BEIRUT, Lebanon — A double bombing struck the Iranian Embassy compound in Beirut on Tuesday, in the deadliest assault on Iran’s interests since it emerged as the most forceful backer of the Syrian government against an armed insurgency. The frontal attack struck a symbol of the country’s powerful influence in Lebanon and neighboring Syria.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an offshoot of Al Qaeda that operates in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the bombings, which killed at least 23 people, including an Iranian diplomat. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant organization, pointed fingers at Israel and Saudi Arabia, and officials said it was unclear who had carried out the attack. Regardless, it was quickly seen as retaliation against Iran and Hezbollah, Iran’s ally, for supporting the Syrian government.
The double bombing highlighted the risks and costs that Iran faces over Syria, which some analysts have called Iran’s Vietnam. Others say Iran has successfully turned its support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, into a powerful international trump card that strengthens its hand in negotiations over its disputed nuclear program.
The morning attack occurred at a complex time for Iran. While the country’s support for Mr. Assad drains its popularity in much of the Arab world, a new, relatively moderate Iranian government seeks to transform its long-strained relations with the West. Iran is seeking to end crippling economic sanctions and reach an international deal on its nuclear program, which the United States and Israel say is aimed at making a nuclear bomb and which Iran says is for peaceful purposes.
“Today’s event demonstrates the political and economic costs of Syria for Iran,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy based in Washington. “Syria is a kind of flytrap for the Iranians. They’re just stuck to it.”
The two explosions sheared the face off a three-story building and damaged at least two other buildings in the area of the embassy compound, shattering windows in a wide radius beyond. Television images showed billowing black smoke, charred bodies in a rubble-strewn street lined with blackened trees, and parked cars set ablaze. Bystanders fled in panic from the blasts, the first one destroying the main gate of the embassy and the second coming from what news reports said was a suicide bomber who drove a motorcycle into the compound before detonating.
Providing Syria with weapons and military advisers siphons billions of dollars from Iran’s ailing economy, but the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps see the alliance as “the key to national security,” Mr. Kupchan said. Iran, he said, views Syria as an indispensable deterrent against Israel.
But for some in the government of President Hassan Rouhani and others in the reformist camp, “the Vietnam analogy does work,” Mr. Kupchan said. “It’s an endless drain on Iran’s resources, to support a dictator who probably used chemical weapons and probably won’t be around in the future.”
Those differing views will play out in how Iran chooses to respond to what analysts called an unprecedented provocation. Iran is seen as a dominant influence in Lebanon, where it is secure in its alliance with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful political, social and military force. The bombs, which struck near Hezbollah’s security zone in southern Beirut, raised the specter of continued attacks against Iranian diplomats in countries where the ripple effects of the Syrian war are most strongly felt: Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
By blaming Israel, a unifying foe for supporters and opponents of the Syrian insurgency, Iranian officials appeared to be signaling that they did not immediately intend to escalate the confrontation. That stance was echoed by Hezbollah, which has sought to avoid all-out war in Lebanon.
Yet Iran’s allies also blamed Saudi Arabia, which they accuse of colluding with Israel and the West to punish Iran, Syria and Hezbollah for their anti-Israel stance and to curb Iran’s regional power. That is a combustible allegation as tensions rise over Syria, increasingly seen as a proxy war between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran.
Iran’s government may face pressure from hard-liners to retaliate, but will want to avoid rocking the boat as it seeks a nuclear deal in talks that resume Wednesday in Geneva and a seat at planned peace talks over Syria, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a political science professor and Iran expert at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
“Whoever did this was thinking the following: A, we can attack Iranians at this point in time, and they cannot lift a finger against us. Or B, we are going to force them into doing something radical, in which the world is going to have second thoughts about inviting them to Syria negotiations,” Mr. Boroujerdi said.
The Syrian civil war has fueled sectarian conflict across the region and blown back on Iran and its allies. Rebel groups and foreign Sunni extremists joining their fight have increasingly issued sectarian threats against Shiites, and have targeted Shiite communities in Beirut and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called the attack an “alarm for all” that highlighted a common security problem that “cannot be contained in the region.” He spoke at a news conference with his Italian counterpart during meetings on the nuclear issue.
Iran’s decision to support Mr. Assad in his repression of a movement that began with demonstrators demanding political reforms has cost it most of the credit that it carefully built up among Arabs during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s constant verbal attacks on Israel, and Iran’s wholesale reconstruction of southern Lebanon after Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006, increased Iran’s popularity among Arab Sunnis, aiding Iran’s ambition to be the standard-bearer of political Islam in the region.
A greater challenge domestically is Iran’s economy, strained by sanctions and by a precipitous drop in its currency’s value in the past two years. Iran in June pledged a $3 billion aid package to Syria, while at home Iranians are plagued by shortages and the government is considering cutting back a popular system of cash handouts.
“They support the Syrians, but don’t care for us,” said Ahmad, a building maintenance worker in Tehran, the Iranian capital, who gave only a first name for fear of repercussions.
“If we would stop sending them money, there might be some left for us,” he said, voicing a popular sentiment that some Iranians for years have also applied to support for Hezbollah.
Iran’s state news media matter-of-factly reported the embassy bombing, quickly moving on to the more upbeat theme of the nuclear negotiations set to resume on Wednesday.
Increasingly bitter Syrian opponents of Mr. Assad say they suspect that President Obama, eager to end decades of tension with Iran to buoy his legacy, might give Iran a free hand in Syria in return for a nuclear deal.
Mr. Boroujerdi said support for Mr. Assad was the Iranians’ “strategic ace,” probably the last thing they would negotiate away. If Syria’s insurgency prevailed, he said, “what’s to prevent them from going after Hezbollah?”
The Iran Project is not responsible for the content of quoted articles.