November 20, 2013 | Policy Brief

The Iranian Embassy Bombing in Beirut: Many Questions Remain

November 20, 2013 | Policy Brief

The Iranian Embassy Bombing in Beirut: Many Questions Remain

Two explosions targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut yesterday, killing at least 23 people, among them the Iranian cultural attaché, Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Ansari and the head of Hezbollah’s security detail for the embassy. These explosions mark the third such attack against Hezbollah-controlled areas since the car bombings that hit Dahiyeh in July and August of this year, though this attack differed in its use of suicide bombers.

The previous bombings were widely blamed on Syrian rebels, as retaliation for Hezbollah's role in Syria, fighting alongside the Assad regime. The attack on the Iranian embassy, by contrast, was claimed via Twitter by a cleric tied to the al-Qaida affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Whether the group was indeed responsible remains to be seen, but the attack can still be read in the context of Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian war.

The embassy bombing comes as Hezbollah and Assad regime forces have launched operations around Damascus and near the Lebanese border in the Qalamoun hills. In a public address during a gathering for the Ashura Shiite religious ceremony, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah asserted his group's determination to continue fighting in Syria “as long as the reasons remain.” A retaliation against the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis remains the likeliest explanation for the attack.

It is important, however, to note that the perpetrators of the embassy bombings, whoever they may be, did not specifically target Shiite civilians, despite the opportunities for mass casualty attacks during the Ashura gatherings (many Shiites were worried that they could be hit during the ceremonies). Instead, the perpetrators went after a hard target that likely required serious preparation and intelligence.

The attack also highlights Hezbollah's vulnerabilities and the holes in its security. The group had tried to address these failures by setting up checkpoints in Dahiyeh, and had tightened pressure on Palestinian camps, where it was suspected that the previous car bombs originated. It is likely that this attack will force the group to adopt additional stringent measures.

Unlike the previous two bombings, yesterday’s attack also killed an Iranian official. Ebrahim Ansari has long worked with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and also headed the Arab and Africa department at the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, an arm of the Ministry of Culture. It is unclear whether Ansari was an intelligence operative, although this would not be unusual. Iranian intelligence agents abroad often operate under the cover of cultural attachés or other similar functions. For instance, Hassan Shateri, the senior Qods Force commander killed near the Syria-Lebanon border last February, operated in Lebanon under the cover position of director of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. Ansari’s five-year stint in Sudan is of note, given Iran's deep intelligence ties with the east African nation, which is now known to have transferred Iranian strategic weapons to Gaza.

The Iranian embassy bombings raise many questions yet to be answered. What is clear is that through its actions in Syria, Hezbollah continues to severely undermine the security of the country and the lives of its citizens. 

Tony Badran is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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