Iran's response to terrorism, using ballistic missile strikes, has as much to do with domestic considerations as it does with its foreign policy agenda.

On Monday 1 October, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps launched six ballistic missiles toward eastern Syria, targeting the Daesh-held town of Hajin, in retaliation for its alleged role in an attack on an Iranian military parade in the city of Ahvaz on 22 September.

Speculation emerged that the Ahvaz National Resistance, a group comprised of ethnic Arabs from Iran with alleged ties to Saudi Arabia, could have also been responsible.

This retaliation comes on the back of another set of Iranian missile launches in early September against the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I), based in Iraq.

These events have two ramifications. 

First, the Islamic Republic views the most recent attacks as Washington and Saudi Arabia using Iranian proxies, in addition to Daesh, to foment these attacks. 

The missile launches were not just designed as a response to eliminate hostile targets believed to be behind the terrorist attacks within Iran, but a deterrent, a form of sending messages to Riyadh and Washington of its military capabilities.    

Second, it appears that the Islamic Republic fears that its regional rivals seek to reignite ethnic-revolts and violence within Iran, revolts it faced and had to quell in the early eighties. 

Ballistic launches as a form of counter-terrorism

From 2017 to 2018, Iran has deployed ballistic missiles three times in response to terrorism within its borders.

The missile attacks during month of September correspond to a pattern established in June 2017. On 7 June 2017, Daesh conducted its first attack within Iran, killing 18 people in a standoff in Tehran’s parliament building. 

In retaliation, on 18 June the Iranian Revolutionary Guard launched six Zolfaghar ballistic missiles against Daesh targets in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

In Syria, Iran has its land own forces and proxies there that could have attacked those same targets in 2017 and 2018, however, such an attack would have not the public impact of a missile launch.

The missile attack was officially justified to Iran’s domestic audiences as retaliation for a Daesh terrorist attack against a national facility in 2017 and the military in 2018. However, while the target may have been Daesh, the Iranian missile launches sent diplomatic signals to players both in the region and internationally.

First, it sent a message to Riyadh in aftermath of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2017 statement that Saudi Arabia would take its battle with the Islamic Republic inside of Iranian territory – a statement which preceded the Daesh attack on the parliament.

Iran has also blamed Saudi Arabia for the latest terrorist attack in September. The Iranian missiles launched against Daesh targets in both strikes, with a range of 700 kilometers, could also reach major Saudi cities, allowing the Islamic Republic to send two separate reminders to Riyadh and its ally the US, of its ability to strike the Kingdom.

Iran’s Ethnic Question

As the Islamic Republic formed after the Iranian revolution, the new state had to deal with two problems in its western “Kurdistan Province,” which as the name indicates has a significant Kurdish population, and its southern “Khuzestan province,” with a significant Arab population.

Both areas proved problematic as the Iranian state sought to overcome ethnic differences between Persian nationalism and Kurdish and Arab aspirations by reconciling them under the banner of an Islamic Republic.

The KDP-I aspired for a federated status for the Kurds within the Islamic Republic, and when that aim was rejected, the KDP-I launched an insurgency. Iran essentially fought a two front war as of 1980, with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the KDP-I as well. By 1982 the KDP-I was defeated, but the group continued to exist in exile, and ratcheted up attacks against Iran as of 2015.   

A group called the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (“Arabistan” being an alternative reference to Khuzestan) seized the Iranian embassy in London in May 1980, which came to an end when the British SAS intervened and killed the assailants.

Iraq most likely had a role in creating the group that seized the embassy, and a few months later in September 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Khuzestan. 

Saddam Hussein sought to portray himself an Arab leader who had “liberated” them. Most Arabs there either stayed loyal to Iran or were indifferent to the Iraqi leader’s claims.

However, economic development and reconstruction in both provinces was neglected after the war in 1988 and continues in the present.

Both ISIS and the Ahvaz National Resistance group claimed responsibility for the attack.

However, the Ahvaz group had never conducted such a brazen attack before, preferring to sabotage Iran’s pipeline facilities, usually at night. Daesh, on the other hand had attacked Iran’s parliament in 2017 in broad daylight.

Domestically, for Iran, it more convenient that Daesh is the culprit. If Tehran were to blame the Ahvaz group it would serve as an admission of the government’s failure to address the depressed conditions in the Khuzestan province, and second this group does not have any military bases outside of Iran to retaliate against.

Daesh, on the other hand, still has a presence in Syria, and provided Iran with a third opportunity to demonstrate its missile strength, albeit two of the missiles apparently misfired during this process. 

Nonetheless, targeting Daesh would have been a better demonstration to show the Iranian public that the government was avenging those who died in the attack

It would seem, ironically, with this third missile strike that Iran is mimicking the US, which has used the cruise missile to shape events in Syria, actions that are symbolic, but have little tactical effect on the ground.

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