Iranian opposition figures run cover for ISIS-style mass murder
The popular account 1500Tasvir appeared to justify the Islamic State attack that killed at least 103 people outside a cemetery, while Masih Alinejad called it an inside job.
Update: a few hours after this article was published, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Elements of the Iranian opposition used their popular social media platforms to run cover for the perpetrators of a bombing attack that killed at least 103 unarmed civilians in Kerman, an Iranian city. The Islamic State planted a bomb on the road to a cemetery on Wednesday, then exploded a second bomb when rescuers arrived. The victims included children and Red Crescent medic Melika Hosseini.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility more than a day after the attack. While the perpetrators were still unknown, several Iranian opposition figures in exile either cast aspersions on the victims, argued that the Iranian government was the hidden hand behind the attack, or both.
Even before the attack, opposition elements had expressed a growing appetite to justify violence in Iran or otherwise muddy the waters around violent events. (The rapper Hichkas was particularly enthusiastic about this idea.) With regional tensions worsening and the prospect of an Iranian-Israeli war growing, the reactions to the Kerman bombing may be a grim preview of opposition approach to mass civilian casualties.
The opposition information clearinghouse 1500Tasvir, which compiles stories of Iranians killed by their own government, pointedly refused to mourn the victims of the cemetery attack. “These are not our compatriots,” the groups stated on Twitter, citing some of the victims’ pro-government social media posts. “They are bloody enemies and killers of our dearest loved ones.”
Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, meanwhile, hinted that the bombing was an inside job. “This murderous regime has no pity for its own followers,” she wrote in English. “Many Iranians believe that today’s show was orchestrated by the regime to play victim as they have failed to retaliate against the blows from Israel.”
To her Persian-speaking audience, Alinejad was more willing to denounce the violence but struck a more explicitly conspiratorial tone, writing that “we condemn the terror by whoever did it, but we know well that the real culprit of the mass killing...is [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei himself.”
Soccer star Ali Karimi, often held up as a unifying opposition figure, swung between seemingly mocking the victims of the attack and promoting the inside job conspiracy theory. “Go for the food and sherbet from the nazri [religious offering], but your fate will be harsh revenge,” he wrote in one Twitter post. “How else can they say it was an inside job?” he captioned a video of Iranian officials talking about their emergency preparedness.
Many opposition figures, especially those inside the country, disagreed with that view. Shervin Hajipour, author of the protest anthem “Baraye,” forcefully shot back at those who would celebrate the attack. “What does a two-year old child know about the differences between conservatives and reformists and opposition, left and right, et cetera?” he wrote. “What is going on? Who do you want to take revenge on?”
The reactions to the attack were bound to be political. The first bomb seemed to target a procession commemorating the anniversary of Major General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination by the U.S. military four years ago. (The procession was made of unarmed civilians, not military officers.) Soleimani’s memory has become the object of a culture war between pro-government and pro-opposition Iranians, with none other than Alinejad arguing that Iranians are actually grateful for his death.
And the promotion of false flag conspiracy theories is nothing new. During a major uprising against the government in October 2022, a gunman loyal to the Islamic State killed 15 people at the Shahcheragh Shrine in Shiraz. Opposition media and even some outside journalists quickly promoted the narrative that the government itself had orchestrated a terrorist massacre to smear the secular opposition.
At the time, everyone agreed that the attack was a bad thing, although they disagreed on the culprit and motives. Now that a much greater number of civilians have been killed, voices like 1500Tasvir and Karimi are surprisingly willing to justify their deaths. The demographic targeted was the same in both cases: religious Shi’a Muslim conservatives. What really seems to have changed is the prospect of a full-scale foreign military intervention in Iran.
The current Israeli-Palestinian war is at risk of spilling into a broader regional conflict. Tehran and its allies have presented themselves as defenders of the Palestinian cause. In turn, some Israeli leaders seem determined to settle their scores with Iran by expanding the war and dragging the United States in. Former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett published an essay arguing for a joint U.S.-Israeli regime change war against Iran.
The calculations of Iranian opposition seem to have shifted in response. For example, at the Halifax Security Conference in November 2022, Alinejad pointedly argued that “no one is calling for a military attack” on Iran. At the same conference exactly one year later, Alinejad said that she would “welcome” an Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear program.
The obvious argument against inviting an Israeli military intervention is the reality of what Israeli military intervention looks like. The Israeli military campaign in Gaza has featured large-scale attacks on civilian targets. The so-called Dahiya doctrine, which emerged from Israel’s brutal 2006 war in Lebanon, is to “cause immense damage and destruction” against communities where the enemy is located.
Alinejad, tellingly, argued that the Iranian government “uses civilians as human shields to mobilize public opinion against Israel.” That is, word-for-word, the Israeli justification for civilian casualties. Israel argues that its enemies (all arms of an Iranian octopus) are so wicked that they turn their own women and children into “human shields” for military strongholds.
The day of the Kerman bombing, no one claimed responsibility for the attack. Speculation swirled over whether the blast was the first shot of a direct Israeli-Iranian war, or an attempt by the Islamic State to take advantage of the tensions. On Thursday afternoon, the Islamic State claimed responsibility, ending the mystery.
Within Iranian society, a line had already been crossed. Iranians have been confronted with the possibility of not only revolutionary violence, but the indiscriminate murder of civilians with high explosives. The effects of a foreign invasion are no longer a theoretical debate. Iranians are staring the horror in the face.
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