The Curious Case of the Kerman Attacks

What recent terror strikes in Iran reveal about the Islamic Republic’s politics of survival

The Curious Case of the Kerman Attacks
Mourners carry coffins of the victims of the Jan. 3 explosion in the Iranian city of Kerman. (Amir Moradi/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

On Jan. 3, a twin blast killed more than 90 people and injured close to 200 in the Iranian city of Kerman, a few hundred meters from a ceremony commemorating Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the slain commander of the Quds Force, the division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) responsible for foreign operations. It was the fourth anniversary of the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani, and Kerman was the general’s hometown.

The Kerman attack was the deadliest in the four-and-a-half-decade history of the Islamic Republic. Many of the victims were children, whose schools were closed for the commemoration. Curiously, the ceremony was not attended by Soleimani’s own family or by top regime officials. The next day, a statement purportedly issued by the so-called Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, yet the Islamic Republic exhibited confusion about whom to blame and leaned toward pinning the attacks on Israel.

Within minutes of the blasts, Iran’s state media suggested they were a terrorist attack, although no investigation had been conducted — initially asserting that the bombs were detonated remotely, later claiming that two suicide bombers had caused the blast. Iranian authorities immediately reacted by blaming the “usual suspects,” i.e. Israel and the United States. For example, the first official to comment on the attack — Interior Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, a former IRGC commander — blamed the U.S. on state TV. Before that, Mostafa Khoshcheshm, the former head of the English service of the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency, declared that Israel was “clearly” behind the bombings, arguing that it was an act of desperation because of the Jewish state’s alleged failure in Gaza.

Other regime-affiliated pundits, such as Mohammad Marandi, dean of the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies, argued that “Many here [in Iran] also believe Israeli intelligence could have been working together with elements of ISIS to carry out the bomb attack in Iran.” This narrative about an alleged collusion between Israel and the Islamic State — two sworn enemies of the Islamic Republic — was to be heavily pushed by Iranian officials. A week later, Iran claimed to have identified one Tajik national as a mastermind of the bombings and another Tajik–Israeli dual national, allegedly trained by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, as one of the bombers.

Despite the Islamic Republic’s insistence that Israel is likely to have been responsible for the attacks, there is little evidence for the claim. While it is true that Israel has carried out multiple attacks in Iran over the past two decades, the pattern of those operations stands in sharp contrast to the Kerman bombings. Israel has targeted the Iranian state and its military and nuclear infrastructure in a precise, not indiscriminate manner. Bombs have been detonated at sites of Iran’s nuclear industry, killing key nuclear scientists in a targeted manner. For instance, in November 2022 Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — believed to have been a senior figure in the military component of Iran’s nuclear program — was killed in an AI-assisted, remote-controlled assault on his car, sparing other passengers. Over the last few years, cyberattacks have targeted the websites of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Tehran airport and — since the Kerman bombings — the bulk of gas stations in the country and two major gas pipelines, as a demonstration of Israel’s ability to disrupt and penetrate Iran. In other words, there is no precedent for Israel-linked operations in Iran targeting civilians instead of top regime infrastructure and figures.

It is well known in Israel that a wide gulf exists between state and society in Iran. It is therefore unlikely that Israel would undertake actions against Iranian civilians, which would risk turning the Iranian people against it. This may be especially true in the current context of the war in Gaza, which has drawn widespread regional and international condemnation over the massive casualties inflicted.

Later in the day on Jan. 4, a statement putatively from Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Kerman bombings. Terrorism and jihadism experts found this claim authentic and saw the attacks as consistent with the organization’s style of operations, such as its mass-targeting of civilians and hatred for Shiite Muslims, whom it views as apostate. The Islamic State confirmed this in a statement, claiming that the “dual martyrdom operation in Iran” was part of a new expedition titled “And kill them wherever you find them” (taken from the Quran 2:191). This new operation would focus on Israel’s military action in Gaza, which the Islamic State sees as a religious war imposing an obligation to fight the Jews. The Islamic State views Iran and its “Axis of Resistance” as purely advancing Shiite interests, which adherents of the Islamic State see as nefarious.

However, the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency almost immediately disputed the idea that the statement had originated from the Islamic State. It argued that the statement “was issued under the guidance of Zionists,” claiming that the language used was atypical of the organization: “Firstly, ISIS has never used the word ‘Iran’ in its statements, but this takfiri group always calls Iran ‘Persian Province’ or ‘Khorasan Province.’” (The Islamic State, in fact, as suggested by experts consulted for this article, does use “Iran” when it issues statements from its official media outlets, while affiliate media outlets use purely pejorative names like “rafida” (rejectors) for Shiites, or else Persia for Iran.)

Secondly, according to Tasnim, “There is no precedent for the picture of the terrorist who happened to be killed during the operation to be published in a faded form!” Thirdly, the news agency claimed, “The declaration of acceptance of responsibility for ISIS operations is never published with a 30-hour delay, rather, ISIS even prepares pictures of the pledge of allegiance and the declaration of responsibility before each operation and publishes them immediately after the execution of the operation.” However, according to the experts consulted for this article, there has in the past been a lag between operations and claims of responsibility by the group, especially involving video evidence. Tasnim also stated that the Islamic State’s “method for carrying out operations is to threaten first, then issuing a fatwa, and then carry out the operation and immediately publish a statement accepting responsibility for the operation. While in this operation, a terrorist act was carried out first, and then the fatwa, threat and statement were published late!”

Fourthly, the news agency pointed to the “political style” of the statement, which it characterized as “fundamentally different from the usual wording of ISIS,” evidence “that the author of the statement was not ISIS in any way.” The news agency concluded that the statement was “prepared by the Zionist Intelligence Service and the Daesh Caliphate was only responsible for publishing it through its official media” — that is, an Israeli-Islamic State collusion.

On Jan. 5, the Islamic State released a statement in Persian, threatening more suicide operations in Iran: “This is the beginning of war in Persia, and God willing, what awaits you in the future will be more painful.” Despite the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility, Iranian officials have continued to accuse the Islamic Republic’s archenemies, Israel and the United States, of complicity in the attack. At a Jan. 5 funeral for the victims of the Kerman attacks, President Ebrahim Raisi and IRGC chief Hossein Salami delivered speeches and the latter claimed that the Islamic State “has disappeared nowadays,” adding that its remaining jihadi fighters would “only act as mercenaries” for U.S. and Israeli interests. This was also echoed by other top IRGC commanders, who argued that the Islamic State was a “puppet of America.” Meanwhile, Kayhan, an ultraconservative daily, warned that if a proportionate, calculated and “immediate” response was not launched to avenge the attacks they would definitely continue, possibly even in the capital city of Tehran.

In fact, in mid-January Iran launched a series of unexpected missile and drone attacks on Idlib, Erbil and Pakistan. In the case of the assault on Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which killed half a dozen civilians, Tehran suggested it had targeted Mossad headquarters there (which Iraqi officials in the KRG and the central government in Baghdad vehemently denied), portraying the action as revenge against both the Israeli government and Sunni terrorist groups for the Kerman attacks. It is more likely that these attacks were motivated by the Islamic Republic’s anxieties over its legitimacy in the eyes of its domestic and regional support bases, given the mismatch between its fiery rhetoric against Israel since Oct. 7 and its reluctance to engage in direct confrontation.

Meanwhile, there are doubts about the current operational prowess of the Islamic State. Its terrorism has markedly decreased in recent years, especially in the Middle East, as it has shifted its operational focus to Africa. After the collapse of its self-proclaimed Caliphate in 2019, most Islamic State fighters have joined its Khorasan branch, which is active along Iran’s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan — precisely the branch that allegedly carried out the Kerman bombings. According to an August 2023 U.S. National Counterterrorism Center report, the threat posed by the Islamic State and al Qaeda “is at a low point with the suppression of the most dangerous elements,” yet half of the Islamic State’s fighters are “now active in insurgencies across Africa.” The report also claimed that the Islamic State has lost three leaders and at least 13 other senior operatives in Iraq and Syria since early 2022, which has “contribut[ed] to a loss of expertise and a decline in ISIS attacks in the Middle East.” In a statement about the Kerman attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the involvement of the Islamic State’s Khorasan group, claiming that this group was destroyed in Afghanistan and thus lacks the ability to carry out such an attack.

Despite insufficient evidence, the regime attributed the Kerman blasts to Israel, in some cases in tandem with the U.S., in others with the Islamic State. The long history of “terror attacks” in the Islamic Republic is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity, with relevant information consigned to an authoritarian black box guarded by a highly politicized judiciary and a regime prepared to do anything for the sake of its survival. Over the past decade Tehran has tended to blame the Islamic State for terror attacks, as it did in the case of the June 2017 twin bombings of the Parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, and the attack on the September 2018 military parade in the city of Ahvaz. Iranian authorities promoted this narrative during their intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime, an adventure that had become increasingly controversial at home. In this context, the Islamic Republic was trying to justify its involvement there as an Iranian “war on terror,” one pitting it against the anti-Shiite Islamic State.

Regardless of who in fact perpetrated the Kerman bombings, it is clear that the decision to blame Israel is an ideological strategy related to the Islamic Republic’s anxieties about its legitimacy — as were its missile salvos against its neighbors just over a week later. First, Tehran portrayed the attack as a desperate move by Israel against Iran, claiming it was the result of Israel’s failure in the Gaza war. Second, blaming Israel served to justify Iran’s actions against the Jewish state via its “Axis of Resistance” in the context of the Gaza war. The regime thereby hoped to garner more legitimacy for its regional role, which is strongly contested at home.

Third, by focusing attention on the Kerman incident, the regime tried to camouflage heavy blows it had been dealt earlier by Israel, eliminating some of its most vital regional figures: On Dec. 25, IRGC commander Razi Mousavi was killed in a targeted Israeli airstrike at his residence in the Damascus suburb of Sayyidah Zaynab. He was the highest-ranking senior Iranian military official to be killed since the assassination of Soleimani. Described as Iran’s most influential military commander in Syria, he was also instrumental in organizing support for Hezbollah. And on Jan. 2, top Hamas figure Saleh al-Arouri was killed in southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. The founding commander of Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, he was also said to be the deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau and its military commander in the West Bank. Arouri was crucial in rebuilding relations between Iran and Hezbollah, which had been marred by their differences over Syria. In short, Arouri was the linchpin between Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Against this backdrop, some state media argued that the “Israeli terror machine” had reached into Iran from Damascus and Beirut. In this vein, some regime-affiliated pundits also suggested that as a result of the Kerman attack Iran would need to restrengthen its “deterrence” — a likely reference to the continuation of Iran’s regional policies in the context of the Gaza war.

Following the Kerman attacks, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, released a statement condemning the attack “in the strongest terms” and expressing “solidarity with the Iranian people.” He also offered his condolences directly to Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a phone call that also addressed the latest regional developments, including the situation in Gaza.

While also expressing condolences over the attack, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller rejected any claims of U.S. involvement in the incident as “ridiculous,” further stating that the U.S. has “no reason to believe that Israel was involved in this explosion.” The suggestion that the Islamic State was responsible for the bombings, made by another senior U.S. official who noted similarities to previous attacks by the group, was later corroborated by two anonymous U.S. intelligence sources who claimed to have obtained “clear and indisputable” evidence in the form of communications intercepts.

The narrative that the Islamic State conducted the Kerman attack resonates within a Western world that has experienced several acts of terrorism at the hands of the group. This allows Iran to portray itself as a victim of terrorism, to both domestic and international audiences. In this vein, Amir-Abdollahian spoke of the need for the international community to fight different forms of terrorism, and he thanked the EU’s top diplomat for sympathizing with Iran over the Kerman attacks. Iran’s leaders hope that the international community will now see the universally loathed Islamic State as posing a more serious threat than the Islamic Republic, and that this will lead to a softer Western approach to Tehran.

In a speech in January, Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, argued that the Kerman explosion would further security in the country rather than harming it, by bringing Iranians together and bridging existing rifts. He added that this would require the active involvement of both civilians and state forces, spanning geographies and social classes and involving security both at Iran’s borders and beyond them. The same narrative was echoed by Zeynab Soleimani, the most prominent and politically active child of the late Qasem Soleimani, who in an interview on the sidelines of the funeral for the victims suggested the attacks would increase national cohesion and even public support for the regime.

Moreover, security risks detected in the lead-up to the Soleimani commemoration raise serious doubts about the regime’s narrative. The Iranian Students’ News Agency, which is close to the state, published a piece — and deleted it an hour later — quoting the Kerman prosecutor, who stated that ahead of the ceremony the security forces had discovered a car bomb and 16 other bombs. He said that because of news that “various groups, including IS and the hypocrites” wanted to take action, on top of the intelligence of the IRGC, “Even the army was monitoring the small birds for several kilometers and special explosive detection dogs were present.” He also said that two other suicide bombers were arrested later, with suicide vests that were intended for “another terrorist operation in the funeral ceremony of the martyrs of the terrorist accident.”

In other words, while security forces were clearly alarmed by the extremely high risk of bombings on the eve of the ceremony in honor of the late Soleimani, the latter was not canceled. This may explain why senior regime figures ended up not attending the ceremony. It also raises the question of why the attacks were not averted by security forces despite that heightened level of security.

On a more anecdotal note, in an interview with state TV, a Kerman hospital official stated that they were “100% prepared” for what was about to come, raising many eyebrows among ordinary Iranians. Meanwhile, many Iranians inside and outside the country have considered the possibility that the regime itself was responsible. In the wake of the bombing, videos emerged from several Iranian cities showing people destroying Soleimani posters and other signs in public spaces — an important reminder that, contrary to the Islamic Republic’s narrative, not all Iranians hailed him as a national hero.

The Office of the General Prosecutor Mohammad Mohadi has announced criminal proceedings against anyone who deviates from the regime’s line on the Kerman bombings. Such views, Mohadi explained, threaten Iranian society’s “psychological security.” Sadegh Zibakalam, a University of Tehran political science professor and prominent public intellectual, who has been targeted by state media for rejecting the claim that Israel was behind the Kerman bombings, has now been summoned to court.

Regime figures are fully cognizant of the widening gulf between state and society in Iran. Tehran understands that in the event of a direct war with Israel and/or the U.S., it cannot count on a rallying around the flag, which in turn constitutes a security liability for the regime itself and imposes significant limitations on its regional policies. As Hassan Khomeini and Zeynab Soleimani’s argument illustrates, the Islamic Republic clearly hoped that the Kerman attacks would reverse the erosion of its social base by drawing people together in national unity. But given the deep suspicion of regime narratives across Iranian society — as is on spectacular display in the war of narratives over the Kerman bombings — it is unlikely that such a reversal in the Islamic Republic’s favor will materialize.

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