Security forces in Iran taking cover during an attack on Parliament in Tehran, the capital, on Wednesday. (Tasnim News Agency, via Reuters)

Iran’s foreign minister denounced on Thursday the United States response to a pair of deadly assaults in Tehran as “repugnant,” as the death toll in the attacks rose to 17, with 52 others wounded.

Armed followers of the Islamic State carried out brazen attacks on two high-profile sites on Wednesday — the Parliament building, and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic — adding to tensions in the Middle East. It was the first time the militant group had carried out a significant operation in Iran.

The government released photographs of five men who were killed by security forces on Thursday: four in the siege of Parliament, and one in an assault on the mausoleum. It disclosed only their first names, saying it did not want to release surnames because of security and privacy concerns for their families.

The five men left Iran to fight for the terrorist group in Mosul, Iraq, and in Raqqa, Syria, the group’s de facto capital, according to a government statement. They returned to Iran last July or August under the leadership of a commander with the nom de guerre Abu Aisha, and “intended to carry out terrorist operations in religious cities.”

The statement did not disclose the nationalities of the five men, though Reza Seifollahi, deputy chief of the Supreme National Security Council, told the independent newspaper Shargh that they were Iranian.

If true, that would be an extraordinary departure — the Islamic State is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, Iran is the world’s largest Shiite Muslim nation, and the Islamic State has fought Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

That said, the Islamic State has been stepping up Persian-language propaganda, part of an effort to woo the Sunni minority in Iran. In March, the Islamic State released a video featuring Iranian fighters, in which it called on Sunnis in the country to form cells and carry out attacks on Shiite forces, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which analyzed the video.

Moreover, the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, found that Al Qaeda and Iran had a relationship in the early 1990s that “demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.”

As recently as 2012, the Treasury Department in Washington chided Iranians for supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor of the Islamic State.

Iran is home to millions of Sunni Muslims, who live mostly in border areas, including in the Kurdish region. Kurds make up roughly 5 percent of the population of around 80 million. Unemployment and underinvestment have made Kurds cynical about the country’s Shiite leadership.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Thomas Erdbrink

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