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How Iran and Lebanon are reacting to deadly explosions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Is the war in the Middle East widening? Whether it would eventually expand beyond Israel and Gaza has been a key question since the attack on October 7. And today we are tracking two major developments that prompt me to ask the question. The first is in Iran, where today a pair of explosions killed more than a hundred people and wounded many more; the other in Lebanon, where a senior Hamas leader has been killed. Now, no one has claimed responsibility for either incident. We are going to hear next from two NPR correspondents with deep experience covering the region - in a moment, Jane Arraf, who has just landed in Beirut, but first, NPR's Peter Kenyon, who follows Iran from his base in Istanbul. Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So these explosions in Iran come on the fourth anniversary of the U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. And I gather the bombs went off as a procession of people who were marking that anniversary in his hometown - as this was underway. What else do we know?

KENYON: Well, officials said the explosions were detonated by remote control as people walked along a street in the southeastern city of Kerman. Emergency crews said many of those injured were in critical condition, suggesting the death toll could rise. General Soleimani himself was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in 2020, not far from the Baghdad airport. And since his assassination, Soleimani has been lionized by Iran's leaders as a kind of a symbol of the country's resistance to oppression by the West in general and the United States in particular. And as it happens, this isn't the first time this particular road in Kerman was the scene of casualties. In 2020, a funeral ceremony for General Soleimani on the same road saw a stampede break out that left 60 people dead.

KELLY: I remember that terrible tragedy as well. What kind of reaction are we hearing so far from officials in Iran to these explosions today?

KENYON: We are starting to get some reactions. The head of the judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje'i, blamed the attack on, quote, "blind-hearted terrorists that are hired by the arrogants (ph)." Now, arrogants - a term often used by Iranian officials when they want to condemn the U.S. or other Western countries. And now he also said a massive military and security operation had been launched to discover who was behind the attack. Separately, Iran's interior minister is quoted as saying this was the second of the two explosions that caused the most damage and casualties, and he basically said the whole city was effectively under military control.

KELLY: OK. And I want to follow on something I heard you say, which is that Soleimani has been lionized since his death as a symbol of resistance to the West. Just remind people listening how big a deal General Soleimani was in Iran - why an explosion at an event to mark the anniversary of his death would be so sensitive.

KENYON: Well, Qasem Soleimani was a commander of the Quds Force. That's an elite part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which itself is a key part of Iran's military. And now Soleimani joined the IRGC - the Guard Corps - very early, not long after the Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah of Iran. He fought in the nearly decade-long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Later, he turned up in Afghanistan, where he helped the so-called Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban.

Now, he went on to join the Quds Force, which played a major role in supporting Iran's proxy militias. Now, these are groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a number of militias in Iraq. He was basically seen as playing a central role in Syria as well, helping President Bashar al-Assad when his regime was under attack during the Arab Spring. Soleimani is seen as an important actor in helping to spread Iran's influence in the region and beyond, as Tehran developed its technique of using militias in other countries to fight its enemies.

KELLY: Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And let me bring in NPR's Jane Arraf on the ground for us tonight in Beirut, Lebanon. Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: It's funny, I remember covering the fallout from the assassination of General Soleimani with you. Four years ago, I was in Iran, and you were across the border in Iraq. We come to you today to discuss another assassination there in a suburb of Beirut. This happened yesterday. One of the founders of Hamas' military wing was killed. Israel has not claimed responsibility, but it feels worth noting Israel has vowed to target Hamas officials in other countries, right?

ARRAF: They have. And the person who was killed is a pretty big deal - Saleh al-Arouri, who was not just the founder of the military wing, but instrumental in relations between Hamas and Hezbollah and other countries. He always said he expected to be assassinated. And, in fact, he was killed in what the Lebanese government said was an Israeli drone strike. This was on an office building in South Beirut, which really brings that war home to Lebanon in a different way than fighting between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel at the border that most people never see.

And as you mentioned, Israel had warned after the October 7 start of the war that it would target Hamas officials in other countries. And Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had said even before the war started that if Israel assassinated any officials in Lebanon, Hezbollah, the major player here, would retaliate. So basically, Mary Louise, as much as people are upset that Israel appears to have launched drone strikes in the capital city, they're perhaps even more afraid that any large-scale Hezbollah retaliation could go spiraling into a conflict that could be - become out of control.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, that leads me towards some of the bigger questions I have. I mean, how should we think about this, about the danger of Hezbollah, another armed group, getting involved in the Israel-Hamas war?

ARRAF: Yeah. Well, they're already involved in the sense that Nasrallah says they're doing their bit by attacking Israeli forces across the border with Israel to divert Israeli resources from Gaza. So the two sides have been launching attacks against each other since the war began. But this assassination is a whole different ballgame. And in a speech in Beirut today - one that had been previously scheduled to mark the death of General Soleimani - the Hezbollah leader accused the U.S. of extending the war in Gaza. And he vowed that Israel could expect a, quote, "response and punishment" for the assassination of al-Arouri in Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: And here he pledges that if the, quote, "enemy launches a war on Lebanon, our fighting will be without ceilings or boundaries or rules." And even though it is four years ago since that U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani in Baghdad, that strike, as you saw in Iran and I saw in Iraq, did have huge repercussions, not all of them contributing to stability.

KELLY: So here's my big-picture question for you, Jane. As a long-time watcher of the region, do these events these last couple of days raise the risk of the current war in the Middle East expanding?

ARRAF: Yeah. I don't know about you, but I certainly did not see this coming. And I think we're seeing a different Middle East, where some of the balance of power has shifted in the last three months and perhaps become more fragmented. I mean, we've seen an expansion of attacks on U.S. targets by groups aligned with Iran but not necessarily directed by them, limits of U.S. influence. But really, what we're seeing, I think, for the first time in years, is a realization that the lack of Palestinian homeland is deeply destabilizing.

KELLY: Jane Arraf in Beirut. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.