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How the ISIS attack on Iran may escalate regional conflict

June 7, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Gunmen stormed Iran's parliament building Wednesday morning, igniting a siege that lasted for hours, killing 13. Meanwhile, the shrine of the Ayatollah Khomeini was also attacked. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports, and William Brangham speaks with Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to the attacks in Iran, the implications and consequences, and the wider picture in a greatly unsettled region.

In a moment, William Brangham will speak with experts on those questions.

But, to begin, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on today’s terror in Tehran that left 13 dead and more than 40 wounded.

MARGARET WARNER: It was mid-morning when the first shots echoed from the Iranian Parliament building. Gunmen, some reportedly dressed as women, stormed in with rifles and suicide vests. At least one blew himself up outside the Parliament chamber. Another ran back outside and began firing in the streets.

MOHAMMAD SHAHI, Shop Owner (through interpreter): When we were close to the Parliament in a taxi, there were more gunfire sounds. People were panicked and started running away and seeking shelter.

MARGARET WARNER: The resulting siege with police went on for hours. Near the same time, the shrine of Iran’s revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, was hit.

Authorities say that, in the end, six attackers were killed and five arrested. The Islamic State group immediately claimed responsibility, the first time the Sunni extremist group has struck successfully inside Shiite Iran. The militants put out video of the assault while it was still under way.

One attacker says: “Do you think we will go away? No. We will remain, God willing.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, was defiant.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, Supreme Leader of Iran (through translator): The firecracker play that took place today will have no effect on the people’s will. However, these incidents proved that if the Islamic republic had not resisted at the epicenter of these seditions in Iraq and Syria, we would be dealing with many troubles caused by them inside the country now.

MARGARET WARNER: But Charlie Winter of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London, says that, for ISIS, attacking Iran is like taking the crown jewel.

CHARLIE WINTER, International Center for the Study of Radicalization: Striking Iran like this is akin to striking the United States or Israel. I mean, this is really a huge symbolic victory for the Islamic State. In terms of its propaganda, I think the group will be talking about this moment for years to come.

MARGARET WARNER: This attack comes as ISIS is under pressure from Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as from the U.S.-backed coalition. The ISIS-controlled Iraqi city of Mosul has all but fallen to government forces, aided by the Shiite militias.

And, in Syria, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters have opened a full-on assault to reclaim the Islamic State’s capital, Raqqa.

It also occurs amidst a spike in the tense rivalry between Iran and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. Last month, President Trump rallied Arab nations to oppose terror, and Iran especially. And, on Monday, the Saudis and others cut ties to Qatar, citing, in part, its ties to Iran.

Moreover, just hours before today’s attack, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir Iran — quote — “must be punished” for its interference in the region.

After the attacks, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard accused the Saudis, saying: “The fact that Islamic State has claimed responsibility proves that they, the Saudis, were involved.”

Charlie Winter says this turn of events further complicates regional politics and the fight against ISIS.

CHARLIE WINTER: Regional politics are kind of balancing on a knife edge at the moment. The more actors there are involved in this war, the more confusing it’ll get, the more bogged down states around the world will get.

MARGARET WARNER: In a statement this afternoon, the White House voiced sympathy for the victims, but said states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So what does this first ever ISIS attack inside actually Iran mean, and how might Tehran respond?

To help us with that, I’m joined by two people with deep knowledge of Iran and its role in the region.

Randa Slim is director of the Track II Dialogues Initiative at the Middle East Institute. And Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome to you both.

Randa Slim, I would like to start with you.

I wonder if you could just help us — give us your sense, your first reaction to this attack and, in particular, why you believe, perhaps, these two targets were chosen in Tehran.

RANDA SLIM, Middle East Institute: Well, they are important symbols for Iranian Islamic Republic.

And they especially the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini, the attack outside it is something that is seen by the ISIS community, or the community that is pro-ISIS, as being an important symbol to attack because it symbolizes the heart and the founder of the Islamic Republic.

And so it is a first attack claimed by ISIS in Iran. They have been trying to do this attack for some time. And I think the fact that they have been able to succeed today will not diminish Iranian regime resolve to fight ISIS in Iraq, for example, although I have to say, in Syria, they are not devoting much resources to fighting ISIS, letting the Americans lead that fight, and instead fighting — mostly devoting their resources to fight the Syrian opposition, the non-jihadi Syrian opposition.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Karim, what was you first reaction when you heard about this?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Well, Iran has been heavily invested in regional conflicts over the last six years.

As Randa mentioned, in Syria, they have poured billions of dollars. They have a thousand casualties, likewise in Iraq. They have trained Shia militias in Yemen. But they have been largely immune to the casualties in the Middle East. The Iranian people haven’t suffered the same way as peoples in the region have suffered.

So this was a major breach in Tehran. But I still think the fact that Iran is a country which is about 90 percent Shiite Muslim, the city of Tehran is probably over 95 percent Shia Muslim, I don’t think that ISIS is going to continue to be able to make these kinds of attacks in Iran, because they don’t have the reservoir of support in Iran that they may have elsewhere in the Arab world.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And, Randa, as we heard in Margaret Warner’s package at the beginning, ISIS hitting Iran in particular was like them stealing the crown jewels.

For those of us who don’t understand, why is that such an attractive target to them?

RANDA SLIM: ISIS represents a — the Salafi jihadi wing of — radical radical wing of Sunni Islam.

And this is a form of Sunni Islam that looks at Shias, which is the main religion of Iran, as being apostates. And they look at their vision of Islam, and their mission of Islam is to cleanse Islam of these apostates, meaning the Shia.

But, also, ISIS is fighting for its survival. This is ISIS basically staking a claim in the leadership of this Sunni radical jihadi form of Sunni Islam, even after they are defeated in Mosul and after they are defeated in Raqqa.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Karim, we saw that, even though ISIS did claim responsibility for this, Iran immediately blamed Saudi Arabia for this attack. What do you make of that accusation?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been accusing one another of fueling ISIS.

For the Iranians, ISIS is a byproduct of Saudi Wahhabist ideology and Saudi financing. To the Saudis, ISIS is a byproduct of Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Shia militias in Iraq which are killing Sunnis en masse.

The reality is that ISIS poses a grave threat to Iran, but an even graver threat to Saudi Arabia. So, in theory, these two countries actually have a mutual adversary in ISIS. But what Iran has been doing which I think is quite dangerous is conflating Saudi Arabia and ISIS.

And they put their finger on something which has a powerful resonance amongst Iranians. And whether you’re a Shiite cleric living in (INAUDIBLE) or a secular Iranian opponent of the regime living in Los Angeles, there is this kind of Persian nationalism against Saudi Arabia.

They’re trying to harness that. But what’s dangerous about that is not that they blamed Saudi Arabia for this attack and they vowed retaliation. This really has a danger of escalating this huge regional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has really eclipsed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its destabilization on the Middle East.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Randa, as you heard Karim mention here, very strong tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We also have a proxy war going on between the two nations in Yemen.

Do you think that this attack today — I guess I’m asking, are we getting potentially closer to an all-out conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

RANDA SLIM: Look, this attack definitely contributes to further escalation in an already volatile region and in an already tense relationship between the two regional powers.

And as we have seen in the past, when Iran and Saudi Arabia fight or escalate their fight, it doesn’t stay with Saudi Arabia and Iran. It reverberates throughout the region, and because one way by which they wage this competition between them is through proxy fights in the rest of the region, be it in Yemen, be it in Syria, be it in Iraq, or even be it in Lebanon.

And so we are likely to see — as tensions and as things escalate between the two countries, we are likely to see that being played out again in Yemen and being played out in Syria and being played out in Iraq.

What’s problematic here is that, instead of the two regional countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, focusing their resources and working together on fighting a common economy to both of them, which is ISIS, we are seeing this now escalation in the relations between them, leading both to divert their resources and their attention from the real joint enemy, which is ISIS, and focusing it on waging this fight and this competition between them in different proxy sites around the region.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Karim, I wonder what you believe the Trump administration’s response to all this is going to be.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: The Trump administration has gone back to kind of the status quo ante U.S. policy, which is cooperation with Saudi Arabia and containment of Iran.

I oftentimes think that President Trump views this as just simply siding with one team against another, and that’s a dangerous recipe in the Middle East.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Karim Sadjadpour, Randa Slim, thank you both very much.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, William.

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