Iran denounced President Donald Trump’s response to twin attacks in Tehran as “repugnant,” and linked the violence claimed by Islamic State to the U.S. president’s visit to arch-nemesis Saudi Arabia.
Trump capped his statement of condolence to the Iranian people on Wednesday with the warning that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed the “repugant” White House statement in a Twitter post on Thursday, adding, “Iranian people reject such U.S. claims of friendship.”
Strains between Iran and the U.S. have deepened since Trump took office in January, slapping new sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its ballistic missile program and ratcheting up the rhetoric against it. In his first foreign trip as president to Saudi Arabia last month, he called for a united front against Iran and jihadist groups such as Islamic State.
Islamic State said it carried out the suicide-bomb and gun attacks that killed at least 12 people at Iran’s parliament and the shrine of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a site of political and religious importance for Iran’s Shiite Muslim population. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps promised retribution for the “innocent blood spilled” in the first such strike by the jihadists in Iran, and noted that the violence came soon after Trump met with “leaders of a reactionary government in the region which supports terrorists” -- an apparent reference to the Saudis.
The contest for regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s main Sunni power, has helped fuel wars in Syria and Yemen. It spread to the heart of the Gulf this week as the Saudis led a drive to isolate Qatar, condemning their neighbor for its ties with Iran and accusing it of financing militant groups, a charge Qatar denies. Trump endorsed the Saudi pressure while other U.S. officials appealed for calm.
Iran’s hint that it may hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the violence in Tehran risked an escalation of the feud that’s divided the oil-rich Gulf region into increasingly hostile camps.
Wednesday’s attack “adds to cross-Gulf tensions that already had been elevated by the Trump trip -- in which anti-Iranism was a principal theme -- and by the Iran angle in the actions taken against Qatar,” said Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and former CIA officer.
Iran has condemned the Saudi-orchestrated campaign against Qatar. It offered to help the country by re-routing flights that have been shut out of Saudi and U.A.E. airspace, and shipping food that can no longer be imported via the land border.
Saudi and Iranian leaders accuse each other of sponsoring militant groups. The Saudis point to Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, while Iran says Saudi preachers and financial support aided the rise of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Those accusations, made over the years, will resonate among Iranians after Wednesday’s violence, said Amir Handjani, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council based in Dubai.
“Rightly or wrongly, the perception inside Iran is going to be that Saudi Arabia is behind the attack,” said Handjani. He referred to comments last month by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who accused Tehran of wanting to “control the Muslim world” and said the conflict should happen “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”
Iranians will likely “view this as an attempt to test and weaken Iran, to show that they are vulnerable inside their borders,” Handjani said.
Iranian security forces and allied militias are battling Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria, where they’ve played a key role in propping up President Bashar al-Assad against Saudi-backed rebels. The U.S. and its local allies are carrying out their own separate offensive against the jihadists in Syria, and clashed with Iranian forces last month.
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