After Ahvaz, what is next for Iran?

Ahmed Eleiba , Monday 1 Oct 2018

Accusing the US, Israel and the Gulf, Iran continued to reel in the wake of a terrorist attack that rocked Ahvaz on a day of national celebration

Ahvaz attack
This picture taken on Sept. 22, 2018 in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz shows an Iranian soldier carrying an injured comrade at the scene of an attack on a military parade that was marking the anniversary of the outbreak of its devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq (Photo: AFP)

Repercussions from the terrorist assault in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz that left at least 25 dead continue to reverberate regionally and internationally.

Two days after the incident, Iranian Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi announced that a “large part of the network” responsible for the attack on a military parade in Ahvaz had been apprehended.

Speaking at the funeral ceremonies for the victims of the attack, which included women and children, Alavi vowed, “we will get every last terrorist who was connected with this attack.”

Other Iranian officials exported the crisis, hurling accusations against the US, Israel and Gulf countries for being behind the attack.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at Washington for attempting to stir sedition and disrupt security in Iran and he accused a number of regional powers of furnishing military and financial support to separatist movement Al-Ahvaziya.

Acting commander of the Revolutionary Guards General Hussein Salami vowed revenge against the “triangle” of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States which he blamed for the attack. “You have seen our revenge before ... You will see that our response will be crushing and devastating and you will regret what you have done,” Salami said in a televised speech broadcast live.

Replying to Iranian charges of US involvement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that it would be wrong for Tehran to look for responsibility abroad for the attack.

Alluding to remarks by his Iranian counterpart, Mohamed Javad Zarif, who, in remarks before the attack took place, accused the US of being a threat to international peace in security, Pompeo said, “when you have a security incident at home, blaming others is an enormous mistake. The loss of innocent life is tragic, and I wish Zarif would focus on keeping his own people secure rather than causing insecurity around the world.”

Despite the mounting tensions between Tehran and Washington since the latter withdrew from the Iranian nuclear accord, President Donald Trump has indicated his readiness to speak with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions, and whenever the Iranians want.

“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” Trump said. “I’m ready to meet whenever they want to … No preconditions… They want to meet, I’ll meet, whenever they want … That would be good for the country. Good for them and good for us and good for the world.”

The US president’s remarks gave the impression that it was Tehran that asked for a meeting, but Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghassemi denied that his country had made such a request.

In an interview on the NBC programme, “Meet the Press,” Pompeo reiterated Trump’s willingness to meet with Rouhani. “He’s happy to talk with folks at any time. The president’s been pretty clear about that,” Pompeo said, adding that the onus was now on Rouhani to reach out.

In the Gulf, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash, commenting on statements by Ghassemi, said that the official incitement against his country coming from inside Iran was regrettable and that the escalation of incitement following the Ahvaz attack was an attempt to vent domestic pressures. “The UAE’s historic stance against terrorism and violence is clear. Tehran’s accusations are baseless.”

Ghassemi had criticised Emirate intellectual Abdel-Khalek Abdullah for remarks he described as “idiotic.” Abdullah had reposted a tweet by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman about moving the battle to inside Iran and then commented, “a military attack against a military target is not a terror act.

Moving the battle into the Iranian depth is a declared option and will increase in the forthcoming phase.” Iranian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghhci summoned the Emirati charge d’affairs in Tehran to express Iran’s strong protest against “the remarks by some [Emirati] officials in support of the terrorist attack in Ahvaz.”

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in Ahvaz. The organisation’s Amaq news website broadcasted a video recording of three men in a vehicle, claiming to be on their way to carry out an attack against the military parade in Iran.

Two spoke in Arabic and the third in Persian. They said they were going to kill Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

However, Iranian Military Spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi dismissed the claim and held that the perpetrators of the attack were not from the Islamic State group, but rather were linked to the US, the Israeli Mossad and two countries in the Arab region which he did not mention by name.

Ali Bakr, an expert on militant organisations, believes it’s highly unlikely for many reasons that the Islamic State group was responsible for the attack.

“For one, the photographic material broadcast by the organisation is not situated in the vicinity of the incident or else the Iranian authorities would have said so. Also, it is doubtful that IS is active in Iran. To carry out an operation of this sort, there have to be assistants and supporters. This is hard to imagine as even the Sunnis in Iran are motivated more by nationalist than by religious aims. It wouldn’t be easy to logically link them with a transnational group such as IS because their goals are internally focused: they seek to free themselves from Iranian control. Even lone wolves, such as those that carry out attacks in Europe, have a different agenda and focus on soft targets. This was not the Iranian case. There, the attackers chose a military parade staged for a national occasion, not a religious one connected with Shia rites and rituals.”

Noting that one of the most important sources of dispute between IS and Al-Qaeda is that the latter excludes Iran from its targets and has understandings with Tehran whereas IS boasts of targeting affiliates of the Shia faith, Bakr nevertheless stressed that the occasion chosen for the attack was a military display that was held to commemorate a national day, which is to say a secular occasion.

He believes that the reason why IS claimed responsibility for the attack was to attract the spotlight. It was a form of publicity that sought to convey the message that IS has the ability to penetrate Iran and carry out terrorist attacks there.

Bakr did not entirely dismiss the possibility that IS actually carried out the attack for this purpose, but he stressed that such a possibility was “remote.”

Attention also turned to an Iranian-based group called the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, or Al-Ahvaziya, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

In an interview with opposition Iran International Television, the separatist movement’s spokesman Yacoub Hor Al-Tostari said that Al-Ahvaziya carried out the attack “in revenge for the repression suffered by the Arabs in Ahwaz." He added: “We have no other choice but resistance.”

Spokesman for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards General Ramazan Sharif believes Al-Tostari’s version. Sharif was cited by Russia Today as saying, “operatives from the Al-Ahvaziya were the ones who opened fire on the [Iranian] armed forces.”

He recalled that this group had previously targeted the annual summer camps organised by the Basij, a wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: After Ahvaz

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