The Kerman blasts show how much the Middle East is unravelling

With multiple conflicts afflicting the region, de-escalation is an urgent priority

The aftermath of the two explosions that rocked the southern Iranian city of Kerman on Wednesday. AFP
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The Jabalieh Dome, a magnificent stone rotunda of ancient and mysterious provenance, has long drawn visitors to the south-eastern Iranian city of Kerman. However, since 2020, when the body of the prolific Iranian general Qassem Suleimani was buried a kilometre away, it has become a mere side attraction. Suleimani, who was the most powerful figure in Iran’s security apparatus at the time of his death, is so highly regarded that his burial site attracts thousands of mourners each year.

Now, the stretch of road between Suleimani’s tomb and the dome will be known for the tragedy that transpired there on Wednesday, the fourth anniversary of his death, when twin explosions killed nearly 100 people, many of them visiting mourners. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on Iranian soil since the country’s 1979 revolution.

When Suleimani was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad four years ago, it seemed as though the entire Middle East stood still. Everyone – including Iran’s own government – feared that even the slightest counter could set the whole region ablaze. That almost happened a few days afterwards, when an Iranian missile operator near Tehran erroneously downed a commercial aircraft he mistook for a hostile warplane, killing 176 people.

In the end, no new war broke out after the killing of Suleimani, although existing ones very much continued. In that incredibly tense atmosphere, cooler heads prevailed.

The hope is that a similar outcome awaits the region at the end of this week. The blasts in Kerman happened amid a particularly volatile time in the Middle East. Israel’s increasingly horrific invasion of Gaza, sparked by a brutal attack carried out by Hamas on October 7, has claimed 22,000 Palestinian lives. A day before the attack in Kerman, what appeared to be an Israeli drone strike in the Lebanese capital killed Saleh Al Arouri, a Hamas official particularly close to the Iranian government.

It is unsurprising many in Iran have pointed the finger for Wednesday’s bombings at Israel, given that country’s special status in Iranian propaganda. As we wrote in these pages, the Israeli government’s killing of Mr Al Arouri did it no favours; it signalled the country’s willingness to expand its war deep into other countries, giving fuel to critics’ worst suspicions.

Nonetheless, there are other potential culprits. Chief among them, based on capability and modus operandi, is ISKP, the branch of ISIS based in neighbouring Afghanistan. Last night, ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings.

The blasts in Kerman happened amid a particularly volatile time in the Middle East

If that is the case, it will be a reminder that instability is spreading as much in the region’s eastern deserts as it is on its Mediterranean shore. The international community’s failures in finding a way to engage constructively with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, to whom it unceremoniously abandoned the country in 2021, has not only given opportunity to groups like ISIS, but brought greater volatility to the Afghan-Iranian border area. The Taliban and Iran have occasionally found areas of mutual interest (fighting ISKP, which frequently attacks the Taliban, may be one of them now), but their shared history is coloured more by violence than co-operation. Suleimani himself made his reputation in Iran’s military in part by planning operations against Afghan militants, including the Taliban.

Taking the Middle East from where it is now to a calmer place is not a matter of rolling back the clock. The enormous damage done in the past three months cannot be undone.

Even so, regional governments and the international community should make it the highest priority now not to fan any flames. A US drone strike on Iran-backed militias in Baghdad on Thursday indicates this will be difficult. But efforts at methodical diplomacy and de-escalation are worth making in earnest. A durable solution in at least one of these many conflicts plaguing the region can encourage more of the same in others.

Published: January 05, 2024, 3:00 AM