By Thomas Erdbrink
June 14, 2017
I had visited the sprawling mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic republic multiple times, trying to blend in with pilgrims.
I would sit on the thick red carpets with visitors from across Iran and beyond, talking with them about the war in Syria, the latest soap operas and coming elections.
Sometimes officials would ask me who I was, only to offer tea and let me be. Despite its reputation, Iran is much more open than many think, even for a foreign journalist.
Of course, after the attacks last week on the Parliament building and the mausoleum, a gold-domed sanctuary that houses the remains of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other important Iranian officials, entering as a common foreign tourist is more problematic because of new security checks. So I went with my journalist identification.
At least 17 people were killed and dozens more were wounded when five homegrown Islamic State fighters entered the two sites armed with assault rifles, grenades and suicide vests. It was the first successful assault in Iran by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Many in Iran are trying to grasp the new reality, completely opposite the image of a strong and invincible country long presented to them by their leaders.
The attack hit the Islamic republic in its political heart. Iran’s Parliament is home to 290 directly elected representatives. The Khomeini shrine is the resting place of the man who introduced political Islam to the world.
But the shrine is also where families visiting the capital stop to hang out, set up tents and drink tea. Children run around between praying grandmothers and Afghans en route home from a tour of fighting in Syria.
In my visit to the shrine after the attack, I passed commandos armed with Kalashnikovs and plainclothes agents who made no secret about their role.
Nobody wanted to admit it, but things had changed.
Their chins up, entrance-gate guards quoted Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had said that the assailants were merely “playing with firecrackers.”
The message spread through the state news media is that the assailants failed to reach their objectives. Analysts on TV have said the assailants wanted to kill all the representatives in Parliament but could not even find the main meeting chamber.
As for the shrine, it was a pointless attack, TV commentators said, almost joking that the assailants lost their way inside the complex — even though it seemed clear they knew exactly where to go.
I passed giant, empty courtyards, used only a couple of times a year for religious events, searching for the shrine’s public relations department. In its office, tucked away in a corner near the western entrance, a slow-moving official who introduced himself as Yasser Maleki checked my identification and said, “Let’s go for a walk.” He changed from a red and white tracksuit to the black coat and trousers common for shrine officials.
Mr. Maleki, 32, a newlywed and part-time professional fighter, walked me to the highway, cars zipping by.
There, he explained step-by-step how two of the assailants had made their way into the shrine. They stepped out of a car, walked up to the gate and started shooting. After one attacker’s assault rifle jammed, “he just threw it away and used a handgun,” Mr. Maleki said.
He walked to the spot where Maziar Sabzalizadeh, 45, a shrine official who had been helping unload a truck, was fatally shot in the back by the assailants.
“I wish I had jumped them and took them down,” Mr. Maleki said.
He had been sitting behind his computer, he said, when he heard the shooting.
At a second gate, Hossein Jafari-Araghi, 51, a guard who has been on the job for 15 years, was already back at his post, treated after an assailant’s bullet grazed his cheek, now covered by a modest white bandage.
“I just came back to work,” he said.
When the assailants entered the western hall, they shot in the air and picked the route to the heart of the shrine, right under the gold dome, where Ayatollah Khomeini is buried. “They absolutely knew where they were going,” Mr. Maleki said. By that time, Mr. Maleki had grabbed a video camera and was following the assailants discreetly as they made their way forward.
Hiding behind a pillar, he recorded how one assailant detonated a suicide vest when confronted by the police, and he posted the clip via the shrine’s social media. Showing it on his phone, Mr. Maleki said the suicide bomber’s “liver fell right in front of me.”
He pointed out in detail where other body parts had landed. “What an idiot, right?” Mr. Maleki said.
The other assailant, also wearing a suicide vest, was killed by a police officer. “Right in the neck — what a crack shot,” Mr. Maleki said. The assailant “didn’t even have time to press his detonators.”
Inside the shrine, near the gilded silver cage where Ayatollah Khomeini is buried, visitors did not display the same bravado.
Most had come to pray and pay respects to Ayatollah Khomeini, while others were just enjoying the air-conditioning on a hot day of fasting during the Ramadan month. “I felt insecure when I heard of the attack,” said Mozafar Amiri, 48, a cleric.
Hossein Nezammolaei, who was relaxing with co-workers, said that “until now, I had always felt safe.”
Things have changed, Mr. Maleki conceded.
“We are now ordered to shoot first and ask questions later,” he said. “In that sense, the attack has made us even safer.”