Can Iran be walled in by assassinations and explosions?

Escalation in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Red Sea spark fears of regional war

Paramedics carry a man injured at an event marking the fourth anniversary of the killing of Qassem Suleimani in Kerman, Iran. AFP
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The twin explosions that killed nearly 100 in Iran, the assassination of a senior commander in Syria and the strikes in Beirut and Baghdad are all apparent attempts to wall Tehran in or even drag it into an open confrontation with its main foes in the region, the US and Israel.

The explosions in the city of Kerman targeted a gathering of thousands of mourners commemorating the fourth anniversary of the death of Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Suleimani, the architect of the Islamic Republic's mighty Axis of Resistance, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad in 2020.

“Iran, after many weeks of apparent restraint, is feeling the heat and seeing that there is an uptick in attacks against the Axis of Resistance,” a source close to Hezbollah in Beirut told The National on Thursday.

The so-called Axis of Resistance is a Tehran-backed network that encompasses militant groups in Palestine, Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian government.

ISIS on Thursday claimed responsibility for the bombings in a statement on Telegram. The group said two of its members had “activated their explosives vests” at a gathering near the grave in the southern city of Kerman.

Iran had accused Israel and the US of being behind the attacks.

Mohammad Jamshidi, senior adviser to Iran’s President, said: “The responsibility for this crime lies with the US and Zionist regimes and terrorism is just a tool.”

An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on the explosions, while US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said any suggestion of American involvement was “ridiculous” and that Washington had “no reason to believe that Israel was involved”.

The attack happened days after the killing of Brig Gen Razi Mousavi, a senior military adviser in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria. Iran has accused Israel of being behind the attack and vowed to retaliate.

It also came hours after an Israeli strike killed Saleh Al Arouri, the Iran-backed Hamas deputy leader in Beirut, followed by a strike on Thursday in eastern Baghdad that killed three militants allied with Tehran.

“There will be retaliation, but maybe not immediately,” Vali Nasr, a professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, wrote on X, adding that Iran “knows that it is being baited into a war that could involve US”.

Paramilitary troops backed by Tehran have escalated attacks across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen since Israel struck back against Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union, infiltrated Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people and kidnapping another 240.

More than 100 hostages remain in Gaza.

Escalation mounted recently as US troops and Iraqi Shiite militias increased their tit-for-tat attacks. Both Iran and Hezbollah have accused Israel of killing Al Arouri in the Lebanese capital.

In Yemen, the Houthi group has also increased attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, which have disrupted global commerce and triggered a build-up of western naval power in the area.

With Kerman explosions, the assassination of Al Arouri and a senior IRGC commander in Syria, and Thursday’s strike in Baghdad “Iran now feels obliged to answer with a different tone”, explained the source close to Hezbollah.

Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based think tank, agrees.

“Thus far, Iran has only responded indirectly to Israel”, Mr Parsi said.

“But as Israel's attacks continue, Tehran's long-game strategy is coming under increasing strain as more voices in Iran argue that the absence of a strong response undermines Iran's deterrence,” he added.

“This is a very dangerous moment,” he warned, “A region-wide war appears more likely by the day”.

Updated: January 04, 2024, 5:09 PM