Middle East player Iran weakened by internal woes, say analysts

PARIS – Iran stands accused by the West of playing a key role in the unrest plaguing the Middle East, but twin bombings claimed by Islamic State group jihadists are a keen reminder of its own internal weaknesses, analysts say.

The Jan 3 double suicide bombing left about 90 dead during a ceremony near the tomb of General Qasem Soleimani, on the fourth anniversary of the death of the revered former commander from powerful Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Soleimani, killed in January 2020 by a US strike just after his arrival in Baghdad, had headed the Guards’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, overseeing Iranian military operations across the Middle East.

Iran, sworn enemy of Israel, has established an “axis of Iranian resistance” in the region, relying on Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Iran does not need to mobilise a single Iranian soldier. Its proxies do the work,” said Hasni Abidi, director of the Centre for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva.

But while Iran has become “an important regional power with an enormous ability to do harm, it is internally fragile”, he added.

Tehran has denied any role in the Oct 7 attacks, when Iran-backed Hamas militants stormed across the Gaza border with Israel, in a bloody operation which left some 1,140 people dead, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The Islamic Republic has also rejected any notion that it has helped foment Houthi attacks against ships in a key Red Sea strait in the months since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, which have badly disrupted international trade.

The Jan 3 attack claimed by the IS jihadists is a potent reminder that Israel is not Tehran’s only adversary, and it faces other, strong internal threats.

“The fact that the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to terrorism and cannot protect its own citizens from a massive attack reveals serious security weaknesses,” said Sanam Vakil, a director with the Chatham House think tank.

“The political and security establishment will certainly be seen to be culpable.”

Internal threats

IS claimed its first attack in Iran in 2017, targeting the parliament building in Tehran and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Some 17 people were killed and dozens wounded.

But Iran is also confronted by several separatist movements.

In the impoverished province of Sistan-Baluchistan on the border with Pakistan, unrest has involved drug-smuggling gangs, rebels from the Baluchi minority, and Sunni Muslim extremists.

In south-western Khuzestan province, home to a large Arab minority, residents have long complained of marginalisation, and some groups have also carried out several attacks in recent years.

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