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Deadly Bombing in Iran Kills Dozens as Tensions Rise Across the Middle East

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Twin explosions in the Iranian province of Kerman killed dozens and injured hundreds Wednesday at a memorial for top Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike four years ago in Iraq. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iran has placed blame on Israel and the U.S, while U.S. officials and regional experts have suggested ISIS as the culprit. Our guest, Iranian historian Arash Azizi, discusses the potential sources of the attack, the scale of the tragedy — which occurred on Mother’s Day in Iran and may count among its victims civilians visiting their mothers’ graves — and fears of wider war in the midst of Israel’s ongoing violence in Gaza. Azizi, who has authored a book on Soleimani’s assassination, calls the double blast “one of the deadliest — if not the deadliest — attacks of its kind in recent history.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Iran is observing a national day of mourning as the death toll from twin explosions Wednesday has reached 84, with many others injured. The blasts in south-central Kerman province killed attendees to a memorial for top Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike four years ago in Iraq. This is a survivor who was being treated in a nearby hospital.

SURVIVOR: [translated] I suddenly felt a burn in my back. And then, when I tried to move, I couldn’t.

REPORTER: [translated] What happened?

SURVIVOR: [translated] I just remember hearing the sound of an explosion.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iran has placed blame on Israel and the U.S. The White House said the Islamic State could be behind the bloody bombings, and rejected claims Israel or the U.S. was involved.

The tragedy comes amid mounting fears that Israel’s war on Gaza could lead to a wider regional conflict. One day before the blasts, a senior Hamas leader and Iran ally, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in a strike in southern Beirut, which Lebanese officials blamed on Israel. And earlier today, a drone strike killed four members of an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia in Baghdad. Iraqi authorities have blamed the U.S.-led international coalition for the attack.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Arash Azizi, Iranian historian and writer. His book is titled The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran’s Global Ambitions. His recent piece in The National is headlined “Who are the likely suspects in the Kerman blasts, and what does this mean for Iran?” His forthcoming book, out next, is titled What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom.

Thanks so much for joining as, Arash Azizi. Can you start off by talking about the significance of these two attacks in Iran? No one has yet claimed responsibility, but what you think this looks like?

ARASH AZIZI: These are really terrible attacks if you look at the death toll, although the death toll is actually being readjusted, with lower now. Now it’s between eighties and nineties, but it still makes it one of the deadliest — if not the deadliest — attack of its kind in recent history, perhaps even in sort of modern Iranian history. So they’re truly terrible.

And, of course, they do come at a time when the region is very tense. There’s been a shadow war between Iran and Israel and the United States for many years now, but especially in the last few months. And the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing four years ago is already a very tense day, because, you know, it involves a lot of groups in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Iran and Israel, Syria. A lot of them are linked to Soleimani in one way or the other. So it’s a very tense time, and the attack comes at that time.

Now, it is true that we don’t really know who did the attack yet. No one has really claimed it yet. A lot of experts that I’ve spoken to, and myself looking at the existing evidence, believe that it’s sort of — the likely culprit, in my opinion, is to be the Islamic State, particularly its group, its regional group, based in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-Khorasan, in Khorasan province. And this is a group that because of the kind of attacks that it did, kind of a mass civilian killing, because of the — you know, putting the bombs in briefcases, and some of the more — you know, some of the more specific methods used and the targets that they’ve picked, this makes them to be the most likely culprit that have committed the attacks.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Arash, can you explain — I mean, you’ve written this book on Qassem Soleimani — the significance of this attack taking place on the day, the fourth anniversary of his death, as people were gathering in his burial place, where his body is? But why would the Islamic State, as you said, Islamic State-Khorasan — why would they — what would be the incentive for them to carry out an attack now in the midst, as you say, of the — what’s going on in Gaza, just — the attack now in Kerman taking place just a day after al-Arouri was assassinated in Beirut? Why Islamic State?

ARASH AZIZI: You know, it’s likely that they might have planned this attack long ago. It might have also been more recent, but certainly longer than al-Arouri’s assassination. So it might not be directly sort of related to that, so they probably planned it a while ago.

Now, this group has tried to gain power in Afghanistan in recent years. They are also an adversary of the Taliban regime there, which they see it as some sort of a — in some sort of a tacit alliance with Iran, although the Taliban regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran have a complicated relationship, but they’ve sometimes worked together in the last couple of years, although Iran doesn’t even officially recognize it as the government of Afghanistan. But this group has tried to raise its profile. That’s one thing. And also, they regard Soleimani as the leader of this Shia force that they consider as an enemy, as sort of a symbol of Shia Islam and a symbol of the Islamic Republic and also a sort of symbol of Iran in the sense they regard it as such.

So, it would make sense for them to attack it. Although I would say the fact that they haven’t taken responsibility yet does give me a bit of pause, because if they did it, you know, why wouldn’t they already take responsibility for it? And there’s possibility that there might be other groups and smaller groups. But again, if it’s them, why haven’t they taken responsibility? So, that’s one question that a lot of us are asking right now.

I should also say that the National Security Council of Iran met this morning Iranian time, and after the meeting, they issued a statement in which they’re also very clear that they also don’t know who committed the attacks yet and that they put sort of the first priority in finding out who did the attacks, who are behind it. So, while the Iranian officials, in broad terms, condemned Israel and the U.S. as sort of enemies that are behind troubles against Iran, as they always do, they haven’t actually sort of — the bodies, like the Supreme National Security Council, haven’t pointed direct fingers as who would be the perpetrator. And they have promised, of course, to act against whoever did the attacks.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Arash, the people who were killed, as we said, about 84 — you said somewhere between 80 and 90 people — none of those people were in any way associated with the government, the Revolutionary Guard? Because as you’ve said also, I mean, when there have been attacks perpetrated by either the U.S., Israel, as you say in your piece — has carried out many operations in Iran, but they tend to be targeted against specific people, I mean, most notably the series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But in this case, who was among the dead?

ARASH AZIZI: That’s right. They usually target either IRGC officials, this militia that really rules things around, or the nuclear scientists, and do they have a specific attacks — specific targets, which in this case there doesn’t seem to have been any even sort of a mid-ranking IRGC official there. So that makes it, in my opinion, less likely that it was an attack by them, although not impossible, but much less likely.

So, in terms of who was the — who were the victims, from what we can see so far, you know, ordinary people, ordinary civilians. Yes, a lot of them might have been there to mourn Qassem Soleimani in some ways, but I should also say this is a big cemetery in Kerman. It’s my maternal city, and I’ve been to this cemetery many times. There are tons of ordinary people who are buried there. In fact, it was Mother’s Day in Iran, also Iran that day, so many people might have been just going to their mother’s grave, as is customary on such a day. We see a large number of children are among the killed and the injured, dozens, which really shows, you know, the kind of victims that this attack had, and also first responders who came, because this was a double blast, so the first responders who came to help with the victims of the first blast, unfortunately, were killed in the second blast, which is another sort of signature of ISIS and makes it more likely to be that, although, as I said, we really don’t know, and it’s a bit of a speculation at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Arash Azizi, remind us how Qassem Soleimani died and his significance.

ARASH AZIZI: Soleimani was killed in a drone strike on January 3rd, 2020, ordered by President Trump at the time, which was a really shocking action. Just to give you an idea, a few years before, during the Bush administration, when the Bush administration was trying to kill a Hezbollah leader, they repeatedly — at least once — postponed the attack just to make sure they don’t hit Soleimani. And that’s why — that’s because he was easily one of the most powerful men in the Middle East. He was — you could easily say he was the most powerful military figure in Iran at the time. His official job title, he was the head of the Quds Force, or the Jerusalem Force, which is basically the external operations wings of the IRGC. What he really did was that he controlled a very large multinational army of Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese all around the region and had really commanded and directed Islamic Republic’s interventions in countries of the region. So he was of a big significance, and also he was a ranking official of a nation-state called the Islamic Republic of Iran. So, it was sort of highly unusual to assassinate a figure like that in a strike. Some people would say, not since the Second World War, when the United States helped killed a Japanese admiral, had such a figure of another country been targeted like that.

Of course, the official sort of explanations for it was that there were — you know, there have been tons of attacks by forces directed by Soleimani, these groups based in Iraq, on U.S. forces, and this has been going on. Even in the last few months, we’ve seen more than a hundred attacks by these forces on — by these sort of Iraqi forces aligned with Tehran on U.S. forces. So, that was — you know, that was one official reason, the other being that the IRGC was put on the terror group list by the Trump administration, so they regarded Soleimani as having a double role, as on one side being a sort of a uniformed official of Iran, but at the same time they saw it as a leading figure in what they considered a terror organization. So —

AMY GOODMAN: And let me —

ARASH AZIZI: — that’s why they did the attack here.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Sayyed Razi Mousavi, who — right around Christmas, an Israeli airstrike outside the Syrian capital Damascus killed a senior adviser of the Iran Revolutionary Guard. The sources told Reuters the adviser was responsible for coordinating the military alliance between Syria and Iran, and apparently he was with — right? — Qassem Soleimani when Soleimani was killed. Now he has been killed.

ARASH AZIZI: That’s right. Sayyed Razi Mousavi was perhaps, I would say, easily the most important, definitely one of the top three IRGC officials, the sort of Iranian militia officials, in Syria. And he had been in Syria a very long time. You know, people would know him in Damascus. He had played an important role in the Syrian civil war. Effectively, this is when the government of Syria of Bashar al-Assad helped kill hundreds of thousands of his own civilians, and Iran and the IRGC were helping him. So, Sayyed Razi had an important role there, but really even years before. He had effectively been based in Syria since the 1990s, late 1990s, I would say, for sure. He would go back and forth. But at some point he was entirely based there. His wife taught at the Iranian school in Damascus. So he was an old-timer. When the Iranian intervention really increased in the aftermath of the Syrian revolution, followed by the civil war that’s in 2011 and ’12, Sayyed Razi became this old guy who — you know, who could help everybody else there, because he had just been there such a long time.

So, his assassination, which just happened recently, was very important, since, you know, it signaled Israel and the U.S. probably sort of targeting a really high-value Iranian target in Damascus, and which really escalates things, given the conditions that we are in. And it also possibly points out to Israel having something like what it did in the aftermath in the 1970s of the Munich attacks, which — you know, in the aftermath of that in the 1970s, Israel started an operation known as Operation Wrath of God, in which it went to Iran and then killed a lot of leaders of groups that were in some way or the other linked to the terror Munich attacks. So, the killing of al-Arouri, Sayyed Razi and others might show that Israel has a similar quest.

AMY GOODMAN: Arash Azizi, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Iranian historian and writer. His book, The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran’s Global Ambitions. We’ll link to your piece in The National, “Who are the likely suspects in the Kerman blasts, and what does this mean for Iran?” His forthcoming book, out next month, What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom. He’s speaking to us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Next up, as Ukraine and Russia have the largest prisoner of war exchange since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian president is reportedly signaling behind the scenes he’s open to a ceasefire. We’ll go to Moscow to speak with Nina Khrushcheva, who says “The West Must Face Reality in Ukraine.” Stay with us.

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