By Vivian Yee and Farnaz Fassihi
A pair of explosions Wednesday at a commemoration for Iran’s former top general, Qassem Soleimani, killed at least 103 people and wounded another 171, according to Iranian officials, sowing fear and grief in Iran, which has been on edge for more than a year over widening divisions between the hard-line government and many of its people.
Coming almost three months into Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip and a day after an explosion killed several Hamas officials in a suburb of Beirut, the blasts also ratcheted up fears of a widening regional conflict.
Iranian officials told state media that a pair of bombs were placed in bags along the road toward the cemetery in the city of Kerman. The bags exploded as a huge procession of people was on its way there to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the assassination in an American drone strike of Soleimani, the architect of the axis of regional militias and powers that oppose Israel and the United States.
The officials said the bags appeared to have been detonated via remote control, leaving bodies in pieces on the ground.
Given the sheer scale of the blasts, which state media described as a terrorist attack, the death toll was likely to rise.
Videos and photos of the explosions’ aftermath on state media showed widespread carnage and chaos, with sirens blaring and the injured — among them children — collapsing to the ground. Bloodied, several of the wounded screamed, “God help us. Everyone is killed.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement blaming the attack on Iran’s “malicious and criminal enemies,” but stopped short of naming any group or country. Khamenei vowed that Iran’s enemies should know that “this tragedy will have a strong response.”
While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi seemed to blame the country’s archrivals, the United States and Israel. “We tell the criminal America and Zionist regime that you will pay a very high price for the crimes you have committed and will regret it,” he said.
Analysts said that while it was far too soon to tell, there were numerous possibilities for who might have attacked the cemetery, including Sunni Muslim terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group or Iranian separatist groups, all of whom have struck Iranian civilians in the past.
Despite the accusations by Raisi, analysts said the attack bore the hallmarks of terrorism. The attack did not fit Israel’s usual methods when striking Iran, said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at Crisis Group. Israel, he said, has not previously attacked ordinary civilians in Iran, tending instead to target individuals such as nuclear scientists and senior security officials, or facilities such as nuclear sites in precision strikes.
Just before Wednesday’s explosions, videos showed a dense crowd of thousands walking along a road lined with food and drink stalls and flags as a prayer from the Quran played from speakers. Then a huge blast rocked the area. The air filled with screams, and people scattered in all directions, videos showed.
“Unfortunately many of the injured people are in critical condition,” said Babak Yektaparast, the spokesperson for the country’s emergency relief operations. He said all medical facilities in the province of Kerman were on standby to treat patients and emergency airplanes were being deployed for medical evacuations to hospitals in Tehran, the capital.
The head of Iran’s judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, said all the country’s intelligence, security and military organs were mobilizing to determine who was behind the explosions.
Iran declared a national day of mourning on Thursday and emergency officials issued a call for blood donations in Kerman for the injured, saying there was a shortage of blood supplies given the high number of casualties.
Iran’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi, told state television that most of the casualties were from the second explosion, which followed minutes after the first, as crowds had gathered to help the injured. He said the situation in the city of Kerman was now under the control of security and military.
The explosions came four years to the week after the United States assassinated Soleimani, the longtime commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s powerful Quds Force, at Baghdad airport.
Soleimani had been hailed in Iran and in parts of the wider region as a hero for building and arming an Iran-led network of regional proxy militias that countered the United States and Israel across the Middle East, and he continues to enjoy near-mythic status among pro-government Iranians. His funeral in 2020 drew more than 1 million mourners, according to official estimates. Every year, on the anniversary of his assassination, some Iranians hold processions and ceremonies in his honor.
By cultivating close personal ties with the leaders of partners across the region, the Arabic-speaking Soleimani became the face of Iran’s Shiite axis of influence, which reshaped Middle East geopolitics for years to come. The Syrian and Iraqi militias he helped establish also played a critical role in defeating the Islamic State, the extremist group that overran large swathes of Syria and Iraq in the mid-2010s.
The regional allies Soleimani armed and funded also included Hamas, the military and political group that controls Gaza, as well as Hezbollah, the armed political party that dominates much of Lebanon. Hezbollah has been clashing with Israeli forces on Lebanon’s southern border even as Hamas battles Israel in Gaza.
The identities of those who died in Iran on Wednesday were not yet known.
Some Iranians on social media were blaming the government and local security officials for failing to secure such a high-profile event. During the funeral ceremony for Soleimani in 2020, a stampede along the same road as Wednesday’s explosions killed 60 people.