This picture shows people and Iranian emergency personnel at the site where two explosions in quick succession struck a crowd marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Guards general Qasem Soleimani, near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque in the southern city of Kerman, Iran, Jan. 3, 2024. (AFP Photo)

Terror attack in Iran deepens security crisis in Middle East

On Jan. 4, Tehran Times, an international newspaper of Iran, described Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by the United States in Iraq, as the “architect” of the new regional geometry in the Middle East. On the same day, a terrorist attack occurred in Kerman, Iran, killing more than 100 civilians.

On Jan. 4, Tehran Times, an international newspaper of Iran, described Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by the United States in Iraq, as the “architect” of the new regional geometry in the Middle East. On the same day, a terrorist attack occurred in Kerman, Iran, killing more than 100 civilians.

The attack, coinciding with the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s death and near his tomb, holds significant symbolic meaning. Iran, traditionally relying on a militarized security doctrine beyond its borders, is now confronting a substantial security crisis of its own. The timing of the attack, on the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, a prominent figure in Iran’s proxy wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, adds to its symbolism. However, it is impossible to dissociate the terrorist attack in Kerman from the new security crisis in the Middle East after Oct. 7.

A new regional escalation

After Oct. 7, two processes are unfolding simultaneously in the Middle East. On the one hand, the regional security crisis caused by Israel’s war in Gaza has led to a conflictual security environment in the region. On the other hand, regional normalization continues, albeit at a slower pace. In this conflictual environment, three states – Iran, the U.S. and Israel – are increasingly engaged in a conflictual rivalry.

Although Iran does not accept responsibility for the Oct. 7 attack, it is using the Gaza war as an opportunity to reassert its regional influence. It is utilizing Lebanese Hezbollah as a card in the Gaza war, its proxy forces in Iraq and Syria against the U.S., and the Houthis in Yemen against international trade to end Israel’s ongoing military aggressiveness in Gaza. The recent low-intensity conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon and the attacks on U.S. military presence and bases in Syria and Iraq in the last three months cannot be separated from Iran’s influence on these nonstate military groups. The targeting of U.S. and international maritime trade by the Houthis in Yemen in the Bab al-Mandeb strait indicates that the Gaza war is a mobilization on the resistance front for Iran.

On the one hand, Iran has endeavored to end the Gaza war through regional diplomacy, but it has not deterred Israel from the war and has not yet succeeded in stopping it. The Lebanese Hezbollah has not been able to create a deterrent position against Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon and has hesitated to get involved in the conflict. Attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq, on the other hand, did not diminish U.S. military and political support for Israel, with Washington both responding and insisting on providing Israel with a security umbrella.

The U.S. responded to the Houthi attacks by targeting the group known as Ansarullah. After Israel targeted Zaid Reza Mousavi, a senior Iranian commander in Syria, and then Saleh Arouri, a senior Hamas leader in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, Iran was unable to formulate a deterrent military response against Israel. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah’s emphasis that they would not get involved in the conflict after the Israeli attack in Beirut showed that Iran’s deterrence through proxy elements did not work.

At this point, it is understood that Iran does not consider it appropriate to open a new front against Israel through proxy elements and that the U.S. or Israel’s military response in such a scenario would weaken Iran’s proxy elements.

Who wants what?

A terrorist attack in Iran could trigger a regional escalation of the Gaza war and turn Israeli-Iranian tensions into a regional conflict involving the U.S. Several important reasons could lead to this.

The first is Israel’s policy toward the attacks on Oct. 7, which is not limited to Gaza. Israel’s targeting of a senior leader of Hamas in Beirut and its attacks on Iran’s proxies in Syria are aimed at forcing Iran and Hezbollah to take action, creating a spiral of military conflict into which the U.S. is drawn, and thus dragging Hezbollah beyond the borderline, weakening Iran and creating the dynamics that will ensure the complete evacuation of Gaza. In other words, by keeping the U.S. busy with military actors who can use military force against Israel, Israel wants to concentrate on its main goal of completely evacuating Gaza.

Another important point is Israel’s announcement that it will target those responsible for the Oct. 7 attacks through intelligence operations in countries such as Türkiye and Qatar. The statements of the head of Israel’s domestic secret service in this direction are one of the most important signals proving this approach. Türkiye’s disclosure of Israel’s possible intelligence operation should also be understood as one of the indicators that Israel will try to implement this policy in the countries of the region, including Türkiye.

The second important issue is how Iran will respond to the terrorist attack in Kerman. In a condolence message, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that as of today, the perpetrators and those behind the incident have become the “definite target” of just punishment and that this act will not go unanswered. The IRNA news agency, known to be close to the Iranian Presidency, published the speeches of the commander of the current Quds Force, Ismail Qaani. In his speech, Qaani stated that the perpetrators of the act were supported by the U.S. and Israel. If Tehran holds Israel responsible for the attacks, it may want to open a new front from the south of Lebanon by responding to Israel through Hezbollah. Another option is to try to target U.S. military bases in Iraq to create a deterrent against the U.S. It is also possible that the Houthis in Yemen could increase their military activity in the Red Sea and completely destabilize maritime trade.

However, it is understood that Iran does not want to confront the U.S. militarily for the time being. Therefore, it seems probable that Iran will deal with the terrorist attack through the organizations that conflict with Iran. However, this does not mean that Iran will abandon its current security policy.

The third important point is that after the U.S. intensifies its military operations against the Houthis, the Houthis may launch more comprehensive and intensive attacks, and the crisis may move to Yemen. The realization of such a scenario may prompt Iran to respond more harshly, and the conflict may turn into a conflict between Iran and the U.S. This would pave the way for simultaneous conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, which could lead to a wider regional war in the Middle East.

The terrorist attack in Iran and the ongoing tensions in Gaza have the potential to trigger broader regional conflicts involving multiple countries and non-state armed actors. This could lead to a complex and multilayered regional war, affecting a vast geographical area from Lebanon to Yemen.

[Daily Sabah, January 4, 2024]

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