DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The new governor of a northwestern Iranian province was slapped in the face by an angry man during his inauguration Saturday, an unusual breach of security in the Islamic Republic during a ceremony attended by the country's interior minister.
A motive for the attack in Iran's Eastern Azerbaijan province remained unclear, though it targeted a new provincial governor who once served in the country's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and reportedly had been kidnapped at one point by rebel forces in Syria. One report referred to it as a personal dispute.
The new governor, Brig. Gen. Abedin Khorram, had taken the podium in the provincial capital of Tabriz when the man strode out from offstage and immediately swung at the official. Video aired by state television recorded the gathered crowd gasping in shock, the sound of the slap echoing on the sound system. It took several seconds before plainclothes security forces reached him.
They dragged the man off through a side door, knocking down a curtain. Others rushed up, knocking into each other.
Later footage showed Khorram return to the stage and speak to the unsettled crowd, now all standing up.
“I do not know him of course but you should know that, although I did not want to say it, when I was in Syria I would get whipped by the enemy 10 times a day and would be beaten up,” he said. "More than 10 times, they would hold a loaded gun to my head. I consider him on a par with those enemies but forgive him.”
Another man on stage shouted: “Death to the hypocrites!” That's a common chant used against exiled opposition groups and others who oppose the Islamic Republic. Others cried out that Khorram was a “pro-supreme leader governor.”
Though Khorram said he didn't know the man, the state-run IRNA news agency later described the attacker as a member of the Guard's Ashoura Corps, which Khorram had overseen. IRNA described the attack as coming due to “personal reasons,” without elaborating.
Later, the semiofficial Fars news agency said the man who slapped the governor had been upset that his wife received a coronavirus vaccination from a male nurse, as opposed to a female nurse.
Khorram had been recently nominated by Iran's hard-line parliament to serve as the provincial governor under the government of President Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khorram had been among 48 Iranians held hostage in 2013 in Syria, later released for some 2,130 rebels, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that long has been critical of Iran. Iran had referred to those held as Shiite religious pilgrims. A State Department spokesperson at the time called it "just another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel (and) technical capabilities to the Syrian regime.”
The incident also comes amid anger in Iran over its precarious economic situation despite its support abroad for regional militias and others, including Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iran's economy has been hammered since then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.
Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Mohammad Nasiri contributed to this report.