Iran’s self-inflicted sectarian wound

No amount of anti-Saudi or anti-US propaganda are likely to solve Iran’s problems with sectarian radicalism.

Investing in sectarianism. Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps secure an area outside parliament during an attack on the complex in Tehran, last June. (AFP)

2017/07/30 Issue: 117 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh

The Iranian government has learned the wrong lessons from the June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS): Accusations against Saudi Arabia and the United States, increased policing and repression in the Sunni populated areas, firing missiles against ISIS targets in Syria and personnel changes within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are not likely to solve Iran’s problem with political sectarian radicalism and political violence.

The government needs to provide services and opportuni­ties to Iranians — Shias and Sunnis — in its periphery regions.

Seventeen people were killed and 52 were injured as gunmen and suicide bombers attacked Iran’s parliament and the mauso­leum of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. ISIS claimed responsibility through the Amaq News Agency while the 4-hour siege inside parliament was unfolding and released footage of the attack to document its symbolic victory: The first successful attacks at the heart of the Iranian regime.

Iran’s state controlled media were fast to blame Saudi Arabia and the United States for the attacks but did their utmost to minimise release of information about the perpetrators. So much is known that they all were Iranian citizens from the midst of Iran’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish community. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has disclosed that the Intelligence Ministry foiled “58 similar attacks” in recent years.

Responding to the attacks, Iran increased policing and repression in Iran’s Kurdistan and Kerman­shah provinces and launched Shahab 3 missiles into Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province. The IRGC is also in the process of shuffling its personnel: On July 1, Mohammad Esmaeil Kowsari, a veteran both of the IRGC and parliament, was appointed IRGC Tehran Sarallah Base deputy to oversee crisis management in the Iranian capital. On July 4, Brigadier-General Mohammad- Reza Yazdi, who previously served as IRGC Legal and Parlia­mentary Affairs chief, was appointed Greater Tehran IRGC chief. More changes are expected.

However, no amount of anti- Saudi or anti-US propaganda or these measures are likely to solve Iran’s problems with sectarian radicalism and political violence, because they ignore the root causes of sectarian radicalism and political violence in Iran.

Those root causes were abun­dantly clear in a December 3, 2014, report published by the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) website. The report “concerning the general and security situation in Paveh and Ouramanat” ominously warned of propaganda activities of a certain Seryas Sadeqhi and others who were spreading ISIS propaganda among the local population in the mountain villages. Sadeqhi was one of the perpetrators of the June 7 attack.

The KDP reported the water undrinkable in Paveh and Ouram­anat. Roads are in disrepair, which makes transportation extremely difficult and rationing of gasoline further limits the mobility. Cut off from the rest of Iran, the locals are forced to pay higher than average prices for basic foodstuffs, which they can’t afford because of abnormal unemployment rates: Youth unemployment is 80%. That leaves trafficking and smuggling between Iraq and Iran the sole means of survival.

Cultural poverty compounds economic underdevelopment: There is a library, which only contains regime propaganda. The internet is, most of the time, unbearably slow and at times non-existent. Social gatherings of poets and literate people are monitored by the security services. Attendants are often summoned by police for interro­gation.

Remarkably, no such monitor­ing regime is in place to prevent drug abuse: Paveh’s only park is a drug dealer’s den that attracts the unemployed youth abusing methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

On the surface, the people of Paveh and Ouramanat are resigned in the face of poverty and underdevelopment but the other side of the fatalist coin is growing radicalism and, in the shadows, ISIS propagandists like Sadeqhi incite the public.

Iran’s sectarian wound is self-inflicted. Had the regime offered Iranians — Shias and Sunnis — in the country’s vast periphery regions a dignified life, the blind rage could have been avoided.

Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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