Iran blamed the US and its allies in the region, which includes Israel and Saudi Arabia, for an attack in Ahvaz on Saturday that killed at least 25 and wounded dozens. The attack targeted a military parade that was attended by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Twelve members of the IRGC were killed.
The allegation will almost certainly ratchet up tensions with Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, who along with the United States have been working to isolate the Islamic Republic.
The four gunmen attacked the military parade in Ahvaz, in southwestern Iran, in an early morning attack that was one of the bloodiest in decades. The gunmen, disguised as local soldiers, sprayed participants with bullets and targeted a reviewing stand where commanders and senior regime leaders were standing. The parade had begun at around 9 a.m.
Videos by witnesses at the event showed the moment the shots were fired. Dozens ran, including many of the soldiers present who didn’t initially use their weapons to engage the attackers. By noon the government accused “takfiri elements” for the attack, a reference to Sunni Muslim terrorists.
“Their crime is in the continuation of plots hatched by the US-led governments in the region who aim to create insecurity in our dear country,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, without mentioning the regional states he believed were to blame.
Khamenei ordered security forces to bring to justice the “criminals” behind one of the worst attacks ever against the IRGC, which answers to him.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted, “Terrorists recruited, trained, armed and paid by foreign regime have attack Ahvaz. Children and journos [sic] among casualties.” He also said that Tehran held the US accountable for the attack and that “Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives.”
The gunmen were trained by two Gulf Arab states and had ties to the United States and Israel, according to Brig.-Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, a senior spokesman for Iran’s armed forces. “They are not from Daesh (Islamic State) or other groups fighting [Iran’s] Islamic system... but they are linked to America and [Israel’s intelligence agency the] Mossad,” he told state news agency IRNA.
There was no immediate Gulf Arab comment on his remarks.
Shekarchi said the attackers had hidden weapons in an area near the parade route several days in advance.
Women and children also died in the assault, state news IRNA agency reported.
“All four terrorists were quickly neutralized by security forces,” he told state television. “A four-year-old girl and a wheelchair-bound war veteran were among the dead.”
An Iranian ethnic Arab opposition movement called the Ahvaz National Resistance, which seeks a separate state in oil-rich Khuzestan province, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Islamic State militants also claimed responsibility. Neither group provided evidence. All four attackers were killed.
The assault comes a day after a group fighting against the regime in Ahvaz had sent congratulations to Saudi Arabia for its national day.
Ahwaz is the center of a province that has a large Arab minority and there are a number of groups that have opposed the Iranian regime from Ahvaz over the years. An Ahvaz activist was assassinated last year in the Netherlands, allegedly by the Iranian regime.
A spokesman for one of the groups who called into a Farsi language TV program said that his group had targeted the IRGC, not civilians.
The attack comes 10 days after the US said it would hold Iran accountable for attacks in Iraq after Iranian-backed militias targeted a US consulate in Basra, across the border from Ahvaz.
The bloodshed struck a blow to security in OPEC oil producer Iran, which has been relatively stable compared with neighboring Arab countries that have grappled with upheaval since the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East.
The IRGC, the most powerful and heavily armed military force in the country, has been the sword and shield of Shi’ite clerical rule in Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Guards play a big role in Iran’s regional interests and have a vast stake worth billions of dollars in Iran’s economy.
Tensions between mainly Shi’ite Iran and mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia have risen in recent years, with the two countries supporting opposite sides in wars in Syria and Yemen and rival political parties in Iraq and Lebanon.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered security forces to identify those responsible for the violence, the semi-official ISNA news agency said. The attack occurred the day before Rouhani heads to New York to address the annual UN General Assembly next week.
“Rouhani will use the terrorist attack to justify Iran’s presence in the Middle East... The attack will strengthen the IRGC’s position inside Iran and in the region,” Tehran-based political analyst Hamid Farahvashian said.
Iran will face pressure to respond to the high-profile attack on the Revolutionary Guards.
“The attacks are doubtlessly meant to tarnish the prestige of the IRGC, but I believe the terrorist incidents will strengthen the IRGC’s standing and even mobilize some public support,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Gulf Arab States Institute in Washington.
Hardliners like the IRGC have gained standing at the expense of pragmatists in Iran’s multi-tiered leadership since US President Donald Trump decided in May to pull the United States out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran and reimpose sanctions in moves to isolate the Islamic Republic.
Kurdish militants killed 10 Revolutionary Guards in an attack on an IRGC post on the Iraqi border in July, where armed Kurdish opposition groups are active.
Last year, in the first deadly assault claimed by Islamic State in Tehran, 18 people were killed at the parliament and at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
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