It appears that the Iranian Embassy in Bir Hassan may have narrowly escaped even bigger devastation on Tuesday as the two suicide bombers failed to penetrate the compound and detonate their explosives inside it. Nevertheless, the attack on such a hard and highly symbolic target, as well as Hezbollah’s reaction of pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia, underscore that Lebanon remains, as it was in the 1980s, a primary proxy front in the regional power struggle between Iran and its adversaries. Thirty years ago, the US was a prime target in that war. Today, however, is a different story.
According to media accounts, the first bomber tried to blow up a clear path for the second bomber, driving an SUV, to plough through and detonate inside the embassy compound. The operation didn’t work out as planned: the embassy’s security detail, headed by a veteran Hezbollah official, intervened following the initial blast and forced the second bomber to detonate several meters outside the compound. Nevertheless, the blast managed to kill, alongside the Hezbollah head of security, the Iranian cultural attaché and, according to some claims, at least two officials from the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).
Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Ansari had only recently taken up his position as cultural attaché at the embassy. A longtime official at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ansari had been cultural attaché in Sudan for five and a half years. That assignment is noteworthy. Tehran has invested greatly in deepening relations with Khartoum, which, among other things, became integral to Iran’s network of smuggling strategic weapons, as well as to its broader operations in east Africa. It’s unclear whether Ansari had an additional intelligence role for which the position of cultural attaché was mere cover. This is standard practice at Iranian missions abroad. Take the case of Hojatoleslam Mohsen Rabbani, the former cultural attaché at the embassy in Buenos Aires. Rabbani not only worked to set up an intelligence network, but also was charged in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital.
Clearly, Ansari wouldn’t have been needed to establish the kind of infrastructures Iran sought in Latin America or Africa, not only because it has Hezbollah, but also given the pervasive presence of senior IRGC commanders in Lebanon – a fact we saw in the case of Hassan Shateri, the Quds Force Brigadier General who operated in Lebanon under an alias and a civilian cover before being killed in Syria last February.
Ansari’s killing and the attack on the embassy also call to mind Beirut of the early 1980s, when Lebanon was not only engulfed in its civil war, but also was a proxy theater for the Iran-Iraq war. 1981 was particularly notable. On March 5 of that year, a “political adviser for Middle East affairs” at the Iranian embassy was ambushed and gunned down in his car after leaving the embassy, most likely by Iraqi intelligence operatives. In reality, this adviser, Mohammad Saleh Hosseini, was a senior IRGC commander who played a critical role in recruiting senior Hezbollah cadres, and was identified in the press at the time as a representative of Imam Khomeini in Beirut.
A few months later in December, a suicide bomber leveled the Iraqi embassy and killed the ambassador. The attack was the work of the Iraqi Da’wa party, with direct support from Iran. This is to say nothing of Hezbollah and Da’wa’s operations in Kuwait in the 1980s. This might explain why Kuwait, whose embassy in Beirut had a brush with Hezbollah in 2008, rushed to forcefully condemn the attack against the Iranian embassy.
Past experience is surely still fresh in the Kuwaitis’ minds. They were also likely alarmed by the accusations and barely-veiled threats Hezbollah and its circles leveled at Saudi Arabia, and wanted to ensure they wouldn’t get caught in the middle of any retaliatory campaign. While media coverage focused on the claim of responsibility by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, commentary in pro-Hezbollah media framed the attack as the work of an Arab state apparatus, namely Saudi Arabia’s. Needless to say, no real evidence exists linking Riyadh to the attack. However, Hezbollah’s talking points should be taken as an indication for where it and Iran plan to eventually retaliate.
Of course, threats were reserved for local adversaries as well. As they had done after the car bombs in Dahiyeh this summer, Hezbollah officials also talked of “choking off the air” from so-called “takfiris” in Lebanon. This is code for clamping down on Sunni areas as well as some Palestinian camps. Pro-Hezbollah media singled out the town of Arsal and the Ain al-Helweh camp.
However, it is clear that Hezbollah understood this attack in the context of the regional struggle between the Iranian camp and its adversaries, playing out most visibly in Syria. Yet, Hezbollah curiously avoided accusing the US of complicity in the attack, as has been the norm in the past. The reason is that the Iranians and their Lebanese arm sense an opportunity in the White House. Aside from the Obama administration’s determination to reach a deal with Iran, Hezbollah and its patrons have seen that Washington has clearly parted ways with its Sunni allies, objecting to their “tactics” in Syria, and determining that Sunni Islamist groups operating there constitute the biggest problem.
Hezbollah and Iran want to capitalize on the White House’s rift with its traditional allies by painting the Saudis as the problem and presenting themselves as a natural ally in combating Sunni terrorism. The State Department’s statement condemning the attack on the Iranian embassy surely has reinforced Tehran’s reading: surreally, it painted Iran and the US as victims of terror attacks, glossing over the fact that it was Iran who was responsible for those attacks in Lebanon. The thirty-year memorial of Hezbollah’s murder of 241 US servicemen in Beirut marked last month seems to belong to another world.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.