- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
BEIRUT – The Iranian embassy lies on the road connecting the airport to the downtown center of the Lebanese capital, near both the Beirut Golf Club and the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of the city. This morning, as most Beirutis were commuting to work, a suicide bomber slammed his motorbike into the embassy gates and detonated himself. Roughly 90 seconds later, another bomber drove a car laden with explosives into the same area, triggering a much larger explosion that wrecked the building adjacent to the embassy. At least 23 people lost their lives, and over 100 more were injured.
The double suicide bombing contained echoes of the worst days of the Iraq war, when al Qaeda operatives would use one bomber to blast a path to a fortified target and then use another, larger bomb to kill those inside the area once the defenses were cleared. Indeed, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni Islamist group affiliated with al Qaeda, was quick to claim responsibility for the attack. A statement released on Twitter – under the hashtag "Battle of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut" — praised the "two heroes of the Sunnis in Lebanon" for conducting the "martyrdom operation," and promised further attacks until Hezbollah and Iran withdrew their support from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
Iranian officials, however, had a different idea of who targeted their embassy. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran condemned the attack as an "inhuman and vicious act perpetrated by Israel and its terror agents." Iranian Ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi, meanwhile, appeared on the Lebanese television station al-Mayadeen roughly an hour after the blast, saying that whichever group committed the attack "knows directly or indirectly that he is serving the interests of the Zionist enemy."
Increasingly, Iran and its allies publicly portray Israel and their Sunni rivals as two sides of the same coin — describing them as sharing the same goals and even acting in concert against Tehran. This trend, which gained momentum with Iran’s involvement in the Syrian war, has become a dominant aspect of pro-Iranian groups’ rhetoric in recent weeks. In his speech to commemorate the Shiite holy period of Ashura, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said that it was "regrettable" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had emerged as "the spokesman for some Arab countries."
For those who see the battle lines of the Middle East this way, there is no contradiction in believing that a Sunni radical group conducted the embassy attack – but that Israel guided the effort from behind the scenes. Some of Iran’s allies, meanwhile, have been more explicit about the Sunni partners to this alliance: Syrian Information Minister said that the attack "smell of petro-dollars" — a reference to Iran’s regional antagonists, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
There are bound to be comparisons between today’s events and the bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, which occurred two decades ago. Once again, suicide bombers targeted a foreign power for its intervention in a Levantine civil war. But there the similarities may end. Today’s attack, after all, was a tactical failure, as the second bomber manage to inflict only minor damage on the Iranian embassy itself. More importantly, there are no signs that Iran is contemplating a retreat from its military defense of the Assad regime.
"We will never retreat one fingertip from our positions," Ambassador Roknabadi put it today. "We have ideals and principles, and in Syria we are pursuing interests. We are leading the confrontation line for anti-Zionist and anti-arrogance projects in the region."