The looming threat of sectarian violence on Iran’s borders

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Jondollah, a Baluchi militant group, has executed 16 Iranian police officers. Now, Tehran accuses Saudi-Arabia of supporting Sunni terrorism in Iran’s restive southeastern border area.

Jondollah (also spelled Jundullah, Jundallah, etc.) – ‘God’s Army’ in Arabic – has been active for at least four years. Its young leader Abdolmalek Rigi is Iran’s most wanted man. Rigi has stated that his band of Baluchis – an ethnic minority living across the deserts between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – are fighting for their rights as a Sunni Muslim community in Shiite-ruled Iran. He also claims to fight for a democratic Iran respecting human rights. Yet, in 2006-7, Jondollah launched a string of gruesome terror acts. In March 2006, Jondollah militants dressed as Iranian soldiers stopped a convoy of cars on a remote desert road. The militants pulled the travelers – a mix of civilians, military officers and local administrators – out of their cars and shot down all 22, execution-style. In May 2006, during a similar ambush, Baluchi militants killed 12 travelers and took others hostage – this time near Kerman, in the centre of southern Iran. Video footage of Jondollah beheading hostages reached Iranian web sites. And in February 2007, Jondollah detonated a bomb in the provincial capital of Zahedan, killing 18 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Basiji officers on their way to work.

Iranian officials condemned the attacks as ‘blind terrorism’ and pointed accusing fingers at Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the US for supporting Jondollah. Iran has also criticized Pakistan for not cooperating in the hunt for Rigi and his group. The province of Sistan-Baluchistan – Iran’s poorest region and historically home to bandits and smugglers – has since seen a heavy military presence and severe security measures. Baluchi proponents have claimed that innocent civilians are harassed and local Sunni clerics persecuted while the leader of Jondollah hides across the borders in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Due to the inaccessible location and due to restrictions, it has been difficult for international media and human rights groups to verify claims of human rights abuse.

In June 2008, it was reported that militants abducted the police officers of a checkpoint near Saravan on the Iran-Pakistan border. Rigi claimed responsibility for the attack and demanded the release of 200 of his compatriots from Iranian prisons in return for the hostages. BBC reported that one of these prisoners was probably Rigi’s own brother, who had allegedly been handed over by Pakistani authorities to Iran. In October, one hostage was released; however it was also reported others had been killed. Indeed, the Arabic news channel Al-Arabiyya showed footage of the execution of three police officers.

Then, last week, deputy police commander Ahmad-Reza Radan confirmed that all 16 officers abducted from Saravan had been killed. Since the news broke, the Iranian government has promised to give a “tooth-breaking” response to Jondollah. On Monday, state-run Tehran Times reported that “Iranian intelligence and police forces have arrested some terrorists who were behind the killings of 15 Iranian police members”. The Minister of Intelligence, Hojjatoleslam Mohseni-Ezhe‘i stated that Pakistani authorities “did not cooperate sufficiently” in anti-Jondollah operations. MP Kazem Jalali said that Islamabad, after receiving evidence that Jondollah is supported by Pakistani “elements”, had promised to strike down on “terrorist groups”. Jalali also reported that footage of the trial against those arrested would soon be aired on national TV. Indeed, in this footage, Iranians are to see ‘nation-betrayers’ confessing to their terrorist acts and to the ‘regional and international’ support they have allegedly received. Furthermore, Jalali promised tougher action against smugglers of opium and heroin from Afghanistan. Iranian authorities and media have often linked Baluchi militant groups to the thriving drug trade that has blossomed since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Just as they did after previous Jondollah attack, Iranian media outlets have recently accused foreign powers of supporting the Baluchi militants. State-run Press TV quoted Pakistan’s former Army Chief, who allegedly stated in July that Jondollah was “the main recipient of US financial and military aid”. Iranian media has also used the work of investigative journalists from the US itself: Press TV regularly points to a 2007 ABC News report about US aid for Jondollah and to Seymour Hersh’s alleged revelations about US Congress funding for ‘covert operations’ in Iran. Indeed, in the Jondollah case, the Iranian state has found yet another tool to turn the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric on its head and present US as a major hypocrite in world politics. Thus, during Tuesday’s Security Council session, Iran’s UN representative could justly state that “Iran is a victim of terrorism. It has taken practical and effective measures in its fight against terrorist and extremist groups including Al-Qaeda and Jundullah”. The case of Jondollah’s terror is thus used to present Iran as an innocent victim of the West’s double standards.

However, this time, the accusing finger not only points to Washington but also to Iran’s rivals across The Persian Gulf. Apparently, the Arabic news website Nahrayn Net recently quoted ‘informed sources’ in Peshawar claiming that Jondollah is supported not only by the US but by the secret service of Saudi-Arabia. The Iranian News Agency Shahâb News wrote: “These sources stressed that evidence from Peshawar shows that Saudi-Arabia’s intelligence agency is directly and fully supporting Jondollah in its terrorist acts in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province …”. In the report, it is claimed that Riyadh is financially supporting Jondollah and that the ruling family in Saudi-Arabia has commanded Arabic media to report regularly on the actions of Jondollah.

Thus, Iranian media today portray Jondollah as a proxy army with which several enemies are fighting the Islamic Republic. Such reports should of course be seen on the historical background of tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf. Indeed, when Al-Arabiyya showed the Jondollah footage in October, Iranian Press TV published a piece titled ‘How to sponsor terrorism, Saudi-style’. The issue of Jondollah has become yet another point of conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia.

The Islamic Republic’s media exposure of Jondollah’s terror have caused politicians and spokespersons across the board to express their disgust with the group. However, this wide publicizing of Jondollah’s acts can also hurt the government itself. Student activists use the issue of Jondollah’s terror to depict the state apparatus, and Ahmadinejad’s government in particular, as incompetent. Speaking in the language of nationalism and patriotism, student groups have demanded that the government respond to the threat, confront Jondollah and force Pakistan to take responsibility for security on its side of the border. The main student organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity, recently criticized Ahmadinejad’s government for focusing on international issues, on defending Iran’s nuclear energy program and on repressing peaceful opposition in Tehran while the real threat is actually on Iran’s borders. The students also lambasted Iran’s security and intelligence agencies for being incompetent and inefficient in combating the terrorist threats.

However, the issue should not be reduced to the fight between the Iranian state and a militant group. What is much more dangerous is the lurking threat of a widening Sunni-Shia divide in Iran. Iran is predominantly Shiite and the political system dominated by Shiite clerics. However Baluchis, Turkmens and many Kurds are Sunnis, which makes them a sort of ‘double minority’ in majority-Persian Iran. Recently, Iranian Sunnis have become increasingly vocal in their expression of discontent with discrimination and marginalization. Indeed, there have been many signs of rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Baluchi areas: last month, a Sunni cleric was killed in Saravan, the border town mentioned earlier. Thus, when Iranian officials, state media and even opposition forces describe Jondollah’s attacks as a fetne – the Koranic word for discord – they convey an imbedded warning of sectarian violence looming on the horizon. There is indeed good reason to fear that Jondollah’s actions will provoke Shiites to attack Sunnis and cause further persecution of proponents of Sunni and ethnic minority rights.

Last but not least, the case of Jondollah threatens to make Iranians, and the world community, forget the plight of the Baluchi people. In their 2007 report, Amnesty International portrayed a broad-ranging clampdown on ethnic activists as well as militants. Despicable human rights breaches in the region and the economic and cultural discrimination against civilians were among the issues Amnesty pointed out. Furthermore, as the line between criminal and political activity has been blurred in the state discourse, it is feared that Iranian authorities use the fight against drug smuggling as a pretext for executing Baluchi activists. Thus, with Jondollah’s terror warfare, there is no room left for the voices of ethnic and religious minority rights. Indeed, over the last couple of weeks, Baluchi students at Zahedan University have protested against violent attacks by security forces – attacks that have resulted in the death of a student and the wounding of many others.

The question that remains is: if Western powers or Arab states are indeed supporting Jondollah, are they not in fact doing Iran’s Baluchis a great disservice? It is true that, potentially, Jondollah’s attacks can further destabilize the region and even cause confrontations between Iran and its neighbors. However, we must not forget that, apart from Iranian officers, the real victims are the Baluchis, who are being criminalized and persecuted on a daily basis as punishment for Jondollah’s actions.

The public debate in Iran leaves no doubt that Jondollah as a terrorist group is hated by common people. Even though its leaders have learned to place the group in the headlines of Iranian and international media, Jondollah is not a positive contribution to the democratic struggle in Iran – or to the fight for its own people.

2 Responses to The looming threat of sectarian violence on Iran’s borders

  1. Pingback: » US: PJAK are terrorists - Obama Iran overture? CUMINet

  2. Your posts are good . This is really interesting again. I love coming back to read your blog via your twitter updates.

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