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Arrests, Crackdown Put Spotlight On Islamic State Threat In Iran

Journalists and police crouch near the Iranian parliament in the capital Tehran during an attack on the complex that left at least a dozen people dead.

A fresh wave of arrests of alleged Islamic State (IS) militants, while scant on details, is helping build the case that the extremist group's activities in Iran go beyond the recent deadly bombings in Tehran.

That 10 of the 27 alleged IS members were arrested in another country revealed that the effort to clamp down on the militant group had expanded past Iran's borders. The authorities claimed the arrests resulted from intelligence sharing with a third country and they touted the operation as a success that was carried out as IS was planning further attacks on Iran.

However, in announcing the arrests on August 7, Iran's Intelligence Ministry did not divulge where exactly the alleged militants were arrested, or where they were from, or what foreign country authorities in Tehran might have worked with.

In its August 7 statement, Iran's Intelligence Ministry said the arrested were planning to carry out attacks in central provinces and religious cities. However, the ministry did not mention those alleged targets by name.

It was the latest announcement of mass arrests since the June 7 twin attacks on the parliament and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The attacks claimed by IS on two symbolic pillars of the state were the worst to hit the country in recent years. On June 9, two days after the attacks that left 17 dead, the Intelligence Ministry said its forces had arrested 41 IS members.

'Complex Operations'

The ministry said the latest arrests were made ahead of the August 5 inauguration of President Hassan Rohani, which took place in the country's parliament.

"The arrests were made in a series of complex operations that involved identifying and arresting them with their weapons and ammunition before they were able to carry out their plans," the ministry said in a brief statement published by Iranian news agencies.

Five of the 27, the statement claimed, were planning to carry out attacks in Iran and the rest were coordinating and supporting them. The ministry said the suspects were planning to smuggle weapons and ammunition into Iran by hiding them inside home appliances.

PHOTO GALLERY: Islamic State Attacks Tehran (Click on image to open gallery)

Since the June attacks, Iran has announced the arrests of dozens of alleged IS members and members of other "terrorist groups," without providing much detail.

The August 7 announcement came just days after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said it had killed two "armed assassins" in the northwest of the country.

The IRGC said the two were planning to penetrate Iran "with the aim of sabotage and conducting terrorist acts."

In July, a Judiciary official in Mashhad said a total of 27 IS members were arrested in the northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi.

On June 9, two days after the attacks in the Iranian capital that left 17 dead, the Intelligence Ministry said its forces had arrested 41 IS members.

Iranian Involvement In Syria, Iraq

Even before the Tehran attacks, Iranian authorities had said on separate occasions that they had arrested dozens of "terrorists," some with links to IS, and thwarted several planned attacks.

The Islamic republic is seen as an enemy by IS, which considers Shi'a to be heretics.

Iran has been heavily involved in the fight against IS in Syria, where Tehran has sent hundreds of military advisers and is believed to have sent fighters or Iran-backed soldiers to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Assad has been fighting both Western-backed forces -- who seek his ouster and are also engaged in fighting IS -- as well as Islamic State itself for more than six years in a brutal civil war.

Iran has also been active in anti-IS efforts in Iraq, where the IRGC has reportedly advised Iraqi forces and helped mobilize Shi'ite militias.

Iranian authorities have claimed that their efforts will prevent IS from advancing toward Iranian territory.

In March, IS published a rare video in Persian in which it called on Iran's Sunni minority to rise up against the Shi'a-dominated Iranian establishment.
In March, IS published a rare video in Persian in which it called on Iran's Sunni minority to rise up against the Shi'a-dominated Iranian establishment.

The June attacks, whose perpetrators were said to all be Iranians, and the growing number of arrests inside the country have underscored the domestic threat Iran faces from IS.

The militant group has in past months increased its propaganda activities targeting Iranian Sunnis, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population of 80 million.

A 2015 report by the Interior Ministry's Tehran-based Center for Strategic Studies warned about a homegrown IS threat in Iran and the presence of Sunni Salafi groups in the country's western Kurdistan region.

It said that Salafist ideas in the Kurdish inhabited region, whichborders both Iraq's Kurdish region and Kurdish populated areas of eastern Turkey, were not "imported" anymore and that, in the past two decades, dozens of prominent clerics and religious students have been disseminating and studying Salafist ideas.

Kurds, a significant proportion of which are Sunni, make up about 10 percent of Iran's population.

Using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, the report warned that IS had increased its activities to recruit in Iran's Kurdistan region, while warning that "in the future, we will see a large number of Iranian Kurds and Baluchis joining Daesh."

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.