Who are the likely suspects in the Kerman blasts, and what does this mean for Iran?

Published by the National

The country has many enemies, but few capable of inflicting a tragedy of this scale

The blasts occurred at the site of Qassem Suleimani’s tomb in Kerman, Iran. Reuters
The blasts occurred at the site of Qassem Suleimani’s tomb in Kerman, Iran. Reuters

For the past four years, January 3 has been a tense day in the Middle East. It was on this day, in 2020, that the US took a shockingly bold action by assassinating Qassem Suleimani, a powerful Iranian general who masterminded the Iranian regime’s interventions in the region.

Now, on January 3, 2024, Iran suffered one of the worst terror attacks in its history. At the time of writing (the evening of January 3, local time), at least 103 have been killed in double blasts that occurred in Kerman’s Cemetery of Martyrs, where Suleimani is buried, amid ceremonies marking the anniversary of his death.

The initial messaging from local officials was confusing. The mayor of Kerman said it was an accidental gas explosion but state media and those linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the powerful militia that calls most of the shots in today’s Iran, quickly clarified that it was a terrorist attack.

One local MP actually said there had been four explosions. Another claimed it was a suicide attack, using a suicide belt, “surely with Israel’s involvement”. But the account was quickly set straight by the two most authoritative state news agencies in Iran, Irna and Tasnim, which reported the blasts were caused by remote-controlled bombs in two briefcases placed at the scene.

No senior Iranian official or state news agency pointed fingers immediately. Writing on X, a Persian-language spokesperson for Israel has, somewhat bizarrely, claimed that this was an inside job by the Iranian regime.

In fact, while Israel has a long track record of operating on Iranian soil, it has usually targeted IRGC figures or nuclear scientists. There is no precedent for it conducting this kind of mass attack on Iranian civilians.

Importantly, Tasnim has reported there were no IRGC generals amongst the casualties or injured, ruling out an assassination scenario. The most senior Iranian official to respond so far is Ahmad Vaihidi, Iran’s Minister of Interior with a long past in the IRGC (he was Suleimani’s predecessor as head of the militia’s external operations wing). Promising a “crushing response”, Mr Vahidi made no mention of the forces behind the attack and said the investigations were ongoing. A similar statement was issued by the head of the judiciary.

Based on the available evidence so far, given the target and the methods used, ISIS, especially its much-feared regional branch in Afghanistan, known as ISKP, are likely culprits behind the attack. Several experts, on both ISIS and Iran, that I’ve spoken to agree on this point, although, at the moment, this is mostly educated speculation.

ISIS has conducted several attacks on Iranian territory before, notably on a holy shrine in Shiraz in 2022 and 2023. According to former BBC correspondent Mehrdad Farahmand, one of the Kerman bombs targeted a museum that used to be a Zoroastrian fire temple, an ancient Iranian faith notoriously hated by ISIS as it is a symbol of pre-Islamic Iran. Still, at the time of writing, ISIS is yet to take responsibility for the attacks, as it usually does. Other domestic or foreign militias could have also committed the attack as Suleimani had no shortage of enemies near or far.

Still, whoever committed the Kerman attacks, the ongoing war of Israel on Gaza, which has led to more than 22,000 Palestinian civilian deaths, is part of the broader regional context. Iran and Israel have been locked in a shadow war for years as Tehran is the main military sponsor of Hamas, which initiated the recent round of the conflict by its terror attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7. In the past few months, Israel has been in conflict with several IRGC-backed forces outside Palestine: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the Syrian government, whose territory is the site of extensive IRGC operations and has been the target of several Israeli attacks.

With things already unstable before January 3, the year 2024 is now dawning to an ever more tense beginning in the Middle East. It is incumbent upon state leaderships in the region to work hard to avoid a broader conflagration – just as the same was done in 2020, despite many initial signs of worry.

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