Some Iranian citizens who had joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Afghanistan have tried to enter Iran to conduct terrorist attacks, revealed Mohsen Rezaei, the secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council and former chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). “Two groups, each with 20 members, wanted to enter the country [Iran]. One of the groups entered the country and had chosen a city struck by earthquake. They were thinking that more than 100 people would join them. But this group was destroyed,” the former presidential candidate explained in a lengthy interview about Iran’s domestic challenges and foreign policy. “Another group comprised Iranian and Iraqi members of ISIS. A number of Iranians had joined ISIS and were fighting in Mosul [in Iraq] and Afghanistan. But the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Ground Force (IRGC-GF) annihilated this group within two to three weeks as well,” he added.
Rezaei also accused the United States and its regional allies of fomenting discord and unrest in Iran.
Comment: Although the Islamic State has lost its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group is posing a more serious threat to Iran now than in the past. In the past one year, the Islamic State has not only been able to recruit among disgruntled Sunni communities in Iran’s western and southeastern provinces, it has also conducted a high-profile attack in Tehran and killed several IRGC personnel and Iranian police in border provinces.
In January, about two dozen ISIS militants managed to enter Iran from Iraq and killed three IRGC officers along the border between Iran and the Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian authorities also said they had seized large quantities of weapons and explosives in western provinces.
Iran’s southeastern and northwestern regions – home to marginalized ethnic and religious minorities – have seen an uptick in violence by separatist and terrorist groups over the past year. Last November, the Iranian media reported that at least eight Iranian border guards were killed in clashes with an armed group in the northwestern province of West Azarbaijan. A week prior to that, the IRGC announced that its forces “dismantled a terrorist team” in the same area. According to a statement released by the public relations department of IRGC’s Hamze Sayyid al-Shohada Base, four “terrorists’ were killed in armed clashes between IRGC forces and the militants. The statement did not reveal the group’s identity, but alleged that it was “affiliated with the Global Arrogance” – a term Iranian officials often use for the United States and its allies. The statement also claimed that the group had infiltrated into West Azerbaijan and killed two residents. The IRGC forces seized weapons, communication equipment and ammunition from the terrorists, the statement added. Several other clashes between militant groups and security forces took place in August and September in West Azerbaijan.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry last year also revealed that the country’s security forces had disbanded nearly 100 “terrorist groups” across the country. “Highly serious measures have been taken in the Southern, Southeastern and Western parts of Iran and nearly 100 teams have been confronted," the deputy Iranian intelligence minister said.
While Iran has not suffered the level of violence and terrorism seen in some of its neighbors, the latest spate of clashes between armed groups and security forces and the June 7 Tehran attacks indicate that the Islamic State has infiltrated Iran and has managed to recruit among the country’s disenfranchised Sunni minority population.
But it is not just the Islamic State. Separatist groups have also intensified their armed campaign against the Islamic Republic. In the northwest, the PDKI has resumed armed resistance against the Iranian regime. Mustafa Hijri, PDKI’s secretary general, said last January that their resistance was not “just for the Kurds in Iran’s Kurdistan, but it is a struggle against the Islamic Republic for all of Iran.” PDKI militants based in the Iraqi Kurdistan region have repeatedly crossed the border and clashed with the IRGC in the Iranian province of Kurdistan.
When the anti-regime protests broke out across Iran two weeks ago, four Iranian Kurdish political parties and militant groups voiced support for the protests. The groups urged the international community to back the Iranian people’s “legitimate demands.”
Security situation in Iran’s southeast is also tense and volatile. With a sizable yet largely marginalized Sunni population, the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan can be a breeding ground for local militant and separatist movements as well regional and international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Sunni Baluchs, who constitute a plurality of the population in the province, have long suffered state-sanctioned discrimination, economic marginalization, cultural repression, disproportionate executions, torture, detention without trials and extra-judicial killings. Sistan and Baluchestan also borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Islamic State has gained a foothold recently.a