The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday, claimed by ISIL (ISIS, or Daesh), quickly became a Rorschach test in which observers saw what they wanted to see. President Trump immediately blamed the victims. The hard-liners in Iran blamed the Saudi Arabian royal family. ISIL uses terror to set people against one another, so by that standard, its assault on the Iranian parliament and on visitors to a shrine to Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, may prove to have been much more successful than its recent strikes in the United Kingdom.
The assaults came after Iran’s successful presidential election, won by the centrist incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who is seeking better relations with the West. President Trump managed to blame the victims, issuing a statement that said: “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” but then adding, “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” He would have been better off saying nothing, from a diplomatic point of view.
Washington demonizes Iran as a supporter of terrorist groups because of its backing for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has primarily functioned as a national liberation movement and more recently has fought Al Qaeda and ISIL (as well as some less radical rebel groups) in Syria. None of the terrorist assaults in the United States or Western Europe in recent years have been linked to Iran. Also on Wednesday, the US Senate voted to place more stringent sanctions on Iran.
The militants launched two simultaneous operations, an old Al Qaeda trademark. In Tehran, four gunmen slipped into the Iranian parliament building and opened fire. One of them appears to have detonated a belt bomb. Iranian security forces killed all four of these attackers. At the other site, two assailants, one of whom set off a bomb, targeted pilgrims to the shrine of Khomeini, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The death toll rose on Thursday to 17, with over 50 wounded.
ISIL issued a video of the strike on the parliament, in which one of the operatives could be heard saying in Arabic, “Praise be to you, Lord!” and then apparently addressing the Iranians, “Do you think we are leaving?” The majority language in Iran is Persian, which is distantly related to English. An official on Iran’s National Security Council is said to have identified the attackers as Iranians of Arab ethnicity. Iran, with a population of some 80 million, has about a million and a half Arab citizens, but about half of them are Shiites. The small Sunni Arab minority has occasionally been restive. More important have been the much larger Kurdish, Baluch, and Turkmen Sunni populations. Sunni Muslims account for some 5–10 percent of the Iranian population.