Terror strikes Iran: Baluchistan blowback?

Eighteen people were killed when a bomb exploded next to a bus owned by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the southeast city of Zahedan, the official IRNA news agency reports. "In this act 18 Zahedan citizens have been martyred," said Qassim Rezai, a local military commander. "Rebels and those who create insecurity martyred these people in a terrorist act by laying a trap close to a bus." It is not clear if those killed were members of the Guards. (Bloomberg, Feb. 14)

Zahedan is capital of Baluchistan province, near the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan—a region where armed activity has been mounting. In Dec. 14, two bombs exploded in Zahedan, causing some property damage but no causalities. The first bomb blast went off in front of the governor's office, the other near Baluchistan University. The "Jondollah of Baluchistan" claimed responsibility. (Balochistan People's Front website, Dec. 15, 2006) In October 2000, a car-bomb exploded near a Shi'ite mosque in Zahedan, which local security officials immediately blamed on "subservient elements of arrogance." (RFE/RL, Oct. 23, 2000, archived at Global Security)

Chris Zambelis, writing on the Jamestown Foundation's Global Terrorism Analysis page, begins his briefing on the situation by noting that the Baluch insurgency in Pakistan has won some world headlines:

In contrast, evidence of a simmering rebellion and escalating violence between Tehran's own ethnic Baloch minority and Iranian security forces in Iran's vast but sparsely populated southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan is receiving far less attention. Iranian officials and other observers implicate an obscure Baloch militant organization known as Jundallah (Soldiers of God) for spearheading the uprising. The Baloch campaign in Iranian Balochistan, sometimes referred to as West Balochistan by Baloch nationalists, is also being waged online through a sophisticated network of independent news, activist and nationalist websites and chat forums hosted in the region and abroad in multiple languages. Many of these websites openly support the activities of Jundallah and violence in general against Tehran and others perceived to be oppressing Baloch in the region.

Ideology and Identity
Iranian Baloch see themselves as the heirs of an ancient and proud tradition distinct from Iran's ethnic Persian population—that make up a slim majority in Iran—and other groups that comprise the Islamic Republic. Iranian Baloch often identify with the larger Baloch community that resides in Pakistan and Afghanistan in what is referred to as "Greater Balochistan" because tribal and family lines traverse all three countries. The Baloch historical narrative is shaped by a collective sense of oppression and victimization by the imperial machinations of regional and colonial powers that have led to the division of the Baloch nation. One Baloch nationalist website directed toward Western audiences compares the historic plight of the Baloch to that of the Kurds and their longing for a Kurdish state (http://www.baloch2000.org).

Unlike most Iranians who are Shiites, the overwhelming majority of Iran's Baloch population adheres to the Sunni branch of Islam. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, Iranian authorities and some analysts believe that Jundallah may have ties to Sunni Islamist extremists associated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban operating across the border in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan. These allegations are likely based on Jundallah's reliance on religious symbols and discourse in expressing its nationalist aspirations and deep-seated resentment toward the Shiite-dominated Iranian state. Baloch nationalist organizations also emphasize the Sunni-Shiite element—real or perceived—in the nascent conflict, further proof in Tehran's view of the group's Sunni extremist pedigree. Jundallah is also reported to operate under different names that reflect its purported Islamist bent, including Fedayeen-e-Islam (those who sacrifice for Islam) (Asia Times, June 8).

Iran has long been accused of sponsoring the Baluch insurgency in Pakistan as a strategy to destabilize the key US ally in the region. But Baluch ethnic nationalism may now pose a threat to Tehran's control of its own internal Baluch population. A unified Baluchistan would threaten Iran and Pakistan alike, and the fact that the Baluch are a Sunni minority in Iran is a further complicating factor. The US and unsavory organizations like Mujahedeen Khalq already seem to be exploiting separtist unrest in Iran's western Khuzestan province, home to the country's Arab minority. Iranian Baluchistan may be straw waiting to burn...

See our last posts on Iran and the struggle in Baluchistan