Iran’s Terrorism Challenge: How Should It Respond?

by Shireen T. Hunter

Terrorist incidents in Iran have been on the rise in the last few months. At the beginning, they occurred in the two most vulnerable provinces Sistan and Baluchistan in the southeast on the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan and in Western Azerbaijan bordering Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. This was not surprising since these provinces, especially Baluchistan, had long been vulnerable to attacks by Sunni extremist groups, such as Jaish ul-Adl and Jundallah, supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These attacks killed Iranian border guards and also took place inside Iran. For instance, deadly bombing attacks attributed to Jundallah and its leader Abdolmalek Rigi took place in Zahedan in 2009 and 2010 targeting mainly mosques.

Iran regularly complained to Pakistan about the latter’s unwillingness to capture and prosecute the culprits who often came from Pakistani territory and escaped there after committing their crime. On several occasions, including in May 2017, these incidents caused severe tensions in Iran-Pakistan relations. On some occasions, Iran threatened to pursue the perpetrators inside Pakistani territory, which resulted in a harsh Pakistani response. In 2010, Iran-Pakistan relations became highly strained over the issue of Rigi, who operated from Pakistan. However, because of its international isolation and hostile neighbors, Iran never could convince Pakistan to stop supporting Baluch militants. Nevertheless, in 2010, Pakistan, supposedly at US urging, captured Rigi and delivered him to Iran, although Iran claimed otherwise.

However, until recently, terrorists had not been able to penetrate deep into Iran. Most recently, they demonstrated their reach by attacking the house of parliament and Khomeini’s mausoleum in Tehran. Why have these terrorist attacks increased?

Mixed Signals

Some immediate causes are related to regional political developments and some to a hardening of US policy towards Iran. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia has long been trying to influence Iran’s Sunni minority, for instance when they visit the country for the hajj. Saudi Arabia has also used Sunni extremist groups to destabilize Iran, with Pakistan’s collaboration. Some other Persian Gulf Arab states have also done the same.

In the past, for instance under the George W. Bush administration, the intensification of terrorist activities in southeastern Iran coincided with a US policy of destabilizing Iran. When the US has hardened its position on Iran, Iran’s neighbors have also pursued a more hostile policy. By contrast, any improvement in US-Iran relations, as with the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, has tended to prompt Iran’s neighbors to adopt a more conciliatory approach toward Tehran. Since the Trump administration came to power, US signals regarding Iran have been quite negative. Most recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US wants peaceful regime change in Iran. Iran’s regional rivals have no doubt taken note of this change in American approach.

However, efforts at destabilizing a society can seldom succeed unless domestic conditions are favorable. Most terrorist attacks have taken place in the most economically deprived and neglected provinces of Iran, notably Baluchistan and the Kurdish regions where the level of industrialization and thus the living standard are below the national average. The Rouhani administration and even the previous Ahmadinejad government tried to compensate for these shortcomings. But the lack of funds, partly because of crippling sanctions and faulty management have caused their efforts to fall short of peoples’ expectations.

Although, there is no causal relationship between poverty and radicalization, all the evidence shows that the former contributes to the latter. An unemployed youth living in a rigid society without much in the way of amusement is easier prey for agents of radicalization than a gainfully employed and happy individual. The economic deprivation of some of Iran’s minorities increases their susceptibility to radical ideas, especially since they also feel inadequately represented in the country’s political structures.

Given this situation what should Iran’s be Iran’s strategy be to combat the terrorist threat?

Recommendations for Tehran

First, Iran must realize that many of its problems have to do with its foreign policy, especially its hostility towards Israel and the United States. In fact, Iran’s posture towards Israel is the main reason for its problems with America. If Iran does not reach some form of modus vivendi with Israel, its relations with America and even Europe will remain tense, thus allowing its regional rivals to pressure it from many sides. By contrast, better US-Iran relations will limit the ability of Iran’s regional rivals to act against it. The US factor affects all aspects of Iran’s international relations, including economy and trade. Iran simply cannot circumvent America. If it continues to try doing so it will only exhaust itself and open the country to more predatory forces.

Second, Iran must effect serious internal reforms, particularly in culture. Iran has changed demographically since the revolution, and the population can no longer live solely on a daily diet of religious grief and mourning. As even its officials often admit, Iranians want happiness and joy in their lives. But, it is hard to be happy if you are unemployed, isolated, and deprived of entertainment.

Third, Iran must replace its religious philosophy with a national and Iran-based perspective to guide its internal and external policies. With such an approach, sectarian differences will matter less and the sense of marginalization of Iran’s Sunni and other religious minorities will ease. In fact, a leading Iranian Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdul Hamid, just made such a suggestion to President Rouhani. This does not mean that Islam will not be important in the lives of Iranians. It only means that Iran’s interests, rather than vague Islamist notions, will guide the country’s direction.

Fourth, the Iranian political establishment should realize that the Iranian diaspora is a huge asset. If properly approached, overseas Iranians could greatly contribute to the country’s economic revival by investing in the country. Most of this affluent diaspora were either born after the revolution or were very young at the time of the revolution. The pre-revolutionary generation has either died off or is quite old. Thus, the current diaspora is not connected to the ancien regime. When China began to open to the outside world in the late 1980s, Beijing encouraged overseas Chinese to contribute to its economic revitalization, which they did. Unfortunately, religious hardliners and those benefitting economically from the country’s isolation see the Iranian diaspora as a threat instead of asset. Thus, they perpetuate the cycle of deprivation, alienation, and potential radicalization.

To effect these necessary changes will not be easy for diehard revolutionaries unwilling to recognize the changes in Iranian society and attitudes. However, if the establishment persists in its current positions and tries to deal with the terrorism challenge only through heightened security measures, the country could suffer grievously in the long run.

Photo: Abdolmalek Rigi

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Ms. Hunter thank you. With all due respect though I have a different perspective on Iran’s relationship with the US than your!
    If I’m bullied by a much stronger person I would think of 2 options. First I’d surprise him by punching him in his nose so hard that he’d remember it for the rest of his life! Second I would gang up on him with a bunch of friends so he’d remember it for ever that I’m no longer alone! But either of options are easier said than done! With this example in mind and applying the scenario to Iran which is the weaker country to its relationship with the US or the much much stronger country than Iran! I believe your thought process and suggestions are kind of backwards and the recommendations ought to be made to the US government instead! For a much stronger party to extend an arm to a much weaker party is the sign of strength! Conversely it is a sign of capitulation for the weaker party to extend an arm! The US government is pretty aware that Iran historically has befriended the Jewish people but always against the European created Zionism and their expansionist ideology! So the US is not behaving or acting like a strong country and in general misunderstands the Iranians who are only demanding respect and equal treatment like others receiving from the US! Bottom line the officials in Iran may not comment, accept or otherwise to your recommendations and they may simply ignore them!

  2. I think Iran has some strong trump cards: Russia, China, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. If Iran uses them well the US, Israel and their allies (like Saudi Arabia) will lose the fight in the ME. I think Iran needs lots of patience to give enough times to his enemies for making big mistakes. My strategy would be small provocations while avoiding an all out war. Right now the administrations in the United States and Israel and Saudi Arabia are not very potent and are prone to make mistakes.
    On the other hand things like authorization of fire are in my opinion big domestic mistakes. And I agree with Shireen Hunter that Iran needs a more solid (reducing polarization and exclusion) domestic politic to be successful.

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