BEIRUT — 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 Assad, into a powerful international trump card that strengthens its hand in negotiations over its disputed nuclear program.
The attack occurred at a complex time for Iran. While the country’s support for 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.
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 struggling economy, but the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps see the alliance as “the key to national security,” 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,” 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 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.