Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Islamic State’s Farsi video

A poorly produced video high on rhetoric and containing a sweeping historical narrative is unlikely to unsettle nerves in Iran, writes Mahan Abedin

In a recently released video, the Islamic State (IS) group directly addressed Iran’s rulers and the country’s Sunni Muslim minority for the first time. The 36-minute video showcasing native Iranians has touched off a flurry of speculation about the importance of its timing and its real intended message.

In view of Iran’s significant contribution to anti-IS military operations in Iraq since 2014 and to a lesser extent in Syria, the video is clearly not primarily intended to deter the Islamic Republic from assisting regional countries in combatting the jihadist group.

Instead, in keeping with its Salafi-jihadist ethos IS aspires to incite religious strife in Shia-majority Iran. By appealing directly to the country’s eight to 10 million-strong Sunni minority, IS hopes to influence reaction to local grievances in Iran and frame the overall narrative in a distinctly sectarian tone.

More broadly, the timing of the video is significant not as a result of any Iran-specific reasons, but rather because it underlines the point that despite losing territory in its Iraqi and Levantine heartlands IS is more determined than ever to sow chaos and conflict across the Middle East and West Asia.

Entitled “The Land of Persia: Between Yesterday and Today,” the IS video draws on a sweeping historical narrative to create a religious and political dichotomy that effectively portrays the Iranian state, if not the Iranian nation, as the perennial enemy of Muslims. There is nothing original about this rhetoric, and it is entirely in keeping with the Salafi-jihadi historical world view that draws a cultural and ideological equivalent between Iran’s pre-Islamic past and its contemporary Shia identity.

Iran’s so-called “Sassanid-Safavid” heritage is often cited by Salafi-jihadis, and indeed by Salafis of all stripes, to not only present the millennial Iranian state as perennially imperialist, but also and more importantly to exclude much of Iranian civilisation from the Islamic fold.

Beyond its Salafi-jihadi ideology, there are hints of the rhetoric of the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party in the video, especially the repeated references to the “Magus” (a derogatory term for Iran’s ancient religion of Zoroastrianism) and the characterisation of Iran’s Sunni minority as a geographical and socio-economic outlier oppressed by a Persian-speaking Shia majority in Iran. This rhetoric was also unsuccessfully deployed during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s to incite division in Iran.

The misrepresentation of Iran as a secret ally of America and Israel merges seamlessly with a broader Arab nationalist discourse in the video that seeks to present Iran as the “other” and a chameleon-like power set on sabotaging Islamic civilisation from within.

This historical narrative is, of course, false on many levels. But IS commits a particularly glaring propagandistic faux pas in the video by portraying the Safavids (the early 16th century conquerors of Iran) as champions of the Persian language and culture.

In fact, the Safavids were a Turkic dynasty whose many successes included entrenching Turkic speakers in the heart of Iranian statecraft. The effect of this legacy continues to the present day, as Iran’s current leader ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei is a Turkic speaker.

Factual errors are compounded by poor production standards in the video more generally. While IS is renowned for its sleek propaganda videos, this one stands out for its inferior quality. The Farsi used in the video is of poor quality and is replete with syntactical, grammatical and even pronunciation errors.

While the video showcases four native Iranian men, none of them appear to be native Farsi speakers. One of the men speaks in Baluchi; one is an Arabic speaker from the south-western Khuzestan province of Iran; a masked fighter who appears at the end speaks Farsi with a distinctly Kurdish accent; and the main speaker and narrator is possibly an Arab from the Khuzestan province.

However, it is equally possible that he may be from Iran’s south-eastern Sistan va Baluchistan province.


Hollow threats: The terrorist content of the video can be analysed on two levels. First, IS makes a direct threat against Iran’s leaders and the Iranian state. Second, the group incites Iranian Sunnis to attempt armed revolt against the state with a view to restoring Sunni Islam as the main religion in the country.

The terrorist threat to the state in particular and to Iranian leaders and the security forces is lent a professional angle in the video, with IS presenting its so-called “Salman-e-Farsi” Battalion. Towards the end of the video, 16 masked fighters are shown practising at a makeshift shooting range with portraits of Iranian leaders and military commanders, notably Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, used as target practice.

The name of this Battalion is important as it seeks to lend IS’s Iranian military chapter a measure of historical and national legitimacy. Salman-e-Farsi was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Iranian convert to Islam. Both Iranian Shias and Sunnis regard him as a major national and religious figure.

IS is not the first Salafi-jihadi outfit to threaten terrorist attacks inside Iran. In June 2015, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of the then Al-Nusra Front (the former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria), appeared to threaten attacks inside Iran by way of retaliation for Iran’s decisive intervention in the Syrian conflict.

As of today, no terrorist attack has materialised, speaking to the operational challenges of attacking the Islamic Republic at home. Iranian intelligence and counter-terrorism forces are widely regarded as being some of the best in the world, having gained vital experience and superior skills over more than three decades of sparring with a wide array of indigenous terrorist groups in addition to western and Israeli intelligence services.

While there are credible reports of IS recruitment in the Iran-Iraq border areas, IS would face formidable operational challenges in conducting major terrorist attacks in the Iranian capital and other major cities. IS operatives would be squaring up against intelligence services with a proven track record of detecting and disrupting plots at their roots.

The second aspect of the threats, namely the incitement of Iranian Sunnis to terrorism, is a more credible scenario. These threats are amplified by IS’s violent rejection of the representatives of the Iranian Sunni community, notably Molavi Abdul Hamid, who are portrayed as collaborators of the Iranian state.

The credibility of the threats is further accentuated and brought into sharp relief by IS’s increasing propensity to incite so-called “lone wolf” terror attacks in the capital cities of its adversaries. But can such tactics really work in Iran’s forbidding counter-terrorism environment and in its highly idiosyncratic local governance and inter-religious milieu?

While some in the Iranian Sunni community, particularly in the under-developed Sistan va Baluchistan province, have a range of legitimate grievances, IS will struggle to appeal to a critical mass of disaffected elements within it. IS has also inadvertently minimised the potential for recruitment by framing its war as not only against the Iranian state, but also against the vast majority of the Iranian people. This incitement to genocide is bound to unsettle even the most hardened and ruthless Iranian Salafis.  

Finally, there is one area that the propaganda video successfully addresses. From a strategic standpoint, IS is keen to link up its Levantine and Iraqi heartlands to its growing presence in South Asia, notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through its first Farsi-language video and by focusing on Iran, IS has taken the first tentative steps towards meeting this objective, at least at the rhetorical and propaganda levels.  

The writer is an analyst of Iranian politics and director of the research group Dysart Consulting.

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