The recent ISIL terrorist attack in Tehran is something of a surprising event for many people—after all, most Americans are accustomed to thinking of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a perpetrator of terrorism, not a victim. However, such things are not unknown in the country, as seen in the 2010 suicide bombings in Zahedan and Chabahar performed by a terrorist group known as Jundallah, an organization which claims to fight for the rights of Sunni Muslims and Balochis in Iran, a country which is predominately Shi’ite and Persian.
This is an important point, because it is yet another example of the main driver of conflict in the Middle East—not Western intervention, but ethnic and sectarian splits that reach far into the past –along with a healthy dose of geopolitics.
The Sunni/Shi’a conflict began shortly after the death of Mohammed, due to a dispute over who was to be his successor, as he only had daughters. One faction believed that Mohammed’s father-in-law should succeed him, the other that one of his sons-in-law should succeed him. In the end, the former faction won, but the latter remained unconvinced, and over time the two factions began to diverge not only politically, but theologically as well. After almost a millennium of dynastic conflicts, by the early 1600s the Islamic world had largely established itself as it is today, with Sunni Islam holding sway over North Africa, Turkey, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, Pakistan, and Indonesia; Shi’ite Islam dominating southern Mesopotamia and what is now Iran; and various other sects, most notably the Ibadi, Druze, Sufis, existing in the shadow of the two major ones. This is, of course, painting with broad strokes—there are often good-sized Shi’a populations in areas that are nominally Sunni, and vice-versa.
This caused the sectarian divide to become politicized, particularly in the Middle East, due to the fact that the Ottoman Empire and the Arab sultanates were Sunni, and the Safavid Empire of Persia, which controlled what is now Iran, was Shi’a. There were also ethnic elements to these tensions, as the Ottoman Empire was primarily Turkish and Arab, while the Safavids were largely Persian. These became especially important later, but still played a role even in the early 17th century.
The borders in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula remained largely unchanged from this time until the early 20th century, when, in the aftermath of World War I, the British and French carved up the Ottoman Empire in the area. France administered what is now Syria and Lebanon, Britain what is now Israel and Jordan, and Iraq and what is now Saudi Arabia became technically independent states, although Britain was heavily involved in their affairs. Persia, in the meantime, underwent a series of dynastic changes that ended in 1926 with the ascension of the Pahlavi family to the throne, a series of foreign interventions that ended with Britain taking the same role in Tehran that it did in Baghdad and Riyadh, and changed its name to Iran.
This happy state of affairs continued until after World War II, when Britain and France found themselves unable to maintain the influence they had had in the region, and by 1948 all of the territories they had taken from the Ottomans were independent states. Meanwhile, the United States continued the process it began in World War II of displacing the British from the role of regional stabilizer and meddler extraordinaire, a goal it accomplished by the late 1950s, after successfully overthrowing the Prime Minister of Iran, who had threatened Anglo-American oil interests, and giving the reins of power back to Shah Reza Pahlavi, and then scuppering the Anglo-French attempt to take back the Suez Canal from Egypt. At the same time, the Soviet Union was also expanding its influence into the area, sometimes directly and sometimes through proxies.
By the mid-1970s, it looked like the Middle East had reached a somewhat stable equilibrium. Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Israel, and the Arabian Peninsula, aside from Yemen, were in the sphere of influence of the United States, although Britain retained a role in the latter. Syria, Iraq, and arguably Yemen, were in the Soviet sphere, while Egypt was moving towards the United States. There were some border conflicts, most notably between Iraq and Iran and Israel and Syria, but then, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution happened, the Shah lost his throne, and the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being, the first significant consequence of the sectarian resurgence that had begun to overtake the Middle East. Ethnic nationalism had been the order of the day in the early-to-mid 20th century—the Young Turks and the pan-Arab movement being the prime examples—but the 1950s had seen the beginning of a more explicit marriage of religion, most particularly Islam, and politics, one which more and more people began to accept. By the time of the Iranian Revolution, tensions were already high—Lebanon’s system of power sharing between the Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’as was showing signs of the breakdown that would lead to the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, while nominally secular, was being run primarily by Sunni Arabs, and Saudi Arabia was trying to deal with its own religious radicals, who at one point took over the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
As a result, the establishment of a theocratic government in what was arguably one of the most powerful and capable states in the region caused something of a panic among the other states in the region. Of particular note were Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the former because it bordered Iran and had two restive minorities, the Kurds and the Shi’a Arabs, the latter because Iran was right across the Persian Gulf.
Iraq then declared war on Iran, and was backed by the Sunni Arab states, as well as the Western powers and the USSR, while Iran was backed by Syria, Libya, and North Korea, the Kurds, and some Iraqi Shi’ites. The Iranians still managed to win, although it was something of a pyrrhic victory. In the meantime, Syria put down a Sunni-led uprising in the city of Hama, nearly destroying the place in the process.
Iraq and the other Sunni states in the region might have attempted to try conclusions with the Iranians again, had it not been for the former’s invasion of Kuwait, which threatened the Arabian Peninsula and caused the United States to intervene, shattering the Iraqi army. The Middle East then largely lay quiescent, until the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which, due to somewhat poor execution, led to Sunni Arabs and Shi’a Arabs, both of whom received support from their co-religionists outside the country, fighting over who would control the place. (The Kurds, meanwhile, just kept to themselves in the north of the country.) While the United States was able to bring the fighting under control by 2009, the two factions were at it again within months of the American withdrawal in 2011—and the Sunnis were losing, badly.
Another event also occurred in 2011—namely, the Arab Spring uprisings. While these met with varying degrees of success, arguably the worst-case scenario for such an event occurred in Syria—a largely sectarian-based, drawn-out civil war with multiple factions competing for power. On one side, the Syrian government, led by Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam, who received support from Iran; on another side, vaguely secularist rebels; on another side, Sunni Islamist rebels, many of whom were tied to Islamic terrorist groups, who received support from the Arabian Peninsula; and then there were various splinter factions, most prominently the Syrian Kurds.
However, as the war ground on, the secularist rebels gradually lost influence to the Sunni Islamist rebels, as the latter received much outside support and the former did not, and the Syrian government focused on the former in an effort to force a choice between the government and the rebels backed by terrorists. Starting in 2013, however, another faction appeared—ISIS. Born out of terrorist groups that had operated in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime, it initially began as another group aiding the Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war. However, using contacts among the Sunnis of western Iraq, it was able to quickly expand its influence, and soon attempted to make a bid for leadership of the Syrian rebellion. This failed, but the group, which soon changed its name to ISIL, was able to gain influence on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, and by the beginning of 2014 had struck out at and succeeded in taking territory from the Shi’a controlled governments of those two countries, both of which were receiving and continue to receive support from Iran.
Currently, ISIL is hard-pressed by its foes, and losing territory. As has been the pattern, when it finds itself losing on the conventional battlefield, it shifts to terrorism. Frankly, given its history, the group’s attack on Tehran should not be a surprise. The fact is that all of the combatants in the Middle East are far more interested in what is happening on their home turf than they are interested in the West, and their actions should be understood on that basis. Therefore, by striking Tehran, ISIL is attempting to demonstrate that it is still a force to be feared and reckoned with, even when it is in retreat, by directly attacking a government that embodies what they view as a heresy of Islam and has done more than any other Middle Eastern power to frustrate ISIL’s plans by providing soldiers, weapons, and training to the governments of Iraq and Syria. This attack was borne out of desperation and a desire for vengeance, and it is likely that there will be more like it as ISIL is defeated, but it should be viewed as a sign of its fall, not its resurgence.