Foreign Hand in Iran Bombing?

The recent suicide attacks in Iran killed at least 42 people including five senior commanders of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and some tribal leaders, dozens others were wounded in two bombings in the volatile southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan. The attack took place in the city of Pishin, near the border with Pakistan, where the IRGC commanders were on their way to a meeting with local elders of the Shia and Sunni communities to reduce the tension between the two. IRGC Ground Forces Deputy Commander and Province Commander Sistan-Baluchistan, Nour-Ali Shoushtari and Rajab-Ali Mohammadzadeh were among those who lost their lives in the attack. The attacks on 18 October 2009 have deepened tensions between Iran and Western countries, particularly the United States and Britain. The attack also a test for Pakistan, though relations between the two countries have been generally good in recent years.
Shortly after the attack, IRGC chief General Mohammad Ali Jafari issued a statement saying that the Sunni rebel group Jundullah (Soldiers of God), headed by Abdolmalek Rigi is involved in disrupting security within Iran and he promised to deliver a ‘crushing’ response. Rigi stated that the attack was ‘undoubtedly’ designed and prepared by the intelligence services of three nations – the US, Britain and “unfortunately”, Pakistan. The attacks were meant to foment strife between Shias and Sunnis. Iran’s Parliament Speaker, Ali Larijani noted that terrorist attack was a product of American measures, adding that if the US wanted to maintain good relations with Iran, it must be honest and transparent. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying that security agents in Pakistan were collaborating with the militants behind the bombing. He also stated that “we regard it as our right to demand these criminals from them.”

Though Pakistan strongly condemned this act of terrorism in an area near its border with Iran, it denied allegations that security agents in Pakistan were cooperating with the attackers. In a telephonic conversation, Ahmadinejad and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stressed the “necessity of joint cooperation in setting up a timetable with the intention of confronting and eradicating criminal terrorists.” Ahmadinejad also pointed out that Iran and Pakistan have enjoyed brotherly and close ties but pointed out that given the presence of terrorist elements in Pakistan, their quick apprehension would require the Pakistani government’s assistance.

In the past Iran has blamed US supported Jundullah for stirring up trouble in the border area and has linked the group to the Sunni Islamist al Qaeda network. Pro-Ahmadinejad media Kayhan also raised a finger at Israel, describing the suicide attack as the ‘new crime’ of the Jewish state’s intelligence agency Mossad. However, the US condemned the attacks and denied any connection with them. The British government also rejected the allegations.

Jundullah, a Sunni rebel group, has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. However, the authenticity of this is yet to be verified. Jundullah has evolved through shifting alliances with various parties, including the Taliban in Afghganistan and Pakistan’s ISI, who saw the group as a tool against Iran. The group also likely gets motivation and material support from Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan. But there is little evidence of an operational relationship between Jundallah and militants, including al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Jundallah has also been involved in a long-running uprising in Sistan-Baluchistan. The group is also alleged to have ties with drugs smugglers, who race across the border in heavily armed convoys, transporting drugs through a smuggling route from Afghanistan to Western Europe. Sistan-Baluchistan is the scene of frequent fights among security forces, ethnic Baluch Sunni insurgents and heavily-armed drug traffickers. Over the last few years, Jundullah, which blames Iran’s Shia-led government of discrimination against Sunnis in the region, has been responsible for many deadly incidents. It also accused the Iranian government of executing many merely because they were Sunnis or Baluchis. Responsibility for the bombing of a mosque in Sistan-Baluchistan in May 2009 that killed 25 people, was also reportedly claimed by Jundullah which maintains that it is fighting for the rights of Iranian minority Sunnis.

Since the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the recent attack was the deadliest incident in Iran. The attack also highlighted deepening instability in the region. It raised questions regarding the means through which security was breached around such a top delegation from the IRGC- the country’s strongest military force, which is directly linked to the ruling clerics under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guards force, whose influence has increased since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, played a key role in suppressing the street protests after the June 2009 presidential elections in Iran.

There is no doubt that ethnic and sectarian divisions have made the region volatile and there is always clash between the Baluchi versus Persian, and Sunni versus Shiite. What is of immediate concern is that the attack and subsequent allegations of a foreign connection run the risk of overshadowing talks between Iranian and Western officials aimed at resolving the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme.