Iran gets a taste of its own medicine in deadly blast

Article published by,  4 January 2024. © Richard Kemp

The greatest terrorist regime in the world got on Wednesday what may seem like a taste of its own violent medicine with the most deadly attack inside Iran for 42 years. But it may be more complex than that. Dozens were killed and about twice that number wounded, some seriously, by two explosions, 15 minutes apart, on the fourth anniversary of the assassination of master terrorist Qasem Soleimani.

The day before, leaders of one of Iran’s terrorist proxies, Hamas, perished in a drone strike in Beirut that is widely viewed as Israel’s work although Jerusalem has not commented. Some have suggested that Jerusalem may also have been responsible for the twin bombings in Kerman, close to Soleimani’s tomb.

Although Israel is currently under assault from Iranian proxies in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, this kind of attack is not in its playbook. Israeli operations inside Iran have focused on targeted killings of key individuals associated with the nuclear weapons program as well as cyberattacks and sabotage at nuclear facilities.

Like the assassinations of the Hamas leaders in Lebanon, these are all legitimate defensive operations. The Kerman bombings, on the other hand, were acts of terrorism, and, unlike Iran, Israel is not a terrorist state.

So who could be responsible? So far ISIS has claimed responsibility but no hard evidence has come to light, so we can only speculate. Potential culprits include a range of opposition groups in Iran, including the Mujahadin-e Khalq which has carried out terrorist attacks inside the country in the past, although these have generally been more targeted operations, not the kind of indiscriminate attack we saw at Kerman. Another possibility is the Islamic State or other Sunni extremist groups opposed to Shi’ite Iran, none of whom would balk at such mass carnage.

Then there is Ukraine. Iran is a major weapons supplier to Russia and many Ukrainian cities as well as military forces have been attacked using Iranian-supplied suicide drones. Kyiv has every reason for striking at the regime in Tehran; but, like Israel, is hardly likely to launch an act of indiscriminate terrorism rather than a carefully targeted attack against military objectives.

Counterintuitively, many Iranians are blaming the Tehran regime itself. Certainly, such acts of terrorism against their own people are not beyond the ayatollahs. In this context, it is interesting to note it has been reported that, surprisingly, none of Soleimani’s children were present at the Kerman memorial event that was hit, nor were any top IRGC commanders.

Of course, this attack is a huge embarrassment for the regime, and also potentially encourages opposition groups. We might therefore think they would not do it to themselves. But it is not us doing the thinking and the ayatollahs might calculate things differently.

If Tehran was in fact behind the bombing — which cannot be excluded — potential motivation would be laying the pretext for a direct attack against Israel or US interests in the region.

It is not entirely clear why the regime would now require any pretext for escalating the conflict given their position on Israel’s defensive operations in Gaza and Lebanon and the strong US support for them.

However, when the regime takes specific offensive action, they always want to frame their violence as a reaction to aggression against them rather than their initiating it. Like seasoned chess players, Tehran invariably plans several moves ahead and so it is possible this attack could foreshadow some serious escalation intended to pressure Israel to end its operations in Gaza or undermine US support for it.

That could include stepping up efforts to cut off the Red Sea with all that means for global trade, using both the Houthis and the IRGC Navy. We might think that in turn would trigger more decisive action by the US and its allies that could be severely damaging to Iran.

But given Biden’s somewhat irresolute response so far both to attacks on US assets in Syria and Iraq, and to Houthi action in the Red Sea, Tehran might well think otherwise.

One thing is reasonably certain: we may never know for sure who actually carried out the attack at Kerman. Whatever the truth, and whatever the motivation, the regime will publicly apportion blame to the party that best suits its own purposes, irrespective of the reality. That is likely to be Israel and the US, at whom Raisi’s finger has already pointed. Meanwhile, the regime will make use of this bombing to take violent action against oppositionists, whether they did it or not.