Iranian diplomat among at least 23 killed in bombings as role of Tehran and Hezbollah in Syrian war widens sectarian divide
Two explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut have killed at least 23 people, including an Iranian diplomat, causing extensive damage to one of Lebanon’s most heavily guarded districts and once again raising fears that the country is being sucked into the civil war raging over its border in Syria.
A cleric linked to an al-Qaida-inspired group later claimed that its members had carried out the attack, seeking revenge for Iran’s role in supporting the Assad regime. “The Abdullah Azzam brigades – the Hussein bin Ali cells … are behind the attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut,” Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, said on his Twitter feed. “It is a twin suicide operation by two heroes from the Sunni community in Lebanon.”
Lebanese officials later added weight to the claim, which if proven would mark the first such attack during the war carried out in Lebanon by a global jihadist group.
The bombings shattered more than two months of relative calm across the restive country. Lebanon is struggling to contain the widespread spillover from the devastating war over its eastern border, which has become a proxy arena for myriad regional agendas.
Iran and its strategic ally, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, have both taken prominent roles in defending the Syrian leader, as his forces steadily claw back ground lost in 32 months of uprising, then war.
One of the explosions on Tuesday morning is thought to have targeted a convoy arriving at the embassy, which contained the Iranian cultural attaché, Sheikh Ibrahim Ansari.
Ghazanfar Roknabadi, Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, confirmed Ansari’s death, the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars said. Lebanese officials also said that he had died.
Among the others killed were embassy guards – eyewitnesses said they had tried to stop a suicide bomber riding a motorbike near the building’s gates, which were destroyed in the attack. The first bombing is thought to have been a prelude to a more substantial explosion about a minute later. A large crater near the embassy gate revealed the size of the bomb, which is thought to have been hidden in a car.
Gunfire was heard in the minutes after the blasts as security forces tried to hold back bystanders and allow a cavalcade of rescue vehicles to enter the Bir Hassan area on the western edge of Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold.
Hezbollah has been on high alert in its south Beirut stronghold since August when the second of two explosions within weeks ravaged a nearby area, killing scores. Ever since, a Hezbollah-run security cordon has surrounded much of south Beirut, giving the area a siege-like feel.
While the Shia Islamic leadership of Iran and its Hezbollah ally are strongly supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, those fighting against it are almost all Sunni Muslims – many of them homegrown Syrians, but also including jihadis who have travelled to Syria to fight the regime and its backers.
Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, called his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, to express his support. Lebanon’s feuding political blocs, implacably split along regional faultlines, also condemned the blasts and urged restraint.
As state power has crumbled in Syria, sectarianism has grown there and in Lebanon, where, despite their 1,400-year-old schism, Islam’s two main sects have more or less co-existed since both countries were formed from the ruins of the Ottoman empire.
But such an accommodation is increasingly being tested here and across the region, where the two sects live near each other. Iraq has suffered almost daily bombings for the past six months, nearly all of them carried out by extremist Sunni groups, who openly say they are trying to reignite the sectarian war that raged there in 2006-07
Both Iran and Hezbollah have played lead roles in recent advances by Syrian forces around Aleppo in the north and in rebel-held land south of Damascus. Hezbollah is also believed to be at the vanguard of an offensive in the Qalamoun mountains just east of the Syrian border, which looms as a strategic battleground in the overall fight for control of the country.
With the war raging and regional tensions reverberating, Syrian political opposition leaders have yet to commit to a summit that aims to bring the crisis to a negotiated end. Opposition leaders say they remain opposed to Iran taking part and to Assad playing any future role in Syria.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said dealing with “terrorists” in Syria should be near the top of the agenda at any summit. Lavrov is hoping to bring all sides together at a meeting dubbed Geneva 2. However, diplomats in Beirut fear that there is not enough common ground between rival camps to look for détente.
They say that not holding the summit is better than having it ending in failure, potentially escalating a desperate humanitarian crisis.
Before the Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ apparent claim of responsibility, Iran’s ambassador blamed Israel for the attack. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, remains vehemently opposed to negotiations between Iran, the US and Europe over the fate of Tehran’s nuclear programme, which Iran insists is for civilian purposes but Israel counters is a cover for nuclear weapons to threaten it.