Tehran is outraged over Saturday's mass-casualty attack on its military parade in Ahvaz and has blamed Saudi Arabia, the US and its Western allies for the killing of 29 people. Fars News media claimed the attack was part of a Kurdish-Ahvaz Arab conspiracy in the Middle East concocted by deceased historian Bernard Lewis. As Tehran lashes out, the mindset of the regime is revealed, particularly as questions remain over who carried out the attack and how they did it.
Tehran summoned the UK, Dutch and Danish envoys on Sunday to reprimand them over "hosting" members of the terrorist group that Iran says carried out the attack. While it has not provided evidence of which group carried out the attack, Tehran seems sure that members of the group are being hosted in Western countries.
Media reports said the Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement of Ahvaz and Islamic State have taken credit. Already Tehran is seeking to "extradite" perpetrators from Holland, according to The Guardian. CNN pointed out that the Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement rejected a report by the Islamic Republic News Agency that said the group claimed responsibility.
Tehran has sought to shift the narrative from an attack on a military parade to one on children and civilians. Initial reports said the attack targeted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during a military parade marking the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war. But later the regime sought to emphasize that children were present. Children were indeed present, but the bulk of the attack targeted a reviewing stand of Iranian soldiers and commanders watching the parade.
Video showed soldiers crouching and running from gunfire. It turns out that most of the soldiers in the parade did not have clips for their rifles and could not return fire. They were also in dress uniforms, with white gloves, and consisted of a military band. Some civilians were caught in the crossfire. Tasnim and Fars News both published lists of the "martyrs" of the attack. Almost all the 25 names are male, indicating that contrary to claims of "women and children" being targeted, the target was primarily IRGC soldiers.
Tehran has spread information about the perpetrator group, accusing Ahvaz separatists of the attack. Ahvaz is in a mostly Arab area in Khuzestan province, many of whose inhabitants are Shi'ite. ISNA news in Iran said that the group seeks independence and noted that it carried out a series of attacks in the early 2000s and has been viewed as a terrorist group since the 1990s. Tehran seeks to show that this group has increased activity and is linked to both the Gulf and the UK.
The most bizarre theory was put forward by Fars News, which claimed that the attack was part of a "Middle East project" which includes Khuzestan and Kurdistan, in which minority groups are being activated by the West to destabilize Iran. This "conspiracy" against "Islamic Iran" supposedly includes groups in Azerbaijan and the Baloch region of southeastern Iran.
According to the Fars report, "Jewish theorist Bernard Lewis," is striking back at Iran from "beyond the grave." "Khuzestan's terrorist attack took place on September 22, just 11 days after the 9/11 anniversary," the article claims. It accuses the late renowned historian of masterminding a plan to harm Iran at a meeting of the "Bilderberg group in August in 1979." It then links this conspiracy to former US president George W. Bush and former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Tehran has received condolences from Hamas in Gaza and other allies. It will use this attack as an excuse to crack down on regions in the country's periphery and as attempted leverage to get concessions from the West. It wants to try to pressure various Western states to expel Iranian exile and dissident groups and will claim that these groups are "terrorists." It is part of Iran's narrative over the nuclear deal, using carrots and sticks to threaten European governments over staying in the JCPOA even as those governments seek to comply with US sanctions. Iran will use the attack in an attempt to gain sympathy and shine a light on Western support for "terrorism" as a way to illustrate what Tehran sees as hypocrisy in Washington's assertion that Iran supports terrorism.
The details of the mass killing in Ahvaz, including the planning of the attack to coincide with the Iraq-Iran war anniversary, have already been lost in Tehran's narrative. In fact, the attack appears to have been a well-planned operation, targeting a major symbol of Iran's victory parade, and seeking to show that the IRGC is not safe in the border regions of Iran. That narrative – that Iran is unable to provide security for its own Revolutionary Guard soldiers – is not one Tehran wants its enemies to learn.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.