Unprecedentedly, the Iranian armed forces came under a 12-minute long attack that targeted a military parade in the city of Ahvaz on September 22. The four gunmen used Kalashnikovs in the attack that killed 29 people and wounded 60 others. The preliminary number from the attack was 20 casualties. But the number continued to rise due to the fatal injuries of those wounded. Tehran declared that three of the assailants were killed and the fourth was arrested.
Details of the attack
The attack on the military parade started at around 9:30 am. Three brigades were marching in front of the podium of the parade. Instead of opening fire on the podium where the military commanders were sitting to watch the parade, the gunmen headed to the cadets partaking in the parade and opened fire. Seconds after the shooting started, two gunmen joined the assailants and fired at the officers participating in the parade. The Iranian forces retaliated, killing three of the attackers and fatally wounding the fourth. He was taken to a hospital to be treated and interrogated. The reports on the attack were contradictory, especially the style and attire of the attackers, the sites they targeted, as well as, the number killed and wounded.
Repeated intelligence failure or internal conflicts?
In June 2017, Khomeini’s tomb and the Iranian parliament came under armed attack in which 18 people were killed. At the time, there was a lot of speculations regarding the identity of the perpetrators and their motives. In June 2018, Iran declared that eight Iranians were sentenced to death for joining ISIS [IS] and forming a team to support those who attacked the parliament and Khomeini’s tomb. Both incidents highlight a significant intelligence and security failure. The first attack took place in central Tehran near security buildings and the headquarters of the president of the republic. The last attack targeted a military parade. According to statements from a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in parliament Said Hussein Naqvi, the gunmen opened fire and moved freely for nearly 12 minutes among a crowd of Iranian armed forces, intelligence and security personnel. He admitted there was grave negligence when it came to securing the military parade’s vicinity. He said, “How on earth the parade could be held in front of a garden that lacked the least security measures? It is a horrendous mistake! Therefore, the National Security Committee should be questioned regarding the ones responsible for this grave breach”. He added that even though the Iranian security forces’ had announced the team that supported the attackers and 22 people linked to the attacks were arrested, this did not relieve the ones responsible for the attack. “Why was this team not arrested before the attack? What is the benefit that we can reap from arresting them after the attack? He wondered.
He pointed to the video footage, of which there was two, watched by the members of the National Security Committee that indicated the attackers inspected the scene one day before the attack. They were seen moving freely at the scene. They were free to the extent that they were speaking to each other. And they had the chance to load ammunition into their weapons several times. The place where the military parade was expected to be held should have been highly securitized as the commanders of the armed forces in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan, were to be present. Hence, an attack of such a nature should be an incredibly daunting mission if there was no infiltration within the security forces. And if we were to suppose this theory (infiltration) did not happen, and anti-regime elements managed to carry out this attack on their own, this reflects a gross failure by security apparatuses over the past two years.
The second theory is that certain wings within the Iranian regime carried out the attack to strike the political balance at home and reduce the pressure on the regime. Despite the high death and injury toll, the political gains of the regime after the attack have been considerable.
Accusations before the investigation
Despite the ambiguity surrounding the details of the attack and the conflicting reports in the early hours after the attack, Iranian officials were quick to explicitly accuse the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE of being involved in the attack. While the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei explicitly accused the United States of being behind the attack, he also implicitly pointed the finger of blame to regional countries. He said, “Those heartless surrogates are proxies for those hypocritical liars who always speak of human rights”. He added, “This crime is a continuation of the plots of the regional states that are puppets of the United States, and their goal is to create insecurity in our dear country.”
The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani went further and said, in addition to accusing the United States of masterminding the attack, “the countries of the southern Gulf provided the attackers with money and weapons, and Iran’s response will be strong, and we will respond to those who support those terrorists.” Also, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif blamed the United States and accused regional countries of financing the attackers. Iranian lawmakers blamed the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for supporting and harboring the attackers, while the head of the General Command of the Iranian Armed Forces, Muhammad Hussein Bagheri, accused Saudi Arabia of being involved in the attack and stated that Iran reserves the right to respond at any time and place. He said that Iran will revenge. And this revenge will be devastating and unforgettable.
Parties that took responsibility for the attack
Yaqub Hor Tostori, based in Denmark, the Spokesman for the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASLMA) headed by Habib Jabor, said that Ahvaz National Resistance claimed responsibility for the attack (his remarks were cited by news sites and news agencies such as Sputnik and Reuters). He denied support from any Arab country and pointed to the coordination between the Ahvazi separatist movements, all the Kurdish, Baluchi and Turkish-Azerbaijani organizations to end the persecution and oppression carried out by the Iranian regime against non-Persian ethnic minorities. He blamed the Iranian regime for the civilian casualties after the attackers fired on the Revolutionary Guards, in the direction of the podium, which included senior Iranian officials. On the other hand, the website of ASLMA based in the Netherlands that previously was headed by the late Ahmad Mola posted a statement denying their responsibility for the attack. Also, their media outlet known as Ahwazona denied responsibility and condemned the attack.
However, Tostori reiterated that the attack was legitimate because it aimed to liberate the Ahvaz territory occupied by Iran since 1925, and it targeted armed elements, not civilians. He added this attack came on the back of Iranian assassinations carried out against Ahvazi leaders, such as Ahmed Mola, and Abu Nahid, who was killed outside his home in The Hague last year. The Ahwazi Democratic Popular Front (ADPF) also known Al-Ahwazi condemned the attack on the military parade. It accused the Revolutionary Guards of masterminding the attack to reap political gains at home and abroad. “The attack was designed to protect the interests of the Iranian regime in the region and the world and to make it appear to be targeted and oppressed and to help it evade international obligations,” the Front’s statement said.
Among this confusion of affirmation and denial of responsibility, ISIS claimed responsibility, on its website Amaq, for the attack. But it did not post any video footage as it is accustomed of doing in such attacks. The Iranian regime did not pay much attention to ISIS’s announcement.
The Iranian threat of ‘limitless retaliation’
Iran’s military is facing a crisis, particularly its image and reputation. This comes following successive blows it has experienced in Syria and a wave of attacks at home by armed groups. Therefore, Iran seized the opportunity in the aftermath of the attack to convey a message that it will not let an attack on its soil go unpunished. Ali Khamenei, pointing to the attack on the military parade in Ahvaz, said that Iran would severely punish the perpetrators. In a video footage posted by the Fars News Agency, which is closely aligned to the Revolutionary Guards titled, ‘The Hard Punishment Is on the Way’, said the response will be hard and severe. The feature report said the era of hit and run has ended, pointing to the attack carried out on June 7, 2017, on the Iranian parliament by ISIS. The Revolutionary Guards responded to the attack by mounting a missile attack on the ISIS command center in Deri Zour on June 18th, 2017. Also, the report mentioned the Israeli attack on Syria’s T4 airbase to which Iran responded by targeting 10 Israeli military posts in the Golan Heights by 68 Iran-made missiles. In addition, it [report] cast light on the attack waged by the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) forces on the border post in Mariwan. It killed 10 Revolutionary Guard members. The response to the attack came when the Revolutionary Guards carried out a missile attack on the hideouts of the KDP in Kurdistan. “Recently, the attack on the military parade in Ahvaz and the imminent retaliation by Iran over the Ahvaz attack was expected to be in the capital of Saudi Arabia and in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE,” said the video posted by Fars.
The international position
The attack was widely condemned globally. The United States dismissed Tehran’s accusations that it was behind the attack. The United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called on President Rouhani to look internally to figure out who was behind the attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the attack and sent a letter to his Iranian counterpart in which he expressed his country’s readiness to support Iran in its counterterrorism efforts. The British ambassador Rob Macaire in Tehran condemned the attack and expressed his condolences to the families of the victims. This was the same position taken by the governments of Turkey, Pakistan, Oman, and several European countries. They declared their total condemnation of the attack and considered it as a terrorist act.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Danish, and the Dutch ambassadors, as well as, the British Charge D’affaires to inform them of Iran’s strong objection to the granting of asylum and residence to members of ASLMA, which Iran classifies as a terrorist organization. The European Union has not listed ASLMA as a terrorist organization. The Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasimi said that Iran expected these three countries to categorically condemn the terrorist attack in Ahvaz, and to hand over those involved in planning it.
By summoning the Dutch ambassador, Iran is responding to the Netherland’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats last July. The Dutch Foreign Ministry announced that it would not state the reasons for the expulsion of the Iranian diplomats. Press sources announced that the move came in response to the assassination of Ahmed Mola, leader of one Ahvaz separatist organization, in The Hague, and the Iranian figure Ali Mohammad killed near Amsterdam.
Also, the Iranian Foreign Ministry handed the British Chargé d’Affaires another objection regarding the London-based Iran International TV channel, that broadcasted the statement of ASLMA claiming responsibility for the attack. At the regional level, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the UAE Chargé d’Affaires in Tehran.
Investing in the attack
The attack on the military parade gives the regime an opportunity to improve the situation at three levels:
1. Internal level: The regime is subjected to general discontent because of deteriorating economic conditions, as well as the suppression of political freedoms. The attack which was carried out inside Iranian territory will undoubtedly galvanize the public around the regime. This will lead to segments of the public shunning participation in protests to maintain unity for fear of state collapse and the separation of its territories. The regime will allow its security apparatuses to the crackdown in their most oppressive ways. This oppression will cover all the regime’s opposition forces.
2. The International level: A few days after the attack, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani headed to the UN. Despite the internal debate on whether Rouhani should attend the UNGA because of President Trump’s declaration that he would show up at his session and raise the issue of Iran and its activities in the region, Rouhani went to the UN in the end. The focus of his speech was the attack on the military parade in Ahvaz. “Last Saturday, our dear people lost dozens of citizens. They were laid to rest covered in blood. The groups harbored by Western capitals are to blame for the attack on Saturday.”
Rouhani used the attack to speak of Iran coming under terror attacks. And that it is playing a role in Syria to fight terrorism which encircles it. He ignored Iran’s sponsoring of armed militias and supporting them with weapons and money. He then moved on to the issue of the nuclear deal. The attack on the military parade in Ahvaz gave Iran the opportunity to appear as a state that suffers from terrorist attacks and that it is fighting terrorism in the region.
3. The regional level: The attack on the military parade may be the starting point for rhetoric calling for a direct war between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This comes following the remarks of the General Commander of the Iranian Armed Forces that Iran’s armed forces reserve the right to a “crushing blow” anywhere and at any time they see fit. This increases the likeliness of Iranian retaliation based on Iranian behavior over the past few years, it cannot be ruled out Iran might provoke Shiite groups in regional countries to undermine security and stability by stirring protests or carrying out terrorist attacks that target key facilities or Western forces stationed there. Iran has carried out such operations before. There is evidence it has engaged in terror acts in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The attack’s being waged on an oil-rich hub in Ahvaz may make a case for Iran to attack oil facilities in the Gulf with the aim of responding to the embargo that will be imposed by the United States on its oil exports in November.