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Explosion near the grave of slain military commander in Iran kills at least 73

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In southeast Iran today, a pair of explosions officials are calling a terrorist attack killed at least 73 people and wounded at least 171. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The attack occurred as thousands of people gathered in the city of Kerman to mark the fourth anniversary of the killing of a prominent Iranian general. The attack is seen as likely to send tensions between Iran and Western countries higher, even as investigators scramble to try and make sense of what happened. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following all of this from Istanbul, and he joins me now. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Peter, what do we know about what actually happened?

KENYON: Well, very large crowds gathered in Kerman for this remembrance ceremony for General Qasem Soleimani. And General Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020.

FADEL: Right.

KENYON: That was a time of tension between the Iranian regime and the administration of then-President Donald Trump. Now, although Soleimani had to some extent been building a reputation even by that time, to many Iranians he was pretty much unknown. But since his assassination, Soleimani has been lionized in Iran as a symbol of what the country's leaders call the country's resistance to oppression by the West in general and the United States in particular. Now, since these explosions, we're starting to see some reactions from Iran. The head of the judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje'i, blamed the attack on, quote, "blind-hearted terrorists that are hired by the arrogants." And, now, arrogant is a very popular term of derision among Iranian officials when they want to condemn the U.S. or other Western countries.

FADEL: Oh, OK, so some implications there using that term. What else can you tell us about the commander that the U.S. assassinated, the anniversary that's being celebrated today?

KENYON: Sure. Well, Qasem Soleimani was a commander of the Quds Force. That's an elite part of the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is itself a key part of Iran's military. Soleimani joined the IRGC not long after the Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah of Iran. He played a part in the nearly decade long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Later, he helped Afghanistan's Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. Even beyond that, he joined the Quds Force, which helped support Hezbollah in Lebanon and other of Iran's proxy militias around the region, and he helped spread Iran's influence as it deployed other militias to fight its enemies.

FADEL: Now, this was a sitting general of a foreign government. Why did the U.S. assassinate him?

KENYON: Well, Soleimani had been working in Iraq in 2019, helping the regime suppress growing protests by ordinary Iraqis who were very upset with their government, not least because of the extent of Iran's influence in the country. There was an attack on a U.S. base in Iraq that killed an American military contractor. And then in early January 2020, Soleimani arrived at the Baghdad airport. And at that point, he and six other people were killed in the U.S. drone strike.

Now, at the time, it was seen as a sharp escalation in the ongoing Iran-U.S. conflict. Some called it a declaration of war by the Trump administration. And now, in the wake of these explosions in Kerman and the heavy death toll, it seems likely these tensions will be on the rise once again. Once we know more about who may have been behind the attack and what the motives might have been, things may become a bit clearer. But what already seems clear is that the work of diplomats trying to find peaceful means of lowering tensions in the region - already high because of public anger at the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and that, of course, followed Hamas's deadly attack on Israelis - that work for diplomats probably just got a lot harder.

FADEL: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Thank you so much for your reporting, Peter. And I'm sure we'll be hearing more on this from you soon.

KENYON: Thanks, Leila. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.