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Iran's Jundallah Problem


24 Dec 2010 23:576 Comments
New+Image.JPGConcerns that volatile Sistan and Baluchistan province could be pushed into sectarian conflict.

Iran is on the verge of emulating the U.S. tactic of shooting terrorists and insurgents inside Pakistan, according to the latest chatter in Iranian military and intelligence circles. Following the fatal suicide bombing in Chabahar on December 15 that killed and injured more than a hundred people during an important Shia ceremony, many military and security officials in Tehran have started talking openly about the need to cross the border and target Baluch insurgents on Pakistani soil. The suicide attacks on Iranian targets has worn Tehran's patience thin. Iran usually blames such attacks on Israel, the United States, and other Western countries such as the United Kingdom. But after recent attacks in Zahedan and other locations in Sistan and Baluchistan, Iran has increasingly blamed Pakistan.

General Mohammad Najjar, interior minister in the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, said immediately after the Chabahar bombing, "Terrorists come from the other side of the border, where they receive equipment, training, and help to carry out such attacks."

By the "other side of the border," Najjar meant Pakistan. Over the past year, Iranian officials have become more severe in their warnings and are now placing responsibility on Islamabad to an unprecedented degree. Although Pakistan appears to have tipped off its neighbor in February 2010 about the presence of then Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi on a passenger plane, leading to his arrest and swift execution, relations between the two countries over attacks on the Iranian side of the border have since deteriorated substantially.

Iran now publicly accuses Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's lead intelligence agency, for helping Jundallah carry out its attacks. Islamabad denies the charges and has announced its readiness to cooperate with Tehran to investigate the mass killing in Chabahar.

It's not yet clear how serious Tehran is about turning its threats to carry out retaliatory strikes from within Pakistan into action. There have been reports that Iranian border police have crossed the international line in pursuit of insurgents and been confronted by their Pakistani counterparts. Tehran is not talking of hot pursuits this time, however. Its generals are urging politicians to authorize "preemptive strikes," like those employed by the United States and Israel.

Iran has already been taking such military action against organizations like Pejak, a Kurdish separatist group that uses Iraqi Kurdistan as its base. It is not unusual for Iranian forces to shell targets well inside Iraqi territory and, on occasion, to make ground incursions. Turkey has been doing likewise in northern Iraq for a long time. It seems that Iran wants to apply a version of its strategy in Iraq to resolve the security problem involving its eastern neighbor, as well.

Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, head of the Armed Forces General Command Headquarters, called on Pakistan to be more active against insurgents. Criticizing Islamabad for it lack of aggression, he warned, "If the current inaction by Pakistan continues, we will have to review our policies."

General Rashid, Firouzabadi's deputy, has explicitly called for entering Pakistani territory for preemptive strikes -- "the only answer to this problem," as far as he is concerned. He announced that the Revolutionary Guard land force has the capability to carry out such missions.

In the words of Kazem Jalali, spokesman for the Majles's Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, "Pakistanis should be warned to act and destroy terrorists' bases on their side, otherwise Iran has the right to defend its citizens." Referring to the trips Iranian officials have made to Pakistan after each attack to urge Islamabad into action, he added that "shuttle diplomacy" has proved ineffective in addressing the situation.

But taking military action inside Pakistani territory is easier said than done. Pakistanis are already angry at the Americans for carrying out drone missile attacks in the northern part of their country. Iran's claims of self-defense may make little difference. If Iranian forces enter Pakistan and mistakenly kill civilians in the process, all hell will break loose. In contrast to the United States, Iran is not in a position to do whatever it likes in Pakistan -- and it has not been that easy even for the Americans.

There is no doubt that Iran is now putting Pakistan under intense pressure. Ahmadinejad called his counterpart, President Asif Ali Zardari, to ask him to do more to keep Pakistani territory from being used as a launching pad by Baluch insurgents. There are reports that Iran has provided Islamabad with a most-wanted list. A senior Pakistani official told Asharq Al-Awsat, "The Iranian government has recently given us a list of terrorists and fugitives wanted by the Iranian government." He asserted that, since February 2010, the Pakistani and Iranian governments have cooperated to combat terrorism at the regional level and that they have shared intelligence on numerous occasions.

IRNA and other Iranian sources reported over the past day that Pakistan has arrested Abdulrauf Rigi, the current Jundallah spokesman. This has yet to be confirmed by Islamabad officials. It is predictable that Pakistan would attempt to assuage Iran by handing over a high-profile Jundallah figure or helping to capture or kill significant numbers of the group's rank and file. That has happened before but it does not resolve the problem. As always, military action is not the answer to the insurgency. Iran has not been able to force Jundallah into submission by executing its members, which it does after each attack. Declaring that those executed are mostly relatives of its members, Jundallah has threatened to execute an engineer it abducted in Isfahan this year who allegedly held a significant position in the Iranian nuclear program (pictured above). Iran rejects the claim and said the abducted man worked for the state nuclear organization as a driver.

Jundallah is obviously in no position to win any sort of ultimate victory. The only advantage it has is surprise attacks and killing civilians and security personnel, which has landed it on the U.S. State Department terrorist list. At the same time, security officials in Tehran know each attack makes them look more incompetent, especially when Iranian nuclear scientists are killed in high-profile "sticky bomb" attacks in the heart of the capital.

Iran views attacks by Jundallah and Pejak, like all other unrest, as orchestrated moves by its foreign enemies, who it presumes are trying to up the ante on every front. But Sistan and Baluchistan's security problems have their roots in the policies Tehran has been pursuing since 1979. The people of Sistan and Baluchistan have endured high unemployment, low incomes, and generally poor conditions for decades. Tehran's tendency to ignore sensitivities and tensions inherent in the region's mix of Shiites and Sunnis, and its refusal to allow everyday life to be managed by people from both sides of the religious divide, has contributed to the problems there and in other provinces such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan with comparable demographics.

There are indications that Tehran has started taking local sensitivities a little more into account and allocating resources to make life a bit easier in its most impoverished provinces. One should not ignore how countries use such situations to their benefit, for example the Shah's backing of Iraqi Kurds in the 1970s and the similar support now provided by Israel. Jundallah takes advantage of conditions in Sistan and Baluchistan in just this way. Its ability to operate after losing its leaders and many lower-ranking members indicate that, despite its limited rank of fighters, it enjoys freedom of movement and access to funds and arms, as the Iranian government claims.

Adherents of Wahhabi, Jundallah's members have used the same tactics as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, such as suicide bombings and beheadings. The group has been linked to al-Qaeda, according to Global Security Monitor. Pakistan's News International reports that Jundallah has also undertaken "coordinated terrorist operations with the help of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to undermine Pakistan-Iran ties."

At the moment, Iran is more concerned about worsening security in Sistan and Baluchistan. There is a great risk that further suicide bombings could ignite a sectarian war in the volatile province. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei touched upon that possibility in a meeting with the emir of Qatar last week. He said that Sunnis and Shiites have been living in peace for a long time but that there are those who want to turn them against each other by "igniting social unrest."

Indeed, this is likely the primary motivation behind the increasing volume of the concerns voiced by Revolutionary Guard commanders, army generals, and other officials since the December 15 attacks. Although it remains to be seen whether Iranian forces will cross the border and operate from inside Pakistan, it is clear that Iran needs a better grip on the situation in Sistan and Baluchistan before it is too late.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Preemptive strikes inside pakistani border would put more strains on the relationship between IR-PAK and that is one thing that Jundallah perhaps would not mind happening since it would garner it sympathy within pakistani tribal area some sections of ISI.

Welcome to new Kurdistan of 1980s

Agnostic / December 25, 2010 2:24 AM

From arrest to investigation to trial to execution
the average Jundolluh case takes an average of 5 days. What marvellous efficiency compared to the US where the twist and turns of a case can take years.

pirooz / December 25, 2010 3:19 AM

Efficiency and effectiveness are two different words.The guys executed by Iran were already in the custody.It was just an intimidation tactic and no civilised country would do such a thing.I'm sure US and others dont feel they miss much "efficiency"..seeing injustices done by Iran on its own population.Btw,I would lov to smoke stuff you are smoking..

Chutya / December 25, 2010 5:07 AM

"There are indications that Tehran has started taking local sensitivities a little more into account and allocating resources to make life a bit easier in its most impoverished provinces."
I beg to differ. After preventing Sunni clerics to leave the country or arresting them, the regime is now aiming at putting their religious schools under total state control. Khamenei, AN and his paramilitary cronies solve crises only by terrorising the people. We need no foreign enemies, our domestic ones are much more effective.

Arshama / December 25, 2010 11:25 AM

My comment was tongue in cheek. I half expected some of the usual suspects to say " wait the best is yet to come, we will be executing them before the trial next as soon as we can draft in a few more technocrats " instead I managed only to provoke you. God of mercy, there are few in Iran whose very existence is not subject to the whim of the hanging judges of IRI.

pirooz / December 26, 2010 2:46 AM

a foolish friend is as much a liability as acrafty enemy. Iranians stand to loose all the goodwill they have in Pakistan if they do such a thing. They should realize that Pakistanis themselves are not safe from these groups and especially Shias! who mourn Imam Hussain under as much security presence as if they are standing in Kerbala!

While the supreme leader has been pushing the Pan Islamist sentiment; Ahmadinejad and Co seem to be returning to the racist persians mind set;

I am sorry Iranian brother bloggers for the harsh statement....

Naqi Akbar / December 27, 2010 8:25 AM