Since the June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran, the Iranian government has made dozens of arrests and highlighted the fact that ISIS claimed responsibility. The country’s leaders have driven the narrative that Iran is yet another victim of this global terrorist network – even going so far as to launch missiles targeting ISIS operations in Syria. But it is increasingly apparent that, while outside terrorists may have played a role, the government’s focus on their involvement hides a more complex truth, with significant implications for U.S. policy.
Through recent news reports we’ve learned that those rounded-up as part of the attacks are all members of the Kurdish and Baluch ethnic minorities. The conflict with Iran’s Kurdish and Baluch minorities is not new: Tehran has been battling for close to a decade a much larger insurgency with both groups, without any evidence of direct links to ISIS. Most recently, on the eve of the Tehran attacks, a Kurdish nationalist group – with no global terrorist connections – killed two Iranian border guards near the city of Urmiya.
Despite this, the U.S. and other western countries appear to be taking Iran at its word that the attacks in Tehran were exclusively the work of ISIS and part of the group’s global campaign. But in doing so, they risk adopting a skewed view of Iran’s foreign relations and domestic stability.
Tehran’s focus on ISIS as the driving force behind recent terror attacks is right out of the country’s playbook for dealing with ethnic conflict.
While Iran is commonly referred to as Persia, it actually has a multi-ethnic population. Close to half its citizens are non-Persian minorities, including Azerbaijanis, Turkmen, Arabs, Baluch and Kurds – the latter make up about 10 percent of the population. These ethnic minorities are located primarily in the country’s border regions and share ties with co-ethnics in neighboring states: Turkey, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. This geographic proximity has significant bearing on Tehran’s regional foreign policy and individual relations with most of its neighbors.
Iran’s multi-ethnic composition also affects domestic stability. For close to a decade, Iranian security forces have been engaged in domestic armed conflict with Kurdish and Baluch groups. A disproportionate number of Iranian Kurds, including minors, are executed each year. While the offenders are often charged with drug and smuggling crimes, many observers believe the high number of executions is the result of ethnic politics rather than community crime. This was even more evident in spring 2016, when a large number of Iranian Kurds were executed for charges of “enmity to God” for membership in Kurdish political organizations. While most of Iran’s Kurds and Baluch are Sunni, the basis of their dissent seems mostly ethno-nationalist and not sectarian.
Iranian government representatives rarely acknowledge dissent or grievances among the country’s ethnic minorities. But when the conflicts spill into the political realm or the public eye, we get a better understanding of the concern they cause. For example, during the recent presidential campaign the leading candidates, Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi, both appealed to Iran’s ethnic minorities and promised to allow greater use of minority languages in an attempt to gain their votes. In addition, Leader Khamenei also warned foreigners against stirring up ethnic minorities in efforts to interfere in Iran’s election process.
And the impact of internal dissent goes well beyond political rhetoric – in February, when members of Iran’s Arab community held massive demonstrations, they successfully paralyzed the city of Ahvaz for days, which is the center of Iran’s oil production.
Despite political promises, Iran’s leaders rarely take steps to address domestic grievances. Instead, they typically blame outsiders for the activities of the ethnic minorities, often depicting them as tools of foreign governments, primarily Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Britain or Israel. And while Iran claims to be an Islamic Republic that does not differentiate between Muslims on ethnic basis, its leaders refuse to allow use of non-Persian languages in the official sphere and the Iranian media tends to belittle non-Persian groups.
Tehran’s focus on ISIS as the driving force behind recent terror attacks is right out of the country’s playbook for dealing with ethnic conflict. Even if the Kurdish attackers cooperated with ISIS, their motivations and goals are very different than other affiliates. And even while dozens of Kurds and Baluch have now been jailed, this conflict is not going away anytime soon. Kurdish, Baluch and other domestic ethnic groups in Iran have extensive grievances and there continues to be fallout from the regular executions of activists from these communities.
Tehran’s official statements and ISIS finger-pointing would have us dismiss domestic ethnic tensions as insignificant. But Iran’s modern history makes it clear that, during periods of greater political turbulence, these tensions impact the country and its wider political developments, such as during the Islamic Revolution. As Western leaders assess developments in Iran, it’s essential that they account for its multi-ethnic composition and domestic base of terrorism, and the major role these play in the country’s stability and foreign policy.
Brenda Shaffer is a professor with the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown and a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.