The conflict in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province between the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and Jundallah (Soldiers of God), an ethnic Baluch insurgent group also known as the People's Resistance Movement of Iran, has continued on and off for the last six years. The latest spate of violence, which occurred on October 18, killed five prominent IRGC commanders and left dozens of others dead and injured.
Iranian leaders again accused Western powers of supporting the insurgent group. The day after the brazen attack, the commander of the IRGC, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said that Iran's security services had "submitted documents" indicating that Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi was "in direct contact" with U.S., British, and Pakistani intelligence services. Jafari said a delegation would go to Pakistan to "present this document to Islamabad."
Both the United States and Britain have condemned the attack, while Pakistan denied the Iranian implication that its security agents were cooperating with the perpetrators.
The two coordinated attacks on October 18 show that Jundallah, as well as improving its intelligence gathering, is adopting new tactics. The first attack was a suicide bombing that targeted a meeting of Shi'ite-Sunni tribal leaders and provincial commanders of the IRGC in Pishin district near the town of Sarbaz, close to the border with Pakistan.
Among those killed was Brigadier General Nurali Shushtari, deputy commander of the IRGC's ground forces, who had instigated meetings of this sort to promote solidarity between Shi'a and Sunnis in the province. The IRGC was recently given responsibility for maintaining security in Sistan-Baluchistan under the direct command of Shushtari, operating from headquarters in Sarollah.
In the second attack, also in Pishin, an IRGC convoy was targeted by a roadside improvised explosive device. Prior to these attacks, the insurgent group had carried out a series of bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, and other acts of violence in the province.
In December 2006, the group kidnapped seven Iranian soldiers in the Zahedan area. In February 2007, the group killed 11 members of the IRGC in a car bombing near Zahedan. Then in December 2008, adopting a new tactic that had no resemblance to its previous operations, Jundallah carried out a suicide car bombing against the headquarters of a joint police and counternarcotics unit in the town of Saravan, killing four officers and injuring scores more. In May this year, the group bombed a Shi'ite mosque in Zahedan, the provincial capital, leaving 19 people dead and 125 injured.
IRGC General Nurali Shushtari was killed in one of the attacks.
As a short-term response, the central government tightened security in towns and arrested scores of people allegedly linked to Jundallah or involved in bombings. In July this year, the provincial judiciary office announced that 13 members of Jundallah had been hanged.
Tehran has also deployed additional security and military units to the province; undertaken measures to coordinate the activities of these units under the IRGC; embarked on tightening control of the border with Pakistan; held military exercises in the province; and taken some conciliatory measures in an attempt to strengthen cooperation between Shi'a and Sunnis.
In an attempt to encourage Baluchis to join the armed forces, the army opened a new training center for noncommissioned officers in Zabol, and it has been announced that applicants from Sistan-Baluchistan will be given preference over others. Roots Of Insurgency
The insurgency has been precipitated by a combination of ethnic, sectarian, economic, and political problems. Geographically, the sparsely populated Sistan-Baluchistan Province is the second-largest in the country, but it has a population of only 2.5 million, of whom the majority are Baluchis. Far from industrial hubs, it is also the most economically underdeveloped, desolate, and poorest, and the influence of the central government has never been strong there.
It also has a porous 1,100-kilometer border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a 300-kilometer coastline on the Gulf of Oman. Cross-border smuggling, drug trafficking, banditry, and kidnapping are endemic, and the ready availability of arms in the province and neighboring countries compounds political volatility.
Besides taking some short-term measures to improve the economic situation in Sistan-Baluchistan, the government has announced plans for a number of larger-scale economic projects, including in the strategically located port of Chabahar. The hope is that developing infrastructure will enable the province to serve as part of a transit route between the Gulf of Oman and Central Asia. But the worsening domestic economic situation in conjunction with the global economic crisis has limited progress on this project.
Baluch insurgents have also fought against the Pakistani government.
The highly centralized Shi'ite-dominated government of Iran has contributed to the tensions in Sistan-Baluchistan through its intolerance toward other religious sects. Some 90 percent of Iranians are Shi'a, while the Baluch minority are Sunni Muslims who speak an Iranian language. The Baluchis accuse the Islamic regime of neglect, persistent discriminatory treatment, and disrespect for their language and religious affiliation.
In a clampdown on Baluchis last year, Iranian security officials arrested a prominent Baluch cleric in August 2008 and a few weeks later bulldozed the Abu Hanifeh Mosque and school in Zabol and arrested students and members of the congregation.
Those reprisals sparked outrage among Baluchis who, like other ethnic minorities in Iran, demand the full implementation of the constitution, especially Articles 15 and 19, which give equal rights to all Iranians irrespective of their race, color, and language and guarantee the use of regional languages in the press and mass media.
Separatists, Or Radical Islamists?
The accumulated anger and dissatisfaction of Iran's Baluch minority is mirrored in the broader struggle of their co-ethnics in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Baluch community in Pakistan, the largest in the region, has been struggling for decades for self-determination.
Tribal and family links among Baluchis often transcend state borders, and Iranian Baluchistan is referred by Baluch nationalists as West Baluchistan, which in turn is regarded as part of a potential Greater Baluchistan.
Iran's leaders are clearly skeptical of Jundallah's claims that it pursues no separatist agenda, but simply aims to alleviate systematic discrimination against Baluchis in Iran and thereby improve their daily lives. They perceive the rebel group as a proxy used by the United States and Britain in an effort to destabilize the Islamic republic from within by fomenting sectarian and ethnic strife.
Tehran also regularly accuses Jundallah of having ties with Sunni extremists such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while Jundallah projects itself as a Sunni minority group struggling to survive in a discriminatory and aggressive Shi'ite Islamic system.
The group's decision to call itself the People's Resistance Movement of Iran, as well as Jundallah, may be an attempt both to distance itself from the radical Sunni Islamist movement and to rid itself of the label of separatists. However, Jundallah's new tactic of suicide bombing shows the influence of radical Islamist ideologies. And the continuation of violence and instability in Sistan-Baluchistan may attract radical Sunni Islamists like the Taliban to the Baluch cause.
What Can Be Done?
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and IRGC commander Jafari have both vowed that the perpetrators of the October 18 attacks will be severely punished. Such statements suggest that the Islamic regime is likely to rely even more than before on the use of force by the IRGC and judiciary to maintain security and suppress ethnic opposition.
As before, the regime will continue to patronize and sponsor some Sunni tribal leaders and convene more "Sunni-Shi'a Solidarity Gatherings" to preempt ethnic opposition. And owing to the growing frustration that Pakistan is not doing enough to curb cross-border terrorism, Iran may try to persuade Pakistan to agree to regular exchanges of intelligence, and even to coordinated security operations.
On May 22 in Tehran, the presidents of Iran and Pakistan finally signed a preliminary agreement to build the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, formerly the Iran-Pakistan-India or "peace pipeline." The possibility that insurgent groups such as Jundallah could target energy infrastructure is a serious concern for both countries, and this fear may foster closer cooperation between Pakistan and Iran in suppressing Jundallah.
The accumulated problems in Sistan-Baluchistan are cultural, economic, ethnic, and sectarian, and cannot be permanently resolved by military force alone. What is needed is rather a fair allocation of resources and intensive development of public infrastructure (roads, electricity and water supplies).
Whether the cash-strapped central government, which is faced with multiple domestic challenges as a consequence of the controversial presidential election and economic ills and under increasing external pressure because of its nuclear program, will opt for this approach is open to question.