After the Islamic State attack, how thick are Iran’s red lines?

The Kerman attack exposes gaping holes in Iran’s security policy, but leaders continue to fan regional flames with hollow threats, writes Ahmet Furkan Ozyakar.

The suicidal terrorist attack that took place on 3rd January in Kerman, located in the southeast of Iran, was the most violent and deadly incident in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The twin blast resulted in over 91 casualties and over 200 injuries.

The terror attacks coincided with the commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the death of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was assassinated by a US drone in Iraq on the order of the former US president Donald Trump.

Following the incident, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that “the evil and criminal enemies of the Iranian nation once again created a disaster and martyred a large number of dear people in Kerman” and “this disaster will have a harsh response, God willing.” In a similar statement Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi described the terror attack as “heinous and inhumane crime.”

The following day, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the explosions in Kerman, with corroboration from US intelligence that IS Khorasan was behind the terror attack.

"In light of these attacks, it is abundantly clear that Iran's national security policy is flawed and requires a significant overhaul" 

This attack resulted in one of the most serious intelligence failures for Iran, and a significant loss of image.

But it is highly improbable that Iran will react to this provocation and further escalate the tensions in the region, instead resorting to the same threatening rhetoric used by Iranian authorities time and again for both Israel and the United States.

Iran’s security vulnerability inside the country has increased in recent years. The first time IS carried out a terror attack in Iran was in 2017, strategically choosing the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum, resulting in the death of 17 people.

In 2018, the second IS terror attack in Ahvaz during a military parade resulted in the death of more than 25 people. The third and fourth attacks by IS took place in Shiraz on 26th October 2022 and 13th August 2023, respectively.

In light of these attacks, it is abundantly clear that Iran’s national security policy is flawed and requires a significant overhaul.

Iran has vowed to take revenge after deadly blasts on Wednesday killed more than 80 people near the tomb of top IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in the city of Kerman.https://t.co/rdgXsQvjt9 — The New Arab (@The_NewArab) January 5, 2024

Hollow rhetoric or real threat?

At this point, what are Iran’s red lines? And under what circumstances will Iranian authorities move beyond rhetoric and take legitimate measures to protect their citizens?

It is widely accepted that Iran provides financial and arms support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as to militias in Iraq. It has also dispatched its own military commanders and proxy militias to assist Assad in Syria. Furthermore, it has provided financial support and arms to the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and various groups in other parts of the world.

Despite this transnational endeavour to keep terrorist organisations out of Iran, particularly ISIS and Sunni extremist groups, by supporting proxies financially and technically in the Middle East, Iran’s approach has obviously not worked as Iranian authorities had hoped.

Iran focused on looking outward, but now the severity of infiltration of IS members inside of Iran has been apparently neglected, generating a severe security weakness within the country.

Apart from the terror attack in Kerman, another important point is that since 7 October, Iran has been unable to go beyond rhetoric in response to Israel’s attacks in Gaza and Palestine.

As far as the Palestinian issue is concerned, which has been one of the focal points of Iran’s foreign policy ever since the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iranian authorities have been unable to exert any political pressure nor to stop Israel’s relentless war on Gaza, which has killed more than 24,000 so far.

Iran’s continuous support to Hamas has not yielded a resolution. Instead, Iranian authorities add fuel to the flames by issuing hollow statements and threats against Israel.

Given the state of Iran’s economy and the crippling sanctions it faces, it would be reasonable to say that Tehran doesn’t have the capacity to participate in a regional war, and would rather maintain its hollow rhetoric.

"Instead of focusing on the proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and other places, Iranian authorities should focus on transforming Iran’s national security policy, starting by protecting its citizens" 

The Iranian public view

Instead of focusing on the proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and other places, Iranian authorities should focus on transforming Iran’s national security policy, starting by protecting its citizens against terror attacks and prioritising unification among the public toward the government, which is unprecedentedly damaged.

It should be noted that the divisions in Iranian society regarding Iran’s Lebanon and Palestine policies are longstanding. During the 2009 presidential elections, the slogan “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I will sacrifice my life for Iran,” was chanted by opponents of Ahmadinejad.

More recently, football fans chanted for the removal of the Palestine flag at a match in Azadi Stadium, Tehran, signalling a polarisation of views towards Palestine.

The terrorist attacks in Kerman are likely to lead to increased unity within the Iranian regime and generate a more aggressive stance in their discourses.

Iran doesn't want Hezbollah to engage in a full-scale war because it considers the Lebanese group as a valuable deterrence asset, analysts say

Are Hezbollah and Israel edging closer to war? ⬇️https://t.co/R7Tb1mMB70 — The New Arab (@The_NewArab) January 16, 2024

But even if the sentiment is there, any public critique of the security forces or intelligence agencies is expected to be repressed following the attack. In the aftermath, there is a lack of accountability mechanism for those who are responsible, which has been the subject of significant public criticism.

Iran will hold its 12th parliamentary election on March 1st. The Kerman terrorist assault will undoubtedly be featured during the election process by the hardliners.

Taking into account the gap between Iran’s government and Iran’s electorate, one can consider the turnout of the upcoming election to be another litmus test for the current government.

However, it would not be surprising if there is a low voter turnout in the polls and hardliners obtain another landslide victory.

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