The two deadly suicide attacks in Tehran, at the Parliament and inside the mausoleum of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appeared as the latest in the litany of woes terrorists have brought to the Middle East. It may also mark a whole new chapter in the region.
Iranians, in spite of the political and economic turmoil around them, have so far remained protected from the worst kinds of urban terrorism affecting countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. Until Wednesday's attacks, which killed at least 17, terrorism was something they watched happen on television in Baghdad or London — or on rare occasions have flared along the borders with their troubled neighbors.
Iranian front pages Thursday featured prominent and sometimes graphic photographs of the response by police and soldiers. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, brushed aside the attacks, for which the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, as "firecrackers," and said it would take more than that to cow Iran.
Shargh (Tehran), June 8, 2017
But the public response often differs from the official one, even in Iran, where criticizing the regime is no easy thing. Many Iranians might have wondered in private how a state that controls so much could have let up so dramatically on security, at the parliament of all places.
Writing in Le Monde, Franco-Iranian professor Farhad Khosrokhavar explains that Iran's role in foreign conflicts, particularly in Syria — where it supports Bashar al-Assad's government forces — but also in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Yemen, makes Tehran a "target of choice for jihadist groups, which see it as the main Shia enemy to be eliminated." Interestingly, Khosrokhavar also notes that even among the Iranian population, there are radicalized groups (Sunni Muslims from the drug trafficking hub Balochistan and Kurdish) with enough reasons and resources to carry out such attacks.
Some already have suggested a murkier plot. The Iranian version of Voice of America noted for instance that some Iranians writing on social media expressed doubts that ISIS had truly perpetrated the attacks. An Iranian in France said his first reaction was that this was a "home job." The skeptics cited by VOA include the former reformist lawmaker Jamileh Kadivar, who tweeted that the attackers must have had "inside accomplices."
Who knows where the truth lies? But we live in an age of high-tech rumors and long before alternative facts became fashionable, Iranians already loved rumors as much as they dislike dictatorship.
More prominent were criticisms of the state broadcasting body, which apparently was reluctant to even report the events. It had its head in the sand as one suggested on Twitter. A columnist in the reformist daily Shargh asked whether it was normal for the broadcaster to continue its usual programs — one of them on kindergartens — even as the attacks were unfolding, when CNN and foreign media were all abuzz with Iran?
The other emerging concern is whether or not the attacks will mean more restrictions on Iranians. This is a possibility, as one journalist told the Persian-language Kayhan daily in London. Just two days earlier Tehran had seen various angry gatherings, one outside the parliament, concerning banking and investment fraud.
The authorship of the attack and its consequences are two questions that be looked at together. As the ancient Roman politician Cassius Longinus once said when looking for culprits, we must always ask: Cui bono? In the Middle East, it's getting hard to see if anyone will gain — in the long run, at least.
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