochistan Province, resulting in 27 deaths. The recurring nature of these attacks underscores the persistent threat posed by ISIS in the region. In October 2022, ISIS targeted the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz, resulting in 13 fatalities. Subsequently, in August 2023, another attack struck the same shrine, killing one and injuring eight. Iranian media reported a gunman attempting to enter the shrine, opening fire on visitors before being arrested. In September 2023, Iranian intelligence arrested 28 individuals suspected of ISIS affiliation, allegedly trying to plan bombings on the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death. The Kerman bombings, occurring one day after the assassination of Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, stirred controversy. While some Iranian officials hinted at Israeli involvement, ISIS officially claimed responsibility.
Scenarios: Significations and Potential Outcomes
Several scenarios attempt to explain the aforesaid attacks, all attributed to ISIS. They can be summed up as follows:
Scenario one: It suggests that ISIS might not have been behind the mentioned operations. It proposes that Iranian agencies orchestrated the attacks and falsely attributed them to ISIS. This scenario aims to justify Iran’s presence beyond its borders, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, it explains the allocation of funds to armed factions loyal to Iran in the region. This scenario also speculates that Iran might use domestic attacks to alleviate internal pressure and the embarrassment facing the ruling elite.
Scenario two: It posits that Iranian agencies intentionally facilitated the movement of ISIS members across Iranian borders. This scenario suggests that Iran turned a blind eye to the planning and execution of ISIS operations, thus enabling Iran to advance its internal and external policies. By doing so, Iran aimed to reinforce its sectarian narrative, legitimize its authority, and navigate the recent period of internal unrest and disturbances, exemplified by large-scale demonstrations like those following the death of Mahsa Amini.
Scenario three: It suggests that ISIS is genuinely responsible for the mentioned operations without any involvement or facilitation from Iranian agencies. This raises questions about Iranian failures and shortcomings, putting Iran in significant domestic and international trouble and embarrassment. This scenario is our focus, considering the official Iranian narrative that the government aims to promote. To explain this scenario better, we need to identify Iran’s intentions and strategic goals in promoting this narrative and explore the reasons, significations and dimensions behind it.
Accepting the official Iranian narrative regarding ISIS’ targeting of the Iranian interior gives rise to crucial questions and concerns regarding Iran’s strategy, religious polarization and its stated as well as undisclosed objectives.
Fighting between two radicals: The Iranian political system represents the Shiite hard-right. It seeks to hijack and monopolize interpreting the Shiite sect and make itself a guardian over the Shiite community, thereby moving from the periphery into the mainstream, presenting itself as the authentic representative of the sect. However, the Najaf seminary is still standing out as its rival religious marjayas, surpassing it in terms of history, legitimacy and the number of emulators turning to the seminary for guidance. Therefore, the Iranian reading, in line with Welayat al-Faqih, remains radical compared to the quietist jurisprudential tradition. It’s a reading based on God’s legislative supremacy and the position of the guardian jurist at the ruling system’s apex. As regards the ISIS reading, it’s a reading that doesn’t reflect the affiliation of the generality of Sunnis, either. Rather, this reading represents the old Khariji ideology, according to most researchers, kalam scholars and contemporary jurists. This means it’s a totally independent sect (Kharijism) that doesn’t turn to Sunni authorities for guidance or make the Sunni tradition a core foundation for its ideology. And even if we assume that it’s a genuine Sunni outfit, it is still a radical one representing the far-right. Therefore, it’s a dispute between the radicals and the far-right in the Sunni and Shiite traditions. Neither the Iranian ruling system represents the Shiite quietist tradition, nor ISIS represents the Sunni tradition, given its all-comprehensive scope of jurisprudential opinions, all-encompassing purposes, as well as its jurisprudential, theological, and philosophical edifice.
- Striking Iran’s depth: If the validity of the Iranian narrative, albeit questionable, regarding ISIS’ operations deep within Iran is acknowledged, it implies that the organization has expanded its battleground to the Iranian interior beyond targeting Iranian loyalists in Syria and Iraq or the broader Shiite community in Afghanistan. However, many observers doubt the organization’s ability to operate within Iran. This reality could significantly embarrass the Iranian ruling system if proven true, impacting its legitimacy. Consequently, the ruling system may seek to leverage this situation for its strategic interests and ambitions in the region, using it to justify external expansion and internal violence. It is noteworthy that the organization has not, up to this point, targeted leaders within the Revolutionary Guard or the Iranian ruling system, refraining from carrying out assassination operations. Instead, it has directed its operations toward religious and ritual sites, affecting all Iranians. This raises a dual question. First, it questions the veracity of the Iranian narrative since the organization hasn’t targeted any members of the ruling elite. Second, ISIS operations shed light on its ideology and modus operandi observed in Syria, Iraq, and now Afghanistan. The organization’s focus on civilians, irrespective of their Shiite or Sunni affiliations, underscores its broader hostility not only toward Iran but to all Sunni countries and societies, as it declares infidelity to all Sunnis.
Tehran’s Options and Attempts to Inflict a Decisive Blow
Following the Kerman bombings, Iran swiftly adopted a hostile stance toward its eastern and western neighbors, breaching the sovereignty of Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan. Iran justified these actions by alleging responses to the perpetrators and planners of the Kerman attack. Leveraging ISIS’ operations, Iran has sought to extend its influence and presence beyond its borders, asserting that it is actively resisting and containing the organization. The Kerman incident provided Iran with the justification to enhance its expansionist narrative with it striking Iraq, Syria and Pakistan.
- In Iraq and Syria: Following the Kerman bombings, Tehran launched airstrikes on headquarters in Idlib and Erbil, alleging these targets played a role in planning and facilitating the Kerman attacks. The Revolutionary Guard, in a statement, defended its actions in Syria, asserting that the bombings were “in response to the recent crimes of the terrorist groups that unjustly martyred a group of our dear compatriots in Kerman and Rask.” Regarding Erbil, the Revolutionary Guard asserted that its airstrikes targeted an Israeli Mossad base. The claim was that this base was allegedly involved in planning strikes against Iran through the use of agents and sabotage groups.
- Tensions with Pakistan: On the eastern border, the Revolutionary Guard conducted airstrikes on locations in Pakistan, claiming they belonged to armed groups opposing Tehran. Iranian official media reported the destruction of two key headquarters of Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) in Baluchistan, southwestern Pakistan. Jaish al-Adl was linked to an armed attack on an Iranian police headquarters in Rask, Sistan and Baluchistan province, in mid-December, resulting in the death of 11 policemen and injuries. In response to the Iranian bombing, Pakistan swiftly retaliated with similar airstrikes. Pakistani intelligence stated that their airstrikes targeted the headquarters of the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), a Baloch separatist armed movement engaged in activities within the Pakistani province of Balochistan.
- Moreover, Pakistan threatened that all options were on the table. Islamabad recalled its ambassador from Tehran and prevented the Iranian ambassador from returning to Pakistan. However, through diplomatic communication initiated by Iran, tensions eased, and relations were restored.
- Accusations against the Taliban: For months, Tehran has accused the Taliban of being lenient with ISIS, with both sides exchanging accusations over the rise of ISIS and its increased operations in Afghanistan and Iran. Tehran even alleged the transfer of ISIS fighters from Libya, Iraq, and Syria to Afghanistan. The Taliban, however, denied this allegation. Despite allegations and disagreements, the Taliban and Tehran have coordinated in confronting ISIS. The common interest in countering the ISIS threat has outweighed their differences. The Taliban has also found benefit in having ISIS as an adversary, as it helps solidify its rule and presents a common enemy to neighboring countries. Iran, among others, sees the Taliban as a preferable alternative to the chaos and vacuum that might allow ISIS to expand and operate, posing a threat to Iran and neighboring nations. Iran has benefited from the presence of ISIS, using it to exaggerate a narrative depicting it as a strategic threat to the Iranian revolution and its religious model. This narrative has been employed to extend Iran’s expansion beyond its borders, increase influence in Syria and Iraq, and establish a presence in Afghanistan. Iran has expanded its fight against ISIS to new locations not only to limit the organization’s activities but also to assist its agents, proxies and groups loyal to entities other than nation-states (non-state actors). This strategy aims to exert pressure on nation-states, enhance Iranian power beyond borders, and align with a broader strategy towards establishing a “globalist government” as a prelude to the “appearance of the infallible imam,” according to Iranian beliefs.
By opening multiple fronts in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, Iran appears to be flexing its muscles despite its diminishing influence in the region. This comes in the aftermath of the Israeli war on Gaza, US threats to curb escalation, the Red Sea alliance against the Houthis, and Lebanese Hezbollah’s hesitation to escalate due to concerns about Israeli and US reactions. Iran’s uncertainty about ISIS’ involvement in the Kerman bombings is evident in the fact that its targeting of sites in Pakistan and Iraq was unrelated to ISIS. This suggests Iran might utilize the bombings to advance its agenda, consolidate regional interventions, and assert influence over neighboring countries. However, Iran made miscalculations. Despite Pakistan facing internal crises and upcoming parliamentary elections, it is a Sunni, nuclear-powered, and centralized state that cannot ignore the violation of its sovereignty by Iran. Unlike Iran’s actions in Iraq and Syria, this incident created both routine and embarrassment for Tehran. The Pakistani government would have faced internal challenges if it turned a blind eye to the violation of its sovereignty, especially considering Iran’s establishment of the Zainabiyoun Brigade (Liwa Zainabiyoun), a militia comprising Pakistani Shiites experienced in fighting in Syria. This deployment of Pakistani Shiites has raised concerns for Pakistan especially regarding Iran’s behavior, employment of Pakistani Shiites and its potential impact on national security. Despite this, both nations are reluctant to escalate the conflict further, aiming to avoid expanding the war between them.
Iran appears to utilize ISIS as a tool to perpetuate regional tension and extend its influence in Sunni-majority countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and northern Iraq. However, it’s important to note that Iran follows the behavior of radical factions rather than that of responsible states. Despite using ISIS as a means to advance its agenda, Iran is considered a strategic enemy by the organization, primarily for ideological reasons, followed by political and strategic motivations. While Iran seeks to weaken ISIS in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the organization views Iran as a target. It is not expected to hesitate or retreat from targeting Iran whenever an opportunity arises. While ISIS has weakened since the fall of its last stronghold in Baghouz (al-Baghuz Fawqani, a town in Syria located in Abu Kamal District, Deir ez-Zoin) 2019, the regional environment still fosters sectarian polarization and injustices, providing the organization with an opportunity to attract recruits and operate. Iran has exploited the attacks by ISIS and amplified the organization’s capabilities to advance its narrative about the inevitability of confrontation beyond borders. This strategy grants Iran legitimacy to strengthen its presence in Iraq and Syria, and it is now seeking a foothold in Afghanistan and Pakistan by fostering unrest and tension. Iran inflates the threat posed by ISIS to execute its strategic agenda and implement radical objectives.