Iranian reactions to the Islamic State’s suicide bombings in Kerman

On the anniversary of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Lt. General Qassaem Soleimani’s death on January 3rd, 2024, two explosions occurred in proximity of the Kerman Martyrs Cemetery, where Soleimani’s ceremony was being held. Although all the evidence indicates that the attackers plotted and trained for the bombings in Afghanistan, Iran has avoided straining its relations with the Taliban amid the rising tensions between Iran-backed groups and Israel across the region.

According to Iranian state media, 94 people were killed and some 284 were injured. The following day, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks and the U.S. intelligence confirmed that Islamic State’s Afghanistan-branch (ISKP) was responsible for the twin bombings. Iranian state media and regime officials, however, were quick to point fingers at Israel and downplayed the links between Afghanistan and the Jan. 3 attacks.

On the day of the attack, prominent regime officials promptly accused Israel of organizing and supporting the suicide bombings. IRGC Quds Force Commander Brig. Gen. Esmail Qa’ani claimed that “Zionists funded the terrorist attack in Kerman.” Similarly, Hossein Jalali, a parliamentarian, stated that “Israel was certainly involved in the attacks.”

In a statement from ISIS Khorasan the day after the bombings, they wrote: “the two martyrdom fighters were able to reach the crowd, which included thousands of Shiites who were performing Shiite rituals near the grave of Qassem Soleimani, who was involved in dozens of massacres against Muslims in Iraq and Syria.” But while Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) later identified ISIS as the group responsible for the attack and mentioned one of the terrorists was a Tajik national, the Ministry omitted the mention of its specific branch in Afghanistan in its first statement.

Meanwhile, Iranian state media and officials continued to accuse Israel of orchestrating the attack. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami said “they (ISIS) can only act as agents on behalf of Zionism.” Iranian state-affiliated media echoed these remarks, as Kayhan, Mehr News and Asr-e Iran published content accusing Israel of coordinating the attacks.

On Jan. 9, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addressed the attacks during a speech in the city of Qom. Remarkably, Khamenei also did not mention ISIS or Afghanistan; instead, he threatened to “suppress the agents who were behind the attacks.” Although the second statement issued by MOIS on Jan. 11 said that one of the attackers was trained in Afghanistan, it also claimed that he was “Bozorov, a 24-year-old Israeli and a Tajik national” and “he entered Iran via Pakistan.”

Iranian state media has widely downplayed Afghanistan’s link to the attacks. On the day of the attack, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) accused anti-regime media outlets of conspiring to stoke tension between Iran and Afghanistan by spreading misinformation about the identities of the suicide bombers. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News highlighted that 12 of the victims of the terrorist attack were Afghan nationals and claimed that Iran and Afghanistan share a “blood bond” and “ISIS has targeted both Iranians and Afghans.”

Despite these rhetorical efforts seeking to dismiss the links between the suicide bombers and Afghanistan, the regime perceives its Eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan as a security liability. A day after the attack, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi announced the initiation of a comprehensive plan to seal the country’s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan and added that these projects will include various security measures beyond constructing a border wall.

Amid a widening proxy conflict with Israel, the Iranian state apparatus is reluctant to taint its relations with the Taliban. So far, Iranian security forces have arrested at least some 35 people so far in relation to the attacks and the third MOIS statement on the bombing published on Jan. 19 claimed that numerous ISIS leaders have been identified and arrested. Somewhat typical to the Iranian crisis playbook, the regime is opting instead to crack down internally and intensify security measures, especially as Iran has seen new skirmishes in Baluchistan Province, along the border with Pakistan.

Janatan Sayeh is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focused on Iranian domestic affairs and the Islamic Republic’s regional malign influence.

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