Iran's deadliest suicide bombing has dealt a serious blow not only to the country's elite Revolutionary Guard, but also to its relations with Pakistan. It also has the potential to strain the resumption of US-Iranian dialogue, which commenced on 1 October. As such, it can complicate a regional situation that is already very tense.
This suicide bombing is the first of its kind since the early years of the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah's pro-Western regime and replaced it with Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic government, with an anti-US posture, 30 years ago. It has been on a large scale, targeting Iran's top and most pervasive security apparatus, the Revolutionary Guard, several of whose senior commanders were among the dead. This has sent a clear message to Tehran that not even its best security organization is immune against attacks.
The bombing was reportedly carried out by a Sunni Islamic group called Jundullah (Army of God), arising from the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan area of Iran, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. The group has lately promoted itself also as the Popular Resistance Movement of Iran. Tehran has condemned it as a terrorist organization, but the group itself has worn the mantle of a resistance movement, fighting primarily for the right of the Iranian Baluchi people for self-determination against what it has viewed as Iran's repressive and predominantly Shiite Islamic regime.
The Iranian leaders have claimed that Jundullah is based in Pakistani Baluchistan, and accused Pakistan more specifically that its powerful military intelligence (ISI) is behind the group for the purpose of destabilising Iran. They have also intimated that Saudi Arabia and the United States have acted as sources of funding for the group. The reference to the US concerns the fund that the Bush Administration had set up for the purpose of subversive activities against the Iranian regime. Of course, Pakistan and its Saudi and American allies have totally rejected Tehran's claims as pure fabrication.
Whatever the merit of these claims and counter-claims, it is now clear that the Iranian Islamic regime faces a noted security challenge. This comes against the backdrop of bitter polarisation of the Iranian public and ruling clerics over the disputed results of the election on June 12, which the reformist Islamist camp claims was rigged in favour of the conservative Islamist camp's candidate, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While the resultant political turmoil continues to haunt the regime, it may not find it easy to fulfil its promise of crushing Jundullah. It is widely believed that in the Shiite- dominated Iran, national minorities, including Sunni Baluchis, are treated as second class citizens. Jundullah may not represent a majority of the Baluchis, but it is in a position to draw on their grievances to widen its circles of support and recruitment among them.
Its operations could also serve as an inspiration for other substantial minorities, such as the Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who too have grievances similar to their Baluchi counterparts.
If Jundullah indeed enjoys logistic support from Pakistan and funding from Saudi Arabia and the US, as Tehran has claimed to be the case, the bombing could have serious repercussions for Iranian-Pakistan and Iranian-Saudi relations, as well as the US-Iranian dialogue. Tehran has already demanded that Pakistan hand over the leader of Jundullah and some of his key operatives, which it has said is based in Pakistani Baluchistan.
This development introduces a new dimension to what is already a very volatile regional situation, given the Afghan and Pakistani turbulence and the so-far-unproductive efforts by the US and its allies to stabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan.
To avoid further complications and to possibly defuse the regional tension, especially between Iran and Pakistan, it would be imperative on the part of Tehran to modify its behaviour towards its national minorities in pursuit of better living conditions and wider political participation. Similarly, Islamabad would be required to do whatever it takes to prevent its territory from being used for sanctuary and support by any anti-Iranian group. Of course, the history of Islamabad's behaviour does not inspire much confidence in this respect, given its support of various extremist groups in the region, the Afghan Taliban in particular, in the past. In the meantime, the Obama Administration should stop all covert operations authorised by his predecessor against Iran.
Amin Saikal is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre fro Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of 'The Rise and Fall of the Shah: Iran from Autocracy to Religious Rule' (Princeton University Press, 2009)
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