Nov 8, 2009

Bilateral troublemaker

There are fears that Jundallah could become a role model for the Baloch youth -- transforming their ethnic movement into a religious one

By Raza Khan

Traditionally Pakistan and Iran have had friendly relations but in recent years certain international players and non-state actors have complicated the bilateral ties. The biggest source of acrimony between Iran and Pakistan of late has been an esoteric militant-terrorist group Jundallah. The relations were further damaged when the Iranian leadership accused Pakistan based-Jundallah for the suicide attack in Iranian Sistan that killed around 50 people. The attack was made on October 18 at a meeting of senior Iranian military officers of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps. Jundallah took the responsibility. Subsequently, the Iranian government called upon Pakistan to take effective steps to bring to justice Jundallah and other anti-Iranian elements operating from Pakistan's soil.

It may be remembered that Jundallah after a lull of several months started attacks in Iran in May 2009. On May 28 a bomb attack on a Shiite mosque in the South Eastern city of Zahidan, on border with Pakistan, killed 20 people and wounded 50. On the following day gunmen attacked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Zahidan election office.

Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Iranian Assembly, after the May attacks had said that he believed the US and Israel had a hand in the attack. He specifically accused the US of supporting Sunni rebels operating on the border with Pakistan, who have close links with al-Qaeda. Khatami said, "Although those who planted the bomb are malicious and non-believer Wahabbis and Salafis, (referring to Saudis and al Qaeda) the real masterminds are others. Those who planned the crime wanted to undermine the Supreme Leader's (Khamenei) move to help build closer bonds between Shiites and Sunnis."

Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for swaying political influence in Pakistan and both historically supported Wahabi and Shia Pakistani groups, which led to large-scale sectarian violence particularly in 1990s.

The recent attacks by Jundallah also precipitated another wave of criticism by Iranian leadership of US accusing it of harbouring terrorists. Moreover, the attacks in Iran brought to limelight Jundallah -- also known as "Army of God", or "God's Brigade", or the new name Popular Iranian Resistance Movement. The organisation comprises members of the Baluch tribe, Rigi and operates out of the Balochistan province in Pakistan. It has been active since 2003 and has staged several militant attacks including suicide assaults inside Iran.

Iran considers Jundallah as a group connected to Taliban and their opium revenues, getting financial as well as ideological support directly from Saudi Arabia in coalition with certain Pakistani officials and other hard-line anti-Shiite, Sunni groups within Pakistan like the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba. There is a sort of discrepancy in Iran's accusations against Jundallah; on one hand it charges the Americans for supporting Jundallah and on the other calls Taliban and al-Qaeda behind the militant outfit.

Quetta-based analyst and writer, Malik Siraj Akbar told TNS, "Jundallah was headed by 27-year-old ruthless Abdul Malik (Abdolmalek) Rigi, who belonged to Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan and has studied at various Pakistani madrassas including one in Karachi. Most of the Afghan Taliban top leadership also studied at Karachi madrassas particularly Jamia Banoria. This could have been the common ground for initial contacts."

About Jundallah militants it is believed that they mostly move in the border areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and then into Iran. The Jundallah militants usually use Pakistani border towns of Taftan, Turbat, and Pajgoor for their activities.

Siraj said, "According to the self-declared agenda of Jundallah, Regi himself has said that it does not aim at killing Shiites. He has been demanding that Iranian Baluchs, mostly Sunnis, should be given equal rights like Shiites. Regi believes that his movement is not purely religious and blames Shiite Iranian state of keeping them politically and educationally backward and should appoint Iranian Baluchs to key government positions and the deliberate policy. Regi also contends that his Baloch outfit does not have any link with Pakistani Baloch militant separatist organisations like Baloch Liberation Army, Baloch Liberation Front, Baloch People's Liberation Front, Balochistan Republican Army. Because they have a nationalist agenda while Jundallah does not subscribe to ethnic ideology per se."

The ideology of Jundallah could be described as based on three main tenets i.e. quasi Baluch nationalism, Islamism and religious conservatism. This is indeed strange that a Baloch group has Islamist underpinnings because the traditional Pakistani Baloch nationalists groups have been completely irreligious and profoundly secular.

Whereas, the nationalist cause of Jundallah is also strange as it does not demand or struggle for Greater Balochistan i.e. carving up of a new Baloch state combining Iranian and Pakistani Baloch areas as espoused by Pakistani Balochs, which means Jundallah does not want either dismemberment of Iran or Pakistan. When Iran and Iraq were engaged in a war (1980-88) the latter had used hundreds of Iranian Baluch against their native country. In this era the relationship between Iranian government and Baloch population become strained. Since then Iran has seen its Baloch population apart from Kurds as a big threat to the state.

The potential danger that Pakistani authorities fear is that Jundallah could become a role model for the Baloch youth, transforming their ethnic movement into a religious one. Thus making Balochistan another Waziristan or for that matter NWFP where clerical militancy has wreaked havoc.

Professor Dr Mansur Kundi, teacher of political science at University of Balochistan told TNS that although nobody has concrete evidence, from a theoretical standpoint, accusations by Iran of American support to Jundallah sound correct. "In international politics bilateralism is always important and under zero-sum game it is considered that enemy of my enemy is my friend and friend of my enemy is my enemy. On this basis Jundallah's links with US being anti-Shiite and Iran are somewhat natural."

Kundi believes that no one can deny that Iran has emerged, as a real nation-state however, there is hostility in Baloch areas of Iran. There is a religioethnic factor to this disaffection. The religious factor is that dominant majority of Baluchs are Sunnis in a Shiite state. In Iranian state structure, being a Sunni fundamentalist outfit is considered an anathema. For instance, you would find scores of Shiite mosques in Sunni dominated Zahidan city of Iran. But in Tehran (national capital of Shiite state) you would hardly find any Sunni mosque.

About Iran's threat perception of Pakistan-based terrorist groups Dr Kundi said, "On Iranian side of the border with Pakistan there is a black-topped road after every three kilometres linking the border posts with the rest of the country and all posts have been supplied with electricity. This is not the case on Pakistani side. The reason is Iran perceives the threat from Pakistan while we don't."

The writer is a political analyst.


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