- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Brazen terrorist attacks against Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic republic’s founding ayatollah escalated tensions across the Middle East on Wednesday, with Iranian officials quickly blaming rival Saudi Arabia, even though the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the strikes that left 12 dead and more than 40 wounded in Tehran.

The violence, which prompted swift condemnations from the U.N. Security Council and governments around the world, marked the first time the Islamic State — or any other Salafi Sunni organization, including al Qaeda — has struck so deeply inside Iran, the region’s Shiite Muslim powerhouse.

Hard-liners within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps swiftly put the blame on Saudi Arabia, insinuating that the Sunni kingdom had a role in the shootings and suicide bombings, which rocked parliament in downtown Tehran and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shrine, a cherished rallying point for Shiites on the city’s outskirts.

In a statement just hours after the attacks, the IRGC also drew an indirect line to Washington, suggesting that President Trump’s decision to make his first official foreign visit to Saudi Arabia last month had emboldened Riyadh to encourage terrorist groups to target Iran.

Saudi-Iranian friction has intensified since Mr. Trump took office in January. The threat from Iran was a key focus of Mr. Trump’s summit with 50 Muslim government leaders in Riyadh.

The Saudis, who vehemently deny backing the Islamic State or any other Sunni terrorist groups, took the lead this week in a drive to ostracize Qatar, largely because of its natural gas dealings and generally positive political relations with Iran.

On a visit to Germany on Wednesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said there was no evidence that his country played any role in the attacks on Iran.

“We condemn terrorist attacks anywhere they occur, and we condemn the killing of the innocent anywhere it occurs,” Mr. al-Jubeir said at an event hosted by the think tank of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, according to the Reuters news agency.

“We don’t know this. We haven’t seen the evidence,” he said, repeating Riyadh’s long-standing charge that Iran is the primary sponsor of terrorism around the world.

The Trump administration expressed sympathy for the “innocent victims” of the attack, but a presidential statement released by the White House on Wednesday evening suggested that Iran, which the U.S. considers a state sponsor of terrorism, bore at least a share of the blame for the violence that hit its capital.

“We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” Mr. Trump said in his statement. An earlier State Department statement had merely expressed sympathy for the victims without referring to Iran’s record on terrorism.

Iran targeted

During the chaos, suicide bombers and gunmen stormed Iran’s parliament building and opened fire on Iranian lawmakers. The three-hour siege ended when security forces killed the gunmen, but not before one suicide bomber detonated his vest.

A separate team wielding AK-47s rushed the Khomeini shrine, which honors the Shiite imam and politician who sparked Iran’s 1979 revolution. Gunmen wounded worshippers at the shrine before they were killed by security forces.

Within hours, the Islamic State claimed responsibility in a statement circulated online via the Amaq news agency, the terrorist group’s main propaganda arm. The Islamic State also circulated a video clip of the parliament attack, accompanied by a statement saying, “Do you think we will leave? We will remain, God willing,” according to The Associated Press.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, downplayed the attacks, saying they would have no effect on the country or its position in the region.

“The Iranian nation is moving ahead, and the fumbling with firecrackers performed today will leave no impact on people’s willpower,” he said in a speech to the nation. “Everyone should know that they are too little to be able to influence the willpower of the Iranian nation and the country’s officials.

“God willing, they will bite the dust,” Ayatollah Khamenei added, according to state media.

But the hard-line IRGC, which reports directly to the supreme leader, issued a much more aggressive response, tying the attacks to the Saudis and to Mr. Trump’s recent Riyadh visit.

“The Iranian nation sees this terrorist action that happened a week after the joint meeting of the U.S. president with the heads of one of the reactionary regional states that has constantly been supporting Takfiri terrorists as to be very meaningful, and believes that [Islamic State’s] acknowledging the responsibility indicates their complicity in this wild move,” the statement said.

The IRGC vowed “not to leave unanswered the shedding of innocent blood.”

Tehran’s strong internal security controls and the limited appeal of the Islamic State in Persian-speaking Iran had made it difficult for the terrorist group to mount operations inside Iran. Tehran’s police chief told the semi-official ISNA news agency that five suspects were detained after the dual attacks, according to AP.

Gen. Hossein Sajedinia said Wednesday night that police are interrogating the suspects. He did not elaborate but said Tehran is safe and police and other security forces are deployed and closely monitoring the capital.

Widening battle of wills

The attack could exacerbate an already tense battle of wills across the region.

“Iranians believe there has been a lot of provocation, but they’ve been very restrained so far vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia,” said Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council. “Now the nation’s leaders are going to be under a lot of pressure from the Iranian public to respond in some way.”

Mr. Parsi said aggressive statements by Saudi leaders have “created a context in which the IRGC can convince the Iranian public not only that the Saudis were connected to Wednesday’s attack, but that the U.S. is also connected,” even if there may not be any evidence for such.

Other regional analysts predicted that the attacks could open the door to more aggressive actions by Iranian proxy forces, particularly those fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Iran-backed Shiite paramilitaries known as the Popular Mobilization Units have played a key role in the ongoing assault on the Islamic State’s redoubt of Mosul.

With the Mosul operation expected to wrap up within weeks, significant elements of the PMUs could move across the border into Syria to take on the Islamic State there, said David Pollock, a senior Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They are already there in great numbers,” Mr. Pollock said Wednesday during a symposium sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, noting Iran-supplied forces advising and fighting alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Iranian paramilitaries fought alongside regime forces against moderate rebels for most of the 6-year-old Syrian civil war. Earlier this year, with the support of a blistering Russian aerial assault, Iranian and regime forces were able to retake the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, which had been under opposition control for four years.

Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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