The authorities in Iran consider the Islamic State to pose two different kinds of threats to Iranian regional interests and domestic stability. On the one hand, the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq threaten Tehran’s geopolitical interests as two of its closest Arab allies – the governments in Damascus and Baghdad – fight to contain the rise of the extremist Sunni and anti-Iran jihadist movement. Accordingly, Tehran’s first priority is to contain the threat of the Islamic State to outside of its borders. But recent statements from Iranian officials suggest a heightened degree of fear that the extremist anti-Shi’a message of the Islamic State might find some sympathy among some of Iran’s disgruntled Sunni minority, especially in the Sunni-majority province of Balochistan.
Sunni Jihadists Squeeze Iran from East and West
There have been a growing number of statements by Iranian officials that reject any claims that fighters from the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are in Iran, particularly in the northwestern border regions. But such rumors are not going away. This week, for the first time, the authorities in Tehran reported the arrest of three Afghan and Pakistani citizens traveling through Iran to join the Islamic State (BBC, September 8). The question is whether Iranian Sunni militants will join this latest Sunni jihadist cause. In fact, there are reports in the Iranian media that bands of Sunni militants operating in Balochistan, the southeast province of the country that borders Pakistan, might look to the Islamic State as a model.
From Iranian Balochistan
Reports have been publicly aired for a few weeks about the presence of Islamic State militants in Balochistan, Iran’s impoverished Sunni-majority province, but Tehran vehemently rejects these rumors (Fars News, September 3). On September 3, Iran’s Interior Minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, once again had to reassure the public that Iranian authorities are fully alert even though they have not yet detected any infiltration by Islamic State fighters and sympathizers (Fars News, September 3). Fazli specifically denied reports of local Islamic State sympathizers gaining ground in the southeastern city of Zahedan, the capital of Balochistan and on the border with Pakistan.
This official Iranian posture is a reflection of the fact that Balochistan poses a unique security threat to the country’s internal stability due to a combination of extreme poverty and decades-long resentment by the local Sunni population against the policies of the Shi’a-dominated central government in Tehran. Since 2003, when a new breed of Sunni militancy appeared there with the arrival of Jundollah, Balochistan has been in effect the only region in the country that continues to frequently experience armed clashes between government forces (mainly border guards but also members of the elite Iranian Revolution Guards Corps) and local Sunni militants.
In recent years, local Sunni militant Baloch have begun to shift the political narrative to something that resembles the rhetoric of international jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, a development that Tehran can only find highly disturbing. These Baloch militants speak increasingly in a sectarian and anti-Shi’a language that is new in the struggle of ethnic Baloch for better socio-economic rights inside Iran.
Jaysh al-Adl (Army of Justice) spearheads militancy in Iran’s Balochistan today. The group is the successor to Jundollah, whose leader Abdolmalek Rigi was executed by Iranian authorities in June 2010 (BBC, June 20, 2010). Following the most recent high-profile operation by Jaysh al-Adl, when it abducted five Iranian border guards in February, the group’s initial demands included the freedom of rebel fighters in Syria by the Bashar al-Assad regime, Tehran’s close regional ally (Iran Wire, April 11).  The demand was routine in such circumstances, but the linkage by the Baloch militants to an external conflict – the civil war in Syria – was highly unusual, if not a first, in the history of militancy in Iranian Balochistan.
Jaysh al-Adl’s clear attempt to internationalize its campaign against Tehran and draw outside Sunni sympathizers to its cause was duly noted by officials in Iran. The tactic was also roundly denounced by all the main Iranian political factions, from the reformists to the hardliners and general public opinion, which agreed this was an incendiary action at a time of heightened sectarian tensions across the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether the trend by Iran’s hardened Sunni militants to align, ideologically if not materially, with internationalist jihadists will continue. Nonetheless, based on Tehran’s instinctive reaction to rumors about the Islamic State potentially gaining a foothold in Balochistan, it is evident that Iranian authorities judge such a development at the country’s vulnerable underbelly as highly threatening.
To Iranian Kurdistan
Across the country on the border with Iraq, in Iranian Kurdistan, the threat of the Islamic State is felt in a different way. Here, it is not fears about local Sunni Kurds being receptive to ISIS as a model but the actual spillover of the conflict onto Iran’s soil, as Islamic State fighters in Iraq are operating not far from the border.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that Islamic State fighters have already engaged Iranian forces inside Iran (Kurdish Press Agency, August 28). Some in Tehran deny such incursions have happened and maintain that the border is impenetrable. Iran’s Minister of Defense, Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan, has insisted in recent weeks that Iran’s “military, security and intelligence forces [can] thwart any destabilizing threat to Iran’s borders, particularly in the west… [ISIS] is no threat to our country and the Iraqi nation will eradicate the group by themselves” (Iranian Diplomacy, September 2).
Other Iranian officials have spoken of the Islamic State’s infiltration inside Iran, however. Hossein Naqavi, the spokesperson of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy committee said last week that “[Iran’s] intelligence has identified ISIS-affiliated circles” inside the country’s borders (Mehr News Agency, September 2). In recent months, a number of people have been arrested by Iranian authorities as “associated members of [ISIS],” though little information has been provided about the identity and alleged intentions of those arrested (IRIB News, June 13).
Regardless of whether the Islamic State has infiltrated Iran, the amount of attention officials in Tehran give to this security question is in itself a reflection of its priority for Iranians and their concerns that the group’s message can impact domestic political stability.
There can, however, be little doubt that Iran’s most immediate priority vis-à-vis the Islamic State is to assist its Shi’a and Kurdish allies in Iraq in the fight against the organization. Recent developments on the battlefields of northern Iraq reinforce this fact.
By all accounts, Iran played a critical role in the late August liberation of Amerli, an Iraqi town of 15,000 Shi’a Turkmen located about 100 kilometers from the Iran-Iraq border. The town, which had been under siege by Islamic State fighters for roughly two months, was secured only after Iranian military advisors coordinated between Kurdish and Shi’a militias in order to rout the Islamic State (Reuters, September 1).
While Iran’s close support for Iraqi Shi’a political factions and militias is well known, its swift military support for Kurdish Peshmerga forces has been particularly noticeable of late. This is a clear indication that Tehran’s top priority is to contain the threat of the Islamic State to the Iraqi arena. In fact, since ISIS forces overran Mosul on June 10, Tehran’s policy toward Iraq and the Islamic State has had two main features.
First, Iran wants to preserves as much political influence in Baghdad as possible and above all keep Iraq intact as a nation state. To achieve this objective, Tehran abandoned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki when his continuing premiership looked to undermine Iran’s broader goals in Iraq. Maliki’s departure was also needed for Tehran to be able to muster the kind of military cooperation between Iraqi Kurdish and Shi’a forces that has enabled a common front against the Islamic State.
The second Iranian objective is to prevent any spillover from the war in Iraq into Iran itself. Iran, as a multi-ethnic country with 8 million Sunnis among other sizeable minority populations, is acutely sensitive to the region’s sectarian fires reaching its borders. As Iran’s military intervention in Iraq against ISIS has been bold, it has so far produced the kinds of results the Iranians had hoped to secure. Inside Iran’s borders, the battle against the appeal of the Islamic State and its likes among local militant Baloch Sunnis might prove considerably more complicated.
For the Iranian authorities, the rise of the Islamic State represents a direct challenge to Tehran’s geopolitical interests. Tehran believes the challenge should be confronted head-on for two reasons given the fragility of the central government in Baghdad and the fact that fighters from the Islamic State have edged closer to Iran’s borders.
While the dark worldview and cruel modi operandi of the Islamic State probably alienates even those aggrieved among Iran’s Sunni minority, the central government in Tehran will nonetheless remain alert. Tehran’s capacity to confront any Sunni jihadist infiltration should not be underestimated, as the Iranian state will look to adopt practical measures to keep out the creeping regional influence of the Sunni jihadist group. For now, Iran is focusing on first taking the military fight to the Islamic State inside Iraq in order to stop its advance. The larger long-term challenge for Tehran, however, is to address grievances found among Iran’s Sunni minority and deprive the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni movements from finding a foothold inside Iran’s borders.
Alex Vatanka specializes in Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Iranian regional and foreign policy.
1. For more statements by Jaysh al-Adl, please see http://edaalatnews.blogspot.co.uk