The Intelligence Ministry has said that a jihadist cell disrupted by the security forces earlier this month had planned a series of suicide bombings against sectarian targets in Lar city in Fars Province in the South during the Shia festival of Ashura on 12 October. The authorities said the cell’s eleven members – who were reportedly all foreigners – were arrested in Fars on 11 October, and described those detained as “takfiri Wahhabists” – a term that Iran often uses to refer to Islamic State (IS). This comes four months after the Intelligence Ministry announced the arrest of ten Sunni militants who had reportedly plotted to carry out multiple bombings across the country on 16 June - the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife Khadija (see our 22 June Report).
The Intelligence Ministry’s claim to have disrupted a foreign jihadist cell is not credible, especially as Lar is a small and remote city in south-central Iran, where it would be extremely difficult for foreign jihadists to establish an organised presence. However, there is a Sunni community in Lar, and it is possible that the authorities detained suspected local IS sympathisers, but they would be unlikely to have the ability to conduct a series of suicide attacks. The Intelligence Ministry may have overstated the threat to boost its standing amid its longstanding competition for influence with the Revolutionary Guards, while its claim that the cell was foreign may aim to downplay the presence of local IS sympathisers. The Ministry may also have wanted to embarrass Riyadh, its chief regional rival, given the cell’s reported link to Wahhabism, the hardline Sunni ideology followed by Saudi Arabia.
IS’s ultimate goal is to seize territory, and to do so it aims to foment instability and win the backing of local Sunni populations. Conducting attacks in Iran is consequently not a priority for the group given that it is a stable country with a small Sunni community. IS is also not under pressure to show its sectarian credentials by striking in Iran given that it is already fighting Iranian and Tehran-backed forces in Syria and Iraq, and can target Shia interests elsewhere in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. In addition, Iran is strategically placed between the Middle East and South Asia, and IS wants to establish a greater presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its limited operations in the country are therefore focused on using it as a transit route. This is likely to be somewhat tolerated by the Iranian authorities as they will judge that, as long as IS is focused on logistical operations, it will want to avoid triggering a security clampdown by launching a campaign of violence.
The IS threat to Iran therefore remains low, though it is possible that the group could attempt isolated attacks in the future in response to the loss of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria in order to demonstrate its strength and ability to operate in new areas. However, this would not represent the beginning of a sustained IS campaign in Iran as the group will instead prioritise exploiting persistent instability in Iraq and Syria to re-capture territory. In addition, any strike will likely be limited to border areas in eastern or western Iran where Sunni jihadists already have a presence, limiting the threat to key urban centres.