The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanon-based group linked to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility and threatened further attacks unless Iran withdrew its forces from Syria, where they have backed president Bashar al-Assad’s war against rebels.
Security camera footage showed a man in an explosives belt rushing towards the outer wall of the embassy and blowing himself up, Lebanese officials said. Less than two minutes later, a second attacker driving a car rigged with 50kg of explosives struck about ten metres away.
Body parts were strewn up to two streets away and several cars were badly damaged. The embassy’s sturdy metal gate was twisted by the blasts, which killed 23 people and wounded 146.
On Twitter, Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the religious guide of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, said it had carried out the attack. “It was a double martyrdom operation by two of the Sunni heroes of Lebanon,” he wrote.
Iran’s ambassador, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, identified one of the dead as Ebrahim Ansari, a cultural attache at the embassy.
A Lebanese security source said the bombers struck just before Mr Roknabadi and Mr Ansari had been due to leave the embassy for a meeting at Lebanon’s culture ministry, and embassy guards were preparing a convoy of cars to take them.
Fires engulfed cars outside the embassy and the facades of some buildings were torn off. Shattered glass covered the bloodied streets and some trees were uprooted, but the embassy’s well-fortified building itself suffered relatively minor damage.
“Whoever carries out such an attack in these sensitive circumstances, from whichever faction, knows directly or indirectly that he is serving the interests of the Zionist entity [Israel],” Mr Roknabadi said.
Lebanon has suffered a series of sectarian clashes and bomb attacks on Sunni and Shiite Muslim targets that have been linked to the Syrian conflict and have killed scores of people this year. Yesterday’s bombs struck as Mr Assad’s forces extended their military gains in Syria before peace talks the United Nations hopes to convene in mid-December and which Iran says it is ready to attend.
Shiite Iran actively supports Mr Assad against mostly Sunni rebels, and two of its Revolutionary Guard commanders have been killed in Syria this year. Along with fighters from Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, Iran has helped to turn the tide in Mr Assad’s favour, at the expense of rebels backed and armed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said the bombs were “an inhuman and vicious act perpetrated by Israel and its terror agents”.
Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned what he described as a “shocking terrorist attack” and France expressed “solidarity with the Lebanese and Iranian authorities”.
Politicians from across Lebanon’s Sunni, Shiite and Christian communities also condemned the attack.
In Syria, the government said its soldiers had taken full control of the town of Qara, which straddles a highway from Damascus to government strongholds on the coast and is also used by Sunni rebels to cross into Syria from Lebanon. It may mark the start of a wider offensive by the army.