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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Baloch Nationalists Up the Ante in Iran

By Chris Zambelis

A February 14 car bomb attack against a bus carrying Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units outside of Zahedan in Iran's southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan is the latest example of tensions and violence between ethnic Baloch nationalists and Tehran. Eleven IRGC members were killed and scores more wounded in the bombing. Baloch insurgents also allegedly targeted a school located near the site of the initial strike on February 16, culminating in a firefight between rebels and Iranian security forces (Fars News Agency, February 15; Rooz, February 21).

Iranian authorities accused Jundallah (Soldiers of God) of orchestrating the attacks. Jundallah has a history of violence against Tehran dating back to 2003, including attacks against Iranian security forces and other symbols of the regime. Unlike most ethnic Persians and other Iranians who are Shiite Muslims, the vast majority of ethnic Baloch are Sunnis. Sistan-Balochistan is one of Iran's most underserved and impoverished regions (Terrorism Monitor, June 29, 2006). The province is also the scene of frequent military crackdowns by Iranian security forces. As a result, Iranian Baloch harbor deep resentment toward Tehran and feel a sense of solidarity with their kin in Pakistan's neighboring province of Balochistan, who are also engaged in a violent struggle for independence, and the small Baloch community in Afghanistan in what Baloch nationalists refer to collectively as "Greater Balochistan." Because of their Sunni background, Tehran accuses Baloch nationalists, in an attempt to tarnish the group's image, of having ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, despite a lack of evidence (Terrorism Monitor, June 29, 2006).

Shortly after the attacks, Tehran announced that it had detained men allegedly involved in the bombing who later provided televised confessions of having received foreign funding and material support to sow ethnic and sectarian strife to destabilize Iran. Iran then accused the United States and other foreign elements of backing Jundallah, possibly from Pakistani territory with Islamabad's support, despite Pakistan's history of cooperating with Iran to suppress Baloch nationalism. Tehran then publicized photographs of what appear to be U.S.-made ammunition and explosive materials allegedly uncovered at a Jundallah hideout (Fars News Agency, February 18). Interestingly, the United States is known to have provided the Northern Alliance units with the same material during the invasion of Afghanistan. A number of sources, however, claim that the images were doctored using Photoshop software (http://www.iraqslogger.com).

Iran also accused Abdulmalak Rigi, the group's leader, of appearing on a television station run by the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI) minutes before the February 16 attacks, thus implying a link between Jundallah and other Iranian opposition groups. In a February 17 statement on its official website, PMOI dismissed these claims as "propaganda" devised by Iranian intelligence to tarnish the reputation of PMOI. The PMOI, also known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), is affiliated with the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an umbrella organization of anti-regime movements that include ethnic Baloch and other Iranian minority-led groups that seek to overthrow the Shiite Islamist-led government (http://www.ncr-iran.org).

Jundallah traditionally claims responsibility for its attacks early. The group eventually took credit for its actions under a different moniker. In a public statement issued on February 20 by the self-proclaimed "former Jundallah of Iran" and "People's Resistance Movement of Iran" (PRMI), the group justified what it labeled as "recent defensive measures" to prevent Iran's "genocide" against the Baloch people. PRMI also declared its intention "to change the present regime and establish a new system in Iran in which every Iranian enjoys equal opportunity and equal rights." The group adamantly denies any links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as foreign governments such as the United States and Great Britain: "We do not receive any support, arms, ammunition, training and financial help from any country. In such conditions it is not easy for us to live peacefully. Yet, we have been able to maintain our independence in such [an] important geopolitical center and battlefield" (http://www.radiobalochi.org).

Tehran's claims of a foreign hand behind Baloch nationalism mirror previous allegations of U.S. and British support for armed uprisings among ethnic Arabs (Ahvazi) in Iran's southwestern province of Khuzestan (also known as Arabistan) and ethnic Kurdish nationalists in Iranian Kurdistan. Tehran is also attempting to counter pressure from Washington over its nuclear program and influence among Iraqi Shiite militias by casting the United States as a destabilizing force in the region. In this context, groups such as PRMI see growing U.S. pressure on Iran as an opportunity to bolster their own positions.
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