TEHRAN — In a cross-border strike, Iranian intelligence operatives hunted down and killed the “mastermind” of the terrorist attacks on two landmarks in Tehran last week, a top official said.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks at Iran’s Parliament building and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, which killed 17 people.
The Iranian official, Mahmoud Alavi, the intelligence minister, speaking on state television late Saturday night, described the man who was killed as “the mastermind and commander of the team” that carried out the assaults.
The suspect, whose name was not revealed, fled the country after the attacks, Mr. Alavi said, and was captured and killed with “the help of intelligence services of allied countries.”
While the minister did not identify the area where the operation took place, his operatives have concentrated their search on the region around the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran has long had a considerable intelligence presence there, dating to before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the Iranians cooperate closely with the two dominant political parties that divide power in the Iraqi Kurdish region.
The man “was sent to hell by the Unknown Soldiers of the Imam of the Age,” Mr. Alavi said, using a nickname for his operatives.
Iranian investigations into the attack are increasingly focusing on a group of radicalized Iranian Kurds.
Of the five attackers, all of whom were killed, only one has been officially identified: Serias Sadeghi, an Iranian Kurd from the city of Paveh in the country’s west, near the Iraqi border, who was described as a known recruiter for the Islamic State. But security sources said they believed three of the other four attackers were also Iranian Kurds.
Sunni extremists have gained a foothold in Iran’s Kurdish areas over the last few years, according to a 2015 research paper by Iran’s Interior Ministry.
The report concluded that the ultraconservative Salafi current in Islam had attracted followers in Iranian Kurdistan and that the Islamic State had “stepped up” efforts to recruit members in the region.
The presence of ultraconservative Sunnis in the region has become much more visible, said Jalal Jalalizadeh, a former member of Parliament from Iranian Kurdistan.
“The Salafi groups have been very active in mosques and public places in Iranian Kurdistan, and even they have been socializing with families and the youths,” Mr. Jalalizadeh said, adding that the men, some wearing long beards, did not appear to pose any danger. “They were peaceful. As long as the Salafi groups are not taking arms, they must be tolerated,” he said.
Mr. Alavi, talking about terrorists in the country, said that “many teams” were under surveillance by the Intelligence Ministry. And dozens of people accused of being potential terrorists have been arrested in recent days, some in connection to the attacks on Wednesday.
On Sunday, six more people who were said to have direct links to terrorist groups were arrested in Iranian Kurdistan, according to Mizan, a publication of Iran’s judiciary. A safe house in Iranian Kurdistan was also raided, and suicide vests, weapons and bomb-making equipment were found, the Intelligence Ministry reported.
In Tehran, questions have been raised about the authorities’ ability to neutralize terrorist threats. Mr. Alavi said his agents faced similar challenges to security forces in Europe trying to prevent attacks.
“Terrorists do not wear a special uniform,” he said. “They are like other people, like other youths. They are not easy to recognize. Sometimes, finding a terrorist in the 14 million population of Tehran is like finding a needle — not in a haystack, but in 10 haystacks.”
People in the Kurdistan region say that they have seen an increasing embrace of extremist ideologies but that the government has ignored the problem.
“To us, it feels as if those Salafis can easily roam around in Iranian Kurdistan,” said Nikvan Ghaderi, 24, working in his father’s tire shop in Baneh, a small city near the border with Iraq. “I want to get as far away from these people as possible. They give us Kurds a bad name.”
Publicly, the Iranian leadership has sought to cast blame for the terrorist attacks on its favorite targets: Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.
But with the evidence becoming increasingly clear that the assaults were carried out by Iranian Kurds, there are concerns that ethnic tensions could mount.
On Iranian social media, some messages have singled out the Kurds, accusing them of wanting war and separation.
On Saturday, many in Saudi Arabia posted on Twitter in support of Kurdish independence, a sign to some in Iran that the Saudis are promoting the breakup of their country.
The Kurdish region, with about eight million people, is generally poorer than the rest of Iran, lacking jobs and investments, which analysts say could explain why some are attracted to extremism.
The Kurds are present in Parliament and in the Iranian establishment. While there is dissent among some who feel neglected by broader Iranian society, many feel a strong connection to Iran.
“Unlike other countries where Kurds live, in Iran, we are part of the social fabric, share a common history and our languages are very close to each other,” said Hiwa Aminnejad, 43, a documentary filmmaker from the Iranian Kurdish city of Sanandaj who specializes in Kurdish issues. “There is no apartheid for Kurds, like in Turkey, for instance.”
But Mr. Aminnejad said there had been increasing strains.
“Over the past 10 years, we have suddenly seen these extremists coming out of nowhere,” he said. “I feel that if there was more political openness in Iranian Kurdistan, more dialogue with us, we would not witness the rise of these extremist groups.”