Tehran, Iran – In the week since the attack in Ahvaz in Western Iran, religious, military and civilian leaders have carried out a coordinated public campaign to apply blame.
It culminated in a sermon at Friday prayers by one of the most powerful men in the country. From a pulpit normally reserved for Islamic leaders, a man in uniform took aim at the United States, Israel and their Gulf Allies.
“I am telling the regime of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who are the main perpetrators behind the sinister actions in our country and wish to bring insecurity into our territories, that you will not succeed in your attempts,” said Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the second-in-command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
He added: “If you cross our red lines, we will definitely cross yours.”
It was a speech designed to fire people up for the government-approved public protest that followed.
Worshippers poured into the street outside Tehran University, to collect signs and chant along to the voice coming from truck mounted speakers. For an hour, hundreds of men, women and children, convinced of who to blame for the Ahvaz attack, filled a Tehran city block.
“The incident was funded by Saudi Arabia, planned by America, with Israeli support,” said a man who identified himself only as Mousavi.
A woman holding a sign calling for the downfall of Israel said, “America, it was done by America, the great Satan.”
There is concern in Tehran, that pointing the finger at any number of outside threats takes focus away from dealing with more immediate ones, like violent separatist groups and drug traffickers operating along Iran’s eastern borders, where gun-battles with police are relatively routine.
In the days after the attack, the intelligence ministry said a network of suspects was in custody. All signs, investigators said, pointed to Ahwazi separatists. While one group claimed the attack, another denied it.
ISIL also claimed the attack and released videos of the men they said carried it out. But Iranian leaders have remained vague about the exact identity of the attackers.
Politics and security
At the North Tehran home of a former revolutionary guard commander, rotary phones and cassette tape players add to the retro look of a basement office; a throwback to a time when the US and Iran first became enemies.
Hossein Kanani Moghadam points to a fading photograph on the wall behind him. He and other battlefield commanders fighting in the Iraq war are pictured meeting with Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Kanai Moghadam and people from his generation are now important influences on Iran’s government. They often blame coordinated conspiracies for unrest in their country.
“Based on our experience in Iraq and Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen, we know that there is a war room, with Israeli officers, Americans and Arab countries, and this war room is guiding [attackers],” Kanai Moghadam said, adding, “Different opposition groups are present in this room.”
Pressed for proof, he hints at confessions from battlefield prisoners and material evidence collected during police raids that confirm the narrative that all of Iran’s enemies are ganging up on his country.
“Yes we have some information,” he says, adding “but they are confidential and could not be published.”
The US in Iran
Public information is tightly controlled in Iran and strict reporting restrictions mean independently verifying official versions of events is often impossible. Claims of conspiracy are easily written off as government paranoia.
But there may be some truth to the worry of American-backed assets actively working in Iran.
US and Saudi officials have expressed strong public support for groups Iran considers terrorist organizations. Worst among them is the Mujahideen-E-Khalq or MEK. They’ve also openly called for destabilizing the Iranian government. Taken together, claims like Kanai Moghadam’s seem more believable.
“I would say the number one [national security threat to Iran] is the United States,” said Hamed Mousavi, a professor of political science at Tehran university. “The Americans have a very powerful army, they have a history of attacking countries in the Middle East and I think that is understood very well in Iranian military circles … the major national security threat to Iran is the United States.”
Mousavi also said, US President Donald Trump’s administration has been exerting immense psychological pressure on Iran through American sanctions and what Iranian leaders have said is “economic warfare.”
Whereas talking to previous American administrations was possible, Mousavi said, Iran’s elite see Trump’s demands as extreme and illogical and talks never resulting in conclusive or reliable agreements.
But the the fear of a military confrontation with the Trump administration is real. In Tehran, the strategy now is to maintain a basic level of stability until he is out of the White House.
“Some people in Iran hope that when there are elections in November in the United States, if Democrats come to power in the House or in the Senate or both, this could help in regards to making sure that measures like military confrontation is taken off the table,” said Foad Izadi, a Tehran-based political analyst.
“I think most Americans, based on public opinion polls, don’t want to have a military confrontation with Iran and the people that they send to Congress could have an impact on that.”