*A longer version of this Policy Insight was first published in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on July 30, 2010.
On 15 July, two suicide bombers penetrated the security around the Jamia mosque in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan and detonated their deadly loads. Some 30 people were killed and 300 injured in the attack on the Shia mosque. Less than a month before, Jondollah, the Sunni and ethnic Baluch group which took credit for the attacks, had effectively been classified as disbanded by the Iranian authorities. Officials confidently made that claim after the group’s long-term leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, was executed on 20 June in a Tehran prison. Rigi, believed to be in his late twenties at the time of his death, had emerged from nowhere in 2003 to found Jondollah. Over the course of the next seven years, he led his group in numerous attacks in the southeast of the country, and effectively turned himself into Tehran’s enemy number one.
However, it was not until 18 October 2009, when a Jondollah suicide bomber killed, among others, two senior officers from Iran’s elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRCG) in the town of Pishin on the border with Pakistan, that security officials promised to neutralize the group once and for all.
The pledge to root out Jondollah was said to have been fulfilled on 23 February 2010, when Iran’s intelligence agencies captured Rigi in a high-profile operation. A statement by Rigi was then broadcast on state television, in which he claimed to have co-ordinated and received support from Western intelligence services, although there has been little hard evidence to back this up. Nonetheless, since the 15 July attack Tehran has ratcheted up accusations against the CIA, the UK, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Ayatollah Khamenei set the tone when he said immediately after the attack: “Imperialists are seeking to sow division among the Shia and Sunnis in the Islamic world and in Iran.” The authorities have intensified a public campaign to urge pan-Islamic solidarity throughout Iran and particularly in Baluchistan, which is home to a Sunni-majority population.
However, while the remedy to lessen potential sectarianism in Baluchistan might lie in the hands of Tehran officials, the total disbandment of Jondollah – by Tehran’s own account – cannot be achieved without the co-operation of Pakistan. Pakistan has always displayed mixed signals towards the Islamic Republic, but in recent months closer ties have been indicated.
Iranian media quoted Iran’s intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi as stating that “NATO, Mossad and the CIA” were behind the 15 July suicide bombings as “they have in some ways supported such actions”. When Moslehi was asked by journalists on 26 July why Rigi’s confessions had not been made public, he said that his ministry is “looking for the proper time and opportunity to release Rigi’s confessions”.
Regardless of what Tehran ends up releasing – and in spite of reports in the Western media that US intelligence services might have backed the group as part of its overall operations against Tehran – Rigi’s group has repeatedly denied that Jondollah is being led by Western intelligence services. His brother Abdolhamid was also executed by the Iranian authorities this year, on 24 May.
Muhammad Dhahir Baluch, Rigi’s successor, said the 15 July attack in Zahedan was “to avenge Abdolmalek and Abdolhamid [the two Rigi brothers], and the hundreds of Sunnis and Baluchis killed at the hands of the Iranian forces”. Another of the Rigi brothers, Abdolrauf, who now acts as Jondollah’s spokesman, said that Tehran’s accusations of Western patronage are baseless and that there are “no foreign parties behind this operation [Jondollah]”. He spoke through the pan-Arab, Saudi-funded Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Jondollah’s favorite media outlet. Tehran has seized on this preference as a clue to Riyadh’s close links to the group.
Since the emergence of Jondollah in 2003, Tehran has frequently blamed the Saudi regime for propagating Wahhabism among Iran’s minority Sunni population, and supporting Jondollah. Yahya Rahim Safavi, one of Khamenei’s top military adviser, told Fars News on 18 December 2009 that he had no doubt that “neighboring Arab states are financially backing Jondollah”. Fear of sectarianism in the Sunni-majority border regions of Iran has led to the authorities confiscating Sunni religious material coming into the country from other Arab states.
At the same time, it has caused Tehran to step up its efforts to promote pan-Islamic unity in order to evade charges of Shia prejudice. Soon after the 15 July attack, a joint letter signed by 32 Shia and 73 Sunni clerics from the province of Baluchistan was published by Iran’s state-run media. In it, the clerics vowed to accept Khamenei’s “[religious] guidance and combat any signs of sectarianism”. Still, as far as Jondollah’s grievances are concerned, Tehran’s pan-Muslim rhetoric will not change a thing. Not only is the group claiming the religious oppression of Sunni Muslims, but it has also charged Tehran with the economic neglect of Baluchistan. This accusation is far more measurable, if not already an accepted reality, and remains a key factor behind general ethnic Baluch discontentment in Iran.
Islamabad ties Tehran has also implicated Islamabad in Jondollah’s activities, although it is treating Pakistan far more sympathetically than other, Western countries, reflecting its desire not to jeopardize relations with its neighbor. Still, Iran’s interior minister Mostafa Najjar stated after the October 2009 and the July 2010 attacks that investigations into the events “found some leads in Pakistan”. Najjar added on 24 July: “[Iran’s] neighboring countries should not allow terrorists to use their borders [with Iran] to make attempts against the Islamic Republic”. Ahmad Reza Radan, the deputy chief of Iran’s police force, went further: on 17 July he said on national television that Iran “reserves the right to confront bandits by going inside the territories of the neighbouring states to destroy them [if] neighboring countries do not take the necessary measures to contain them.”
The relatively constrained war of words between the two states followed a period of closer security co-operation. Following the Pishin attack in 2009, the federal government in Islamabad vowed to crack down on Jondollah in its own restive Balochistan province, and in February 2010 Pakistan captured and handed over to Iran several Jondollah militants. Then came the capture of Rigi in February, which could have been facilitated by Pakistan. Another sign of better co-operation was the release in March 2010 of an Iranian diplomat who been abducted by unknown perpetrators in Peshawar on 13 November 2008. Although Tehran claimed that its intelligence services alone were behind the “complex operation” that secured the release of Heshmatollah Attarzadeh-Niyaki, it is highly possible that Pakistan could have made a helpful contribution.
Speculation about some kind of understanding was fuelled by the signing of a much-delayed contract to build a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan over territory in which Jondollah militants operate. The 17 March agreement to launch the USD7.4 billion project, to be completed by 2014, left observers wondering if the strategic pipeline had finally forced Pakistan to reassess the trans-border existence of Jondollah.
There is little doubt that Jondollah must presently be in some disarray, given the arrest and execution of some of its most senior members in the last six months. However, the 15 July attack shows that the group is far from neutralized. It is difficult to assess the reasons behind the group’s sudden vulnerability, and equally its persistence in the face of losing its founders. It is also hard to know whether there has been a potential change of heart among any possible foreign patrons of Jondollah. But the reality remains that Iran’s southeast is the most unstable part of the country and constitutes a major security challenge.
While Tehran continued to claim before the July 2010 bombings that its successes against Jondollah were entirely the work of its own intelligence gathering, it is very likely that authorities in Pakistan were somehow convinced to stop providing sanctuary to Jondollah. The bilateral gas pipeline deal fits nicely into this line of argument. However, the most recent attack and Jondollah’s refusal to submit suggest it might be time for Tehran to review its security policies in the troubled province of Baluchistan. It also needs to consider introducing governmental policies designed to alleviate the political, social and economic anxieties of the country’s ethnic Baluch and Sunni populations. Staging a pan-Islamic public relations campaign will not tackle the root causes of much of the militancy and banditry in the area.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.