Two explosions killed at least 84 people in southern Iran on Wednesday at a memorial event for a senior Iranian general killed in a 2020 U.S. drone strike, ramping up tensions in a region already on edge.
The first of two blasts hit around 2,300 feet from the tomb of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in the Kerman Martyrs Cemetery, the semiofficial news agency ISNA reported. It added that the second explosion was around 2,000 feet away.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts — which injured more than 210 people in one of the worst attacks in the Islamic Republic’s history.
The U.S. does not believe Israel was behind the attack, according to four current and former U.S. officials. The U.S. was also not responsible, two of the officials said.
Still, Iran is blaming Israel for the attacks with a senior member of parliament saying the blasts bear all the hallmarks of a Mossad attack. Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi claims that the attack was the work of American and Israeli operatives.
An earlier death toll of around 100 people was revised after officials realized that some names were being counted twice, Iran’s health minister, Bahram Einollahi, told state TV. The number was again revised downward from 95 to 84 on Thursday morning, state media reported.
Soleimani, who grew up in Kerman, the regional capital of a province of the same name, was killed in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.
At the time of his death, Soleimani was among the country’s most powerful men as the leader of Iran’s secretive Quds Force, part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, tasked with protecting and advancing his country’s interests in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
Some Iranian officials were quick to denounce Wednesday’s explosions as “terrorist attacks,” but uncertainty surrounded the incident in a country where information is closely controlled by the ruling theocratic regime.
The semiofficial Fars news agency reported that three policemen were among the dead.
Rahman Jalali, Kerman’s deputy governor for security, told the state-run IRNA news agency that the explosions were “carried out by terrorists.” The semiofficial Tasnim news agency said the blasts were caused by two explosives-laden suitcases.
“The nation of Iran is in mourning, and many families mourned the death their loved ones,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “The hard-hearted criminals could not tolerate the love and enthusiasm of the people to visit the shrine of their great commander Qassem Soleimani.” Khamenei did not call out the “criminals” by name in his statement to IRNA.
A U.S. official and counterterrorism expert said the blasts appeared to be a relatively unsophisticated but lethal attack and the Islamic State group would have to be seen as a possible culprit given the militants’ long-running conflict with Tehran.
In October 2022, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a shooting attack at a Shiite shrine in the Iranian city of Shiraz that reportedly killed 15 civilians, and the Iranian regime has said it has foiled other plots by the group.
The reported details of the attack suggest “the operation was not a state-sponsored operation as these avoid civilian casualties and are focused against specific actors or facilities,” said Norman Roule, who served for 34 years in the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Instead, those behind this operation demonstrated unsophisticated tradecraft, lacked a capability to place explosives close to the ceremony, and sought to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible,” said Roule, who oversaw intelligence related to Iran during his career.“
Although a number of potential candidates come to mind, the attack does look like the work of the Islamic State’s Wilayet Khorasan or perhaps the Baluch group Jaish al-Adl. Both groups have engaged in high-profile mass casualty attacks against Iran in the past,” said Roule, now a senior advisor to United Against Nuclear Iran, a nonprofit that focuses on “threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
These militant groups have waged yearslong terror campaigns against Tehran that are motivated by their own political and religious differences with Iran, he said.
Iranians have gathered at the cemetery to commemorate Soleimani every year since his death, which was directed by then-President Donald Trump and sparked angry protests in Iran and Iraq, with many calling for revenge on the U.S.
It was unclear whether Wednesday’s blasts had any relation to the Israel-Hamas war, but they come at a time of heightened tensions across the Middle East.
Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri was killed in a reported drone strike in Beirut on Tuesday, a blast that fueled fears of broader regional escalation as Israel and others face off with Iran-backed groups.
Al-Arouri, the commander of Hamas’ military wing in the occupied West Bank and deputy chairman of the group’s political bureau, was a key figure who had helped repair Hamas’ relations with Iran. He had been in Israel’s crosshairs before the current conflict began.
Hamas and the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah laid blame for the strike on Israel. Israeli officials declined to comment.
Hamas condemned the bombings in Iran in a statement Wednesday, calling them a “criminal attack in the city of Kerman.”
Israel has a history of hunting down its enemies, including Hamas leaders. It has been engaged in a “shadow war” with Tehran that has involved targeted assassinations and attacks against Iran’s nuclear program, but not mass casualty bombings.
Mass protests in recent years, including those over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in 2022, have rocked Iran, and the country also has been targeted by exile groups in attacks dating to the turmoil surrounding its 1979 Islamic Revolution.