Iran and the United States’ Competition in Eastern Syria
An official response to ISIS’ deadly twin attacks in Tehran on June 7, Iran’s medium-range missile strikes were a clear message not only to many in the region, but to Washington as well, that the Islamic Republic will not hesitate to respond decisively to forces hostile toward Iran.
Iran’s strikes against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate on June 18 marked the Islamic Republic’s first missile strikes in a foreign country since Tehran attacked the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a militant political organization, in Diyala, Iraq, with ballistic missiles in 2001.
Though the Iranian missiles hit targets in Syria, Tehran was most intent on delivering a message to Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) blamed Riyadh (and Washington, too) for the ISIS attacks in Iran’s capital. For years, Tehran has also accused Saudi Arabia of sponsoring terrorism in Iran’s peripheral provinces where Sunni-majority ethnic communities (Baloch, Kurdish, Arab, etc.) live, and where there has been a history of militancy against the Islamic Republic waged by groups with grievances stemming from marginalization in the country as well as some with separatist ambitions.
With Saudi and Iranian leaders having recently exchanged increasingly heated threats about direct military confrontation, Tehran’s launch of missiles at a foreign country marks yet another sign of escalation in the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry for dominance in the Middle East. Saudi King Salman’s decision to elevate his son Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to crown prince, several days after Iran’s strikes on eastern Syria, can only further inflame bilateral tensions based on MBS’ anti-Iranian and increasingly sectarian foreign policy vision for the Middle East.