Iran assails Saudi Arabia after deadly terrorist attacks in Tehran
Assailants with rifles, explosives and women’s disguises stunned Iran on Wednesday with audacious attacks on the parliament building and tomb of its revolutionary founder, the worst terrorist strike to hit the Islamic republic in years. At least 12 people were killed and 42 wounded in the pair of assaults, which lasted for hours and clearly took Iran’s elite security forces by surprise. The six known attackers also were killed, official media said, and five suspects were reported detained. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps blamed Saudi Arabia and the United States for the assaults even as responsibility for them was asserted by the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group that has taken credit for a staccato of terrorist attacks around the world in the last few weeks.
If the Islamic State’s claim is true, that would be its first successful attack in Iran, which is predominantly Shiite Muslim and regarded by Sunni militants as a nation of heretics. Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria are helping battle the Islamic State. Tensions in the Middle East were already high following a visit by President Donald Trump last month, in which he exalted and emboldened Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival. Saudi Arabia and several Sunni allies led a regional effort on Monday to isolate Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf country that maintains good relations with Iran. In a statement, the Revolutionary Guards Corps said: “The public opinion of the world, especially Iran, recognizes this terrorist attack which took place a week after a joint meeting of the U.S. president and the head of one of the region’s backward governments, which constantly supports fundamentalist terrorists as very significant,” a reference to Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy.
The statement also acknowledged the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility. But it also was possible that a range of others with grievances against Iran may have been responsible.
Members of Iranian forces are seen during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. (Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS)
The attacks, the first in Tehran in more than a decade, came just over two weeks after Trump, with Saudi Arabia and its allies, vowed to isolate Iran. Iran has dismissed those remarks, made at a summit meeting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, as a scheme by Trump to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. In the view of many in Iran, the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia. “ISIS ideologically, financially and logistically is fully supported and sponsored by Saudi Arabia they are one and the same,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the leading nations on opposing sides of the Middle East split between Shiite and Sunni Islam. Iran has military advisers in Iraq and Syria, and it controls and finances militias in those countries and in Lebanon. Tehran also has some influence over the Houthis fighting the government in Yemen, and it often speaks out in support of Shiites in Bahrain, a majority group that Iran says is repressed by the Sunni monarchy.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of “spearheading global terrorism.” Saudi officials say Iran is plotting to control the region. Saudi Arabia, an autocratic kingdom, also opposes Iran’s political ideology, which has a clerical supreme leader but also a president, Parliament and city councils, chosen in elections in which both men and women can participate. On Wednesday morning, only hours before the attacks in Iran, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said that Iran must be punished for its interference in the region and called Tehran the world’s leading supporter of terrorism. Iran, in turn, has long accused Saudi Arabia of backing terrorists in the region, saying that the kingdom had facilitated the rise of Sunni extremist groups such as the Islamic State and others in Iraq and Syria.
After Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other states cut ties with the gas-rich kingdom of Qatar on Monday, citing its support for Iran, Tehran rushed to fill the void, offering to send food and medicine. One Iranian security official said the attacks had been a message from Saudi Arabia that was meant to teach Iran a lesson. He also said the assaults were intended to test Iran’s reaction. Others questioned Tehran’s decision to rise to the defense of Qatar.
“We are wrong to suddenly seek close ties with Qatar,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist close to the government. “They have been bankrolling the Sunni terrorist groups, in the same way the Saudis have.”
While terrorist attacks have become relatively commonplace in Europe and in most of the Middle East, Iran had remained comparatively safe. During May’s election campaign, President Hassan Rouhani often pointed to that fact, lauding the country’s security forces and intelligence agencies for their vigilance. The coordinated terrorist attacks on Wednesday brought such feelings of security to an end, one analyst said. “Today, it was proved that we are vulnerable too,” the analyst, Nader Karimi Joni, said. Terrorism in Iran has been relatively rare, though for many years, the country suffered from a long and bitter campaign of attacks by an armed opposition group, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a Marxist-Islamic organization that for decades was supported by the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. In many of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq’s attacks, its members would take cyanide when cornered. In 2012, the group was taken off the United States’ list of terrorist organizations with the support of conservative Republican politicians.
Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said the attacks in Tehran were an attempt by the Islamic State to finally address “one of the biggest talking points used against it in jihadi circles”: its perceived inability to attack Iran.
“They have been ridiculed for this for a long time,” Awad said. “This is going to help them reach out to a broader population of Salafis and jihadis who will now see that the Islamic State is genuinely fighting all the enemies of Islam.”
Awad also said that the attack could have been partly motivated by the Islamic State’s desire to claim victory somewhere new to raise morale after the blows that have been dealt to their bases in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Reporting was contributed by Fahim Abed, Anne Barnard, Mona Boshnaq, Rukmini Callimachi, Sewell Chan, Nada Homsi, Isabel Kershner, Salman Masood, Rod Nordland, Hwaida Saad, Eric Schmitt, Jawad Sukhanyar, Nour Youssef and Rick Gladstone.