The Islamic State Khurasan Province Threat to Iran
Following the emergence of the Islamic State in Khurasan Province (ISK), IS-Central (ISC) and ISK began to attack the Taliban more aggressively, accusing the latter of receiving support from foreign powers such as Iran and framing it as a tool of the Pakistani government and others. According to ISK, the territory of its province will extend beyond Af-Pak to include parts of Iran and more. Due to ISK's expansionist regional aims, coexistence with state actors or the organizations they support is out of the question. ISK's propaganda often focuses on Shiite populations, also referred to as rafida, a derogatory term used to describe followers who rejected the first two caliphs to succeed the prophet. Subjects of rhetorical attack include Afghanistan’s domestic communities such as the Hazara and external populations like Iran. The group has repeatedly targeted the Iranian government, calling it apostate and vilifying it for recruiting Afghan volunteers to fight in the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Fatemiyoun Brigade — claims made in an issue of the al Naba magazine published in 2018. The Taliban intends to rally and gain support from governments in the region and is wary of ISK using areas under its control to launch an offensive against its neighbors.
Despite ideological differences and tumultuous history, Iran's relationship with the Taliban is one of convenience and opportunity while trying to maintain leverage. In addition to their shared interests in removing U.S. forces from the region, Iran and the Taliban have also allied themselves against the Islamic State Khurasan Province in western Afghanistan. As a Sunni extremist terror group, ISK is a logical enemy of Iran, which is predominantly Shia Muslim. ISK also opposes the Taliban on ideological and political grounds. Defending its own position as the only legitimate jihadist actor in the region, ISK considers the Taliban's ideology and governing practices as heretical. In 2021, the ISK attacked the Kabul airport to distinguish itself from the Taliban and cast doubt on the Taliban's capability to ensure the safety and security of its citizens and international visitors.
In light of all the aforementioned factors, it becomes clear why the ISK would want to harm Iran or Iranian interests in Afghanistan, as that could be detrimental to the Taliban as it seeks legitimacy in the region. History shows that Iran has always been wary of a pro-Pakistani and pro-Saudi Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Iran's concerns are primarily based on notions that Sunni hardliners in the Taliban could gain power and align themselves with Saudi interests. In August 2021, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, countries like Iran found themselves in a predicament, needing to mend ideological bridges and make peace with the Sunni hardliner group. That being said, both Iran and the Taliban now face a very hostile actor in the form of ISK.
The Islamic State, in general, is known to stoke sectarian tensions, and the group's narrative against Iran is primarily meant to foment anger between the Taliban and Iran, according to Riccardo Valle, an Italian researcher tracking ISK's jihadi propaganda. Aside from Iran, Valle asserts that ISK views Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as its sworn enemies since it wants to overthrow Saudi as the vanguard of Islam while accusing Pakistan of eliminating various terrorist cells associated with ISK. In discussing ISC and ISK propaganda, the researcher commented that if ISK sparks sectarian clashes within Iran, or in Afghanistan and Pakistan against Iranian interests, any act of terror against Iran is likely to be lauded vociferously by the ISC. According to Valle, ISC's support for attacks against Iranian interests is mainly due to Iran's extensive military efforts against the Islamic State throughout the Muslim world.
In the past, ISK has made good on some of its threats with its rocket attacks against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The group recently reiterated its hostile intent against Iran in an issue of its magazine Voice of Khurasan, but it has yet to follow or successfully execute such an operation. Whether ISK is prioritizing and is capable of striking Iran remains to be seen, as it is difficult to forecast the strategic trajectory of violence perpetrated by the group.