Unprecedented attack in Iran: What is known so far about the Kerman massacre

ISIS has claimed responsibility, via Telegram, for the death of more than 80 people in two explosions in the Iranian city. The attack leaves open major questions about possible consequences in the Middle East

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Relatives of victims of the explosions gather outside a hospital in the city of Kerman, Wednesday, January 3, 2024.Sare Tajalli (AP)
El País

What happened?

Some 84 people were killed — including six children — and 220 injured in an attack in Iran on Wednesday, January 3. Two explosions occurred near a cemetery in the city of Kerman, located 820 kilometers (510 miles) southeast of Tehran. A ceremony was being held there to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, one of the most charismatic figures in the country’s recent history, who was killed in 2020 in a U.S. drone strike. Witness accounts reveal that both explosions happened within 10 minutes of each other. The first occurred 700 meters from Soleimani’s grave and the second, 1,000 meters away, according to IRNA news agency. The authorities first spoke of more than 100 victims, later lowered the figure to 95 and on Thursday again to 84. The reason for these changes is that there were many duplicate names.

Why was Qassem Soleimani so symbolic?

General Qassem Soleimani was considered by many experts to be the most powerful person in Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is considered the architect of Iranian intelligence and military power. He began his military career in 1979, joining the Revolutionary Guard weeks after the corps was established by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini in order to protect the newly proclaimed Islamic Republic. He was the mastermind of the Iranian intervention in Iraq and since the 1990s served as commander of the elite Al Quds force. From this position, Soleimani directed clandestine operations overseas and was a key figure in the Iranian campaign to try to drive U.S. forces out of the Middle East.

He also played important roles in Iran’s fight against the Islamic State and in the Syrian Civil War, in which Tehran was instrumental in maintaining Bashar al-Assad in power. In Iran he was treated as an almost mythical figure, while the United States and Israel had considered him a terrorist since 2011. Months before his assassination, the Trump Administration included the Al Quds force on its list of terrorist organizations. Soleimani was killed on January 3, 2020, in a drone strike at the airport in Baghdad, carried out by the U.S. military on orders from former president Donald Trump.

In what context did the bombings take place?

The explosions took place one day after the attack in Beirut that killed Hamas number two Saleh al-Arouri. Lebanese and Palestinian authorities have accused Israel of the drone strike, although it has not claimed responsibility. If confirmed, it would be the greatest Israeli military success since the beginning of the war in Gaza on October 7. Tensions between Iran and Israel, along with its ally the United States, have reached a new high as a result of the conflict.

What has the impact been in Iran?

Iran on Thursday declared a day of mourning out of respect for the victims of what it considers the most serious attack since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it will use all international means to identify and bring to justice those involved in the attacks, and their supporters. A crowd gathered at the cemetery where the explosions took place on Wednesday night, chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”

Who is behind the attack?

It is not clear. This Thursday, via Telegram, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, more than 30 hours after the attack. The jihadist group that came to control a large swath of land in Syria and Iraq a few years ago was responsible for several attacks in Iran between 2017 and 2022. After more than a day of investigations, Iranian authorities said Thursday that the blasts were carried out by “suicide bombers” and not by remotely detonated devices, as previously thought. Shortly before, ISIS had said in the statement that the attack had been perpetrated by “two martyrs” and added their names. The Iranian government has not yet reacted to the Islamic State’s statement.

Previously, Iranian authorities had not publicly blamed anyone and had limited themselves to promising revenge. However, Esmail Qaani, a senior commander in Iran’s Al Quds force, has stated that the attacks were perpetrated by “agents of the Zionist regime [Israel] and the United States.” Tehran often accuses its bitter enemies, Israel and the United States, of backing anti-Iranian militant groups.

What role does Iran play in relation to Hamas and Hezbollah?

This is one of the great unknowns that only the passage of time can answer. But any upheaval in the Iranian regime can immediately spill over into the Middle East, especially considering Tehran’s ideological, military, and financial ascendancy over Hezbollah, which has far greater military strength than Hamas. Hezbollah, in turn, is sometimes referred to as Hamas’ big brother, although the Lebanese militia is Shiite and the Palestinian group is Sunni. A direct confrontation between Iran and Israel seems unlikely.

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