There are times that trying to make sense of the behavior of the Iranian government is very hard and the way it has handled the Shiraz explosion is one of them. The government initially rejected that it was an act of terrorism but has now arrested a number of people and is suggesting that the United States gave support to them.
This turnabout could of course be explained by government opportunism (an attempted tit for tat for the US charges of terrorism hurled against Iran); except for the fact the initial story of the explosion being an accident was also suspect. So the question of why the Iranian government did not capitalize on the incident at the time it occurred and why now is a relevant one.
The explosion occurred in a crowded religious center in the southern city of Shiraz on April 13, ultimately killing 14 people and injuring about 200 people, mostly young. People, as usual, had gathered to listen to the sermons of a popular local preacher known for his appeal to the youth as well as his anti-Baha’i and anti- Wahabi stance. (video of the moment of explosion can be found here and it is an interesting one to watch for people who only see the Iranian youth as western-oriented and anti-government.
The incident received some attention in the western media but not much because as I said above when it did occur the government immediately announced it to be an accident caused by leftover munitions that were on display in the Mosque or a building next to the mosques as part of an exhibition commemorating Iran's 1980-1988 war against Iraq. This immediate judgment was at the time contested publicly by the preacher who was there giving sermons but his words were essentially ignored, perhaps even hushed.
When explosions like this happens in Iran (and this was the most serious one in terms of fatalities and injuries since the early years of the revolution), the government is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, highlighting such incidences can allow the Iranian government to suggest that it is actually a victim and not a perpetrator of terrorism. On the other hand, giving too much attention to them may highlight the opposition to or instability of the Islamic regime in front of those, particularly in the outside world, who are always looking for signs of instability.
The latter considerations were perhaps given more attention in April because at the time of the explosion the city of Shiraz was getting ready for a visit by the supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Hence any hint of instability or anti-government activity might have been seen as tied to his visit. Additionally there must have been concerns about publicly contemplating the possibility that the explosion was the work of Wahabi radicals, something Iran has largely not experienced so far and any hint of it will be quite worrisome to the population as a whole.
But almost a month after the incident, the government announced that the incident was indeed an explosion but one set off by an “anti-revolutionary group” that had also plans to bomb Tehran’s book fair, Russian Consulate in the Gilan Province, oil pipelines in the south, and several other educational, religious, and scientific centers. The government also claimed that the immediate identification of the explosion as an incident was an intentional act in order to mislead the perpetrators; an act that the government claims proved useful and led to the arrest of a “network” of 12 people (and death of one in an attempted arrest).
Although the government did not identify the anti-revolutionary group, BBC Persian is suggesting that the characteristics mentioned match those of Monarchy Association of Iran, an association whose leader Foroud Fouladvand in the past resided in north London and initially issued a statement taking responsibility for the explosion(although it denies any connection to the people arrested). The statement reportedly identifies the target of the bombing as “active basiji individuals, Zeinab sisters, and their leaders… who in recent years have actively participated in the forceful suppression of our youth and women, particularly civil resistors.”
If this is so, it is not clear why the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss charge d’affaires (the Swiss embassy represents US interests in Iran) to relay its objection regarding the “free activities of a terrorist and anti-revolutionary group in the United States,” unless the Iranian government is claiming US support of Fouladvand or tying him to other monarchist groups in the U.S. According the Foreign Ministry spokesman, documents were passed along that show that an opposition group, supported financially by the United States, has publicly taken responsibility for the attack. And on this basis the government of Iran is seeking the extradition of the leaders of this group. Added to the confusion are statements made by the Iran’s prosecutor general Dorri Najafabadi that suggest that those arrested received direction from Israel via Canada.
I seriously doubt that the Iranian objections will get anywhere in Washington or elsewhere. But it may be that the Iranian government has decided that the public statement taking responsibility for an attack that killed 14 people and injured many more provides it with enough leverage to expose what it considers American double standards or hypocrisy regarding terrorism.