US Defense Secretary James Mattis on Monday wrote off Iranian threats to avenge a deadly attack on an Iranian military parade and called allegations of US involvement “ludicrous.”
“We’ve been very clear that they shouldn’t take us on like that. And I am hopeful that cooler, wiser heads will prevail,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon when asked about the Iranian threats, Reuters reported.
“Clearly they do not know what happened, and it is ludicrous to say we had anything to do with it,” he added.
Iranian officials have blamed a number of different targets, including Israel, the US, and regional-arch enemy Saudi Arabia, while two groups — the Islamic State and an anti-government Arab group — claimed responsibility.
But in the hours following the attack, state media and government officials seemed to come to the consensus that Arab separatists in the region were responsible.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported Monday that authorities have arrested 22 people over their alleged connection with the attack in Ahvaz, an Arab-majority region in southwestern Iran.
Earlier Monday, the deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps warned Israel and the US that they can expect a “devastating” response from Iran, repeating accusations of their involvement in Saturday’s attack.
“You have seen our revenge before … You will see that our response will be crushing and devastating and you will regret what you have done,” Hossein Salami said in a speech shown on state television, Reuters reported.
Threatening what he called the “triangle” of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, Salami said: “You are responsible for these actions; you will face the repercussions… We warn all of those behind the story, we will take revenge.”
Salami was speaking during a live broadcast ahead of the funerals of some of those killed Saturday when gunmen disguised as soldiers attacked an annual military parade marking the anniversary of the start of its 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Thousands gathered at the Sarallah Mosque at the city’s Taleghani junction, carrying caskets in the sweltering heat. Of the 25 people killed at Saturday’s parade, 12 were from Ahvaz and the rest from elsewhere in Khuzestan province.
As crowds flowed down Ahvaz’s streets, cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” rose from the mourners. While a traditional chant in the years since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, they have taken on a new meaning since the attack.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the attack showed Iran has “a lot of enemies,” according to remarks posted on his website, in which he linked the attackers to the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The attack saw gunfire sprayed into a crowd of marching soldiers from the IRGC, bystanders, and government officials watching from a nearby riser.
A news agency affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group released a video Sunday which purported to show the perpetrators of the shooting attack.
The footage, released by the Amaaq news agency, shows three men in a vehicle, apparently on their way to carry out the attack.
“We are Muslims, they are heretics,” one of the men can be heard saying in the video. “We will kill them with a guerilla attack, inshallah.”
In a further claim, Yaghub Hur Totsari, a spokesman for the Arab Struggle Movement to Liberate Ahvaz, told Reuters the Ahvaz National Resistance umbrella organization of Arab anti-government armed movements was behind the attack, but did not specify which particular group carried it out.
Ahvaz lies in Khuzestan, a province bordering Iraq that has a large ethnic Arab community and has seen separatist violence in the past that Iran has blamed on its regional rivals. The separatists, however, previously only conducted pipeline bombings at night or hit-and-run attacks.
The separatists accuse Iran’s Persian-dominated government of discriminating against its ethnic Arab minority. Iran has blamed its Mideast arch-rival, the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for funding their activity. State media in Saudi Arabia did not immediately acknowledge the attack.
Khamenei earlier accused US-backed Gulf states of being behind the attack, saying in a statement that “this crime is a continuation of the plots of the regional states that are puppets of the United States.”
“Their goal is to create insecurity in our dear country,” he added.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also immediately blamed the attack on regional countries and their “US masters,” calling the gunmen “terrorists recruited, trained, armed, and paid” by foreign powers. The claim further raises tensions in the Mideast as Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers is in jeopardy after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord.
“Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, ordered the country’s security forces to identify those behind the attack, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency, and warned of an aggressive response.
“The response of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the smallest threat will be crushing,” Rouhani said on his official website. “Those who give intelligence and propaganda support to these terrorists must answer for it.”
Khuzestan deputy governor Ali-Hossein Hosseinzadeh told the semi-official ISNA news agency that “eight to nine” troops were among those killed, as well as a journalist.
The Revolutionary Guard is a paramilitary force answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guard also has vast holdings in Iran’s economy.
Agencies contributed to this report.