Iran Says Attackers Fought for Islamic State in Regional Wars

  • Revolutionary Guards link violence to Trump visit to Saudi
  • Attack comes amid escalating tensions over Qatar, Syria

Perpetrators of the twin attacks in Tehran were recruited inside Iran by Islamic State and fought in both Iraq and Syria, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry said on Thursday.

Five assailants who died in the attacks “had ties to Wahhabi groups,” the ministry said in a statement published by Fars news agency, referring to the austere form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.  After joining Islamic State they left Iran and “took part in operations in Mosul and Raqqa,” according to the statement, which withheld the attackers’ surnames citing security reasons.

A sixth assailant -- a female -- was caught alive and is being interrogated, Tasnim news agency reported, citing the chairman of parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi. The jihadist group had claimed responsibility for the attacks shortly after they occurred on Wednesday.

The linkage to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch regional foe, was not the first. Shortly after Islamic State claimed the gun and suicide-bomb rampage at the parliament building in Tehran and the shrine of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards hinted that the attack came soon after President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, without identifying it by name.

Those comments -- along with Iran’s vow to avenge the 17 killed -- threatened to escalate the feud that’s divided the oil-rich Gulf region into increasingly hostile camps and fueled several of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts. But Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi on Thursday advised against rushing to conclusions while the investigation continued.

The “fingerprints of Saudi Arabia are visible when it comes to backing terrorists in Syria and Iraq,” he said in a report published by the Iranian Students News Agency. “But in this case, because we don’t want to make comments that aren’t backed by facts, it’s too soon to say whether it came from Saudi.”

Police officers stand outside Iran’s parliament building in Tehran, following the attack on June 7.

Photographer: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The contest for regional dominance between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s main Sunni power, spread to the heart of the Gulf this week as the Saudis led a drive to isolate Qatar, condemning their neighbor for its ties with Iran and accusing it of financing militant groups, a charge Qatar denies. Trump -- who used a visit to Riyadh last month month to rally support for Iran’s isolation -- has endorsed the Saudi pressure while other U.S. officials appealed for calm.

In offering condolences to the people of Iran after the attacks, Trump warned that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Thursday slammed Trump’s comments as “repugnant,” and linked the violence to the president’s meetings in Saudi Arabia. “Iranian people reject such U.S. claims of friendship,” Zarif said on Twitter.

Strains between Iran and the U.S. have deepened since Trump took office in January, slapping new sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its ballistic missile program and ratcheting up the rhetoric against it.

Read More: Islamic State Is Losing the Battle, Maybe Not the War: QuickTake.

Wednesday’s attack “adds to cross-Gulf tensions that already had been elevated by the Trump trip -- in which anti-Iranism was a principal theme -- and by the Iran angle in the actions taken against Qatar,” said Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and former CIA officer.

Iran has denounced the Saudi-orchestrated campaign against Qatar. It offered to help the country by re-routing flights that have been shut out of Saudi and U.A.E. airspace, and shipping food that can no longer be imported via the land border.

Saudi and Iranian leaders accuse each other of sponsoring militant groups. The Saudis point to Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, while Iran says Saudi preachers and financial support aided the rise of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

Those accusations will resonate among Iranians after Wednesday’s violence, according to Amir Handjani, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council based in Dubai.

“Rightly or wrongly, the perception inside Iran is going to be that Saudi Arabia is behind the attack,” said Handjani. He referred to comments last month by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who accused Tehran of wanting to “control the Muslim world” and said the conflict should happen “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Iranians will likely “view this as an attempt to test and weaken Iran, to show that they are vulnerable inside their borders,” Handjani said.

— With assistance by Nour Al Ali, Greg Sullivan, Dana Khraiche, and Golnar Motevalli

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