The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
ISIS and IRGC cycle of violence likely to escalate
Forecast: The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and anti-regime insurgencies will try to capitalize on heightened levels of anti-regime sentiments among socially- and economically-marginalized minority communities in Iran to conduct future attacks on regime security forces in Iran. The IRGC and Iranian-backed security elements will take further military action abroad in response to attacks in Iran, potentially setting the stage for direct military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
Iran’s internal resistance scene is evolving and is ripe for ISIS and anti-regime insurgents to weaponize it against the regime. Unorganized Iranian protests have grown and expanded to various socially- and economically-marginalized demographics throughout Iran since the initial outbreak of anti-regime protests in late December 2017. Sunni Baloch in southwestern Sistan and Baluchistan Province, Kurds in the northwestern provinces of West Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, and Ahvazi Arabs in southwestern Khuzestan Province have all participated in recent protests.
Deadly engagements between Iranian security services and separatist Kurdish and Salafi-jihadist militants have grown in frequency in recent months. Both ISIS and anti-regime separatists have indicated that they are able to take advantage of internal cleavages in Iranian society, particularly among minority communities, to attack regime security personnel. Elements operating in Kurdish areas likely benefit from the regional mobilization of Kurds fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.
ISIS conducted its second major terrorist attack in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province on September 22, 2018. ISIS previously organized attacks in Tehran in June 2017. Both attacks likely relied on disaffected, ethnic elements in Iran to help carry out the attacks. ISIS militants likely coordinated with Kurds in western Iran to transit from Iraq to stage the Tehran hit. ISIS attackers likely collaborated with Iranian Arabs in southwestern Iran to launch the attack in Ahvaz.
Pressure from U.S. sanctions and the Islamic Republic’s inability to implement much-needed economic reforms to fix their failing economy will disproportionately affect Iranian ethnic minorities. Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchistan provinces have some of Iran’s highest unemployment and poverty rates. Future protests among Iran’s ethnic communities may lead to the reignition of massive anti-regime protests throughout Iran. Protests in Khuzestan are particularly worrisome for the regime because of its location as a major smuggling route for weapons as well as for key regime oil infrastructure and vital natural resources.
As Iran’s ethnic minorities become more economically disenfranchised, they will become more vulnerable to extremist groups’ influence during future protests. Salafi-jihadi and separatist groups such as ISIS, Jundullah, Jaish al Adl, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) may find increased support within disaffected Sunni, Kurdish, and Iranian Arab minority communities in Iran. Iranian protests currently do not pose an existential threat to regime security forces and are far from overthrowing the regime. ISIS and regime separatists could provide the necessary organization and weapons that Iran’s protest scene needs to challenge the regime’s security and longevity, potentially hijacking all or part of a secular protest movement as ISIS and al Qaeda have done in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Increased IRGC extraterritorial operations against ISIS and separatist groups will endanger U.S. and Coalition forces regionally. The IRGC maintains the capability and readiness to conduct ballistic missile strikes and long-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks in regional countries in response to terrorist attacks and increased levels of border violence in Iran. The regime is increasingly able and willing to exercise conventional means to achieve its political objectives, namely neutralizing anti-regime secessionist movements and deterring future deadly attacks in Iran. The IRGC demonstrated this capability during missile strikes against ISIS targets in Deir ez Zour Governorate, Syria in June 2017 and on October 1, 2018, after two major ISIS attacks in Iran. The IRGC also launched a missile strike against KDPI anti-regime separatists in northern Iraq on September 8 and September 30 after Kurdish militants attacked an IRGC outpost in western Iran near the Iraqi border. The IRGC missile strike on October 1 reportedly landed within three miles of U.S. and Coalition forces conducting ground operations in the middle Euphrates Valley in eastern Syria. Iranian missile strikes are notoriously inaccurate and often land far from their intended target. Additional IRGC strikes may unintentionally hit U.S. and allied positions, potentially killing U.S. servicemen and could spark direct conflict with U.S. forces. IRGC-backed proxies habitually harass U.S. forces in Iraq and recently attacked the U.S. Consulate in Basra, Iraq, prompting the temporary relocation of U.S. personnel and diplomats from the area. Iranian aggression and overzealous IRGC operations in Syria and Iraq in retaliation to internal security threats in Iran directly endanger U.S. forces and allies in the region.