Iran blames US, Israel and Gulf states for attack that killed 25, despite competing claims of responsibility and an apparent lack of hard evidence
The pomp on display at a parade of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the southwestern town of Ahvaz on Saturday was pierced by bullets as the spectacle came under attack, sending soldiers and spectators ducking to the ground.
Ahwazi Democratic Popular Front, an Ahvazi separatist group from the mostly Arab-speaking region bordering Iraq, were initially blamed for killing 25 people. They denied responsibility.
The attack was then claimed by another Ahvazi group, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, and the Islamic State group also claimed involvement. But the Iranian government has directed its anger outwards, blaming the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"You will see that our response will be crushing and devastating and you will regret what you have done," said Hossein Salami, deputy head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, promising revenge as "death to Israel and America" was chanted at the funerals of the victims.
According to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, support was filtered from the US to "puppet" Gulf states down to armed opposition groups within Iran.
The competing claims and blame have only clouded understanding of who was responsible for the attack but Iran's anger at the US has come after long-term American support for anti-government groups has shifted towards more open hostility, with members of Donald Trump's administration supporting regime change.
Our response will be crushing and devastating and you will regret what you have done
- Hossein Salami, Revolutionary Guards
"Though the Iranian government is inherently paranoid, US administrations have in the past discussed and funded groups opposed to the Iranian government," said Holly Dagres, non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, highlighting $10 million handed to anti-government groups by the State Department following the passing of the 2006 Iran Freedom Support Act during George W. Bush's presidency.
On Saturday, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani promised the Iranian government's removal at an opposition conference in New York that involved the controversial dissident group Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), which has been described as a cult and accused of deadly attacks in Iran.
“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years, but it’s going to happen," said Giuliani, noting the impact of US sanctions on the Iranian currency and economy.
Iranian concerns about US interference are linked more to John Bolton, currently US President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser who spoke in support of MEK as an alternative to the Iranian government at the group's annual conference in 2017.
"The Iranian government views John Bolton with suspicion, as he has on numerous occasions not only publicly advocated for the bombing of Iran, but regime change," said Dagres, highlighting also Bolton's writing for conservative website National Review before he joined Trump's government.
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In an August 2017 article, Bolton proposed one of the ways the US could pressure Iran would be through supporting ethnic minorities like Kurds, Balochis and the Arabs of Khuzestan - the wider province Ahvaz is capital of.
"So the Iranian government's claims aren't necessarily unfounded. Although Israel is just being thrown in because of the special relations the two countries share," said Dagres.
The Gulf neighbours Rouhani accused of being behind Saturday's attack have for years now been locked in hostilities with Iran, accusing the country of trying to establish dominance over the region by supporting Shia allies elsewhere. Iran accuses Saudi Arabia and the UAE of doing the same in Khuzestan.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman angered Iran in May 2017 when he warned: “We will not wait until the battle becomes in Saudi Arabia but we will work to have the battle in Iran rather than in Saudi Arabia.”
10 قتلى عسكريون في هجوم على عرض عسكري بمدينة الأهواز جنوب غربي إيران. الهجوم على هدف عسكري ليس بعمل ارهابي ونقل المعركة الى العمق الايراني خيار معلن وسيزداد خلال المرحلة القادمة.
— Abdulkhaleq Abdulla (@Abdulkhaleq_UAE) September 22, 2018
Translation: 10 military deaths in an attack on an Iranian military parade in the city of Ahvaz in southwestern Iran. Attacks on military targets are not terrorist acts and moving the battle deep inside Iran is a declared option and will be increased in the coming stages
That sentiment was expanded on by prominent Emirati political scientist Abdulkhalek Abdulla after the attack, when he said targeting the Iranian military was not a terrorist attack and that similar events could increase in the future.
The statements being made by Iran's leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on Monday, have all reinforced the idea that regardless of which group carried out the attack, the support came from further abroad.
"The cowardly attack was carried out by the same people who, whenever trapped in Syria or Iraq, the US comes to save them," said Khamenei in a possible reference IS claims of responsibility.
"They are funded by Saudi and UAE regimes.”
Iranian military officials have accused the US on a number of previous occasions of supporting IS, including in the aftermath of an IS-claimed gun and bomb attack targeting the Iranian parliament in June 2017, and in Afghanistan, but without providing specific details.
In a rare comment on those allegations, John Bass, the US ambassador in Afghanistan, told a news conference: "Let me take this opportunity, since these rumours continue to circulate, to emphatically state that the United States has not brought Daesh [an Arabic acronym for IS] to Afghanistan. The United States has not ever supported Daesh, its creation, its horrible attacks in any form, or fashion."