Reactions to Sunday’s attack on Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Sunday, a small radical Sunni group again attacked Iran. A suicide bomber targeted a meeting close to a small town on the border with Pakistan in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Among the around 40 dead were six or seven high-ranking Revolutionary Guard commanders. This is the latest act in a long-running small-scale war with insurgents in a volatile corner of multi-ethnic Iran. It is also yet another good reason why many Iranians feel their country is under attack by its many enemies.

According to the state-owned Iranian Press TV, Jondollah (aka. Jundullah, Jundallah) – a Sunni Muslim, Baluchi terror group – has claimed responsibility for the  (read more about Jondollah here). For at least six years, Jondollah has been behind several acts of terrorism, including ambushes on military convoys, assassination, abductions and execution of officials and soldiers.

Reportedly, a group of Revolutionary Guard commanders, Shiite and Sunni clerics and local tribal leaders were supposed to congregate at a ‘Unity Meeting’, where they would discuss security issues in the province, which has been marred for many years with drug smuggling, terror and armed gangs. Among the Revolutionary Guards were Brigadier Nour-Ali Shushtari (deputy commander of the Guard’s ground forces, head of the local main base), Brigadier Rajab-Ali Mohammadzadeh (provincial commander) and commanders of major cities and towns in the province. Several of the tribal leaders and both Shiite and Sunni clerics also died.

The terror act has been described by Iranian officials as a foreign-sponsored blow to the Iranian state’s endeavor at reconciling Shiites and Sunnis, and as an attempt at disrupting security and creating ethnic and sectarian strife in multi-cultural Iran. Namely, the US, Britain and Pakistan have been accused for supporting Jondollah. This is not the first time Iran makes this accusation, and there is still reason to take this claim seriously and not dismiss it categorically as just another piece of propaganda or political paranoia. In particular, there have been speculations for several years whether or not the US have been in contact with Jondollah, or maybe even trained and equipped them (see here, here, here and here – also see Press TV interview with Jondollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi’s brother here and here).

Just as with earlier episodes, Iranian officials have again linked Jondollah to ‘Talibanism’, Al-Qaeda and Wahhabism, and thus there is also an indirect accusation against Saudi Arabia, whom Iran has accused before for supporting not only Baluchi militants, but also Kurdish guerillas (see Uskowi Iran’s analysis here).

The Iranians have been very clear this time that the Jondollah is using Pakistan as a safe haven. Ahmadinejad stated that certain elements in the Pakistani state support the Jondollah. I interpret his statement as condemning not an overall Pakistani strategy, but rather the notion of rogue elements from within the Paki intelligence and military establishment – autonomous elements who share anti-Shiite tendencies with various extremist factions in Pakistan. The Iranian parliament demanded swift military action – including attacks over the border and into Pakistan. I don’t think this will happen unless the Pakistanis agree (maybe unofficially, as seems to have happened in the case of Iran attacking PJAK on Iraqi soil). Indeed, Iranian media have reported that during a phone call, Ahmadinejad and Zardari agreed to coordinate actions against Jondollah.

However, instead of dwelling on the different (conspiracy) theories and whether or not they can be true – including the admittedly interesting question of whether the US is (still?) supporting Jondollah – I will focus on the impact on Iranian public opinion.

It is my impression that Iranians in general do not perceive Jondollah as a group fighting for ethnic or sectarian rights – and certainly not for democratic values. The Iranian state-run media, government officials and the clergy have thus succeeded in planting the Wild East image among ordinary Iranians: that Sistan-Baluchistan has always been ‘wild’, plagued by unruly tribal marauders and drug gangs. The Jondollah is thus perceived as bandits (ashrâr) and not as political activists, symptomatic of a primitive barbaric culture that has more to do with ‘Afghanistan’ than ‘Iran’.

Pundits in Iran, however, are very well aware of the several layers of political and social implications in Jondollahs activities, whether ethnic, sectarian, regional or international.

In general, ‘opposition’ bloggers – that is, those bloggers who generally support a major democratic change in Iran, whether through the ‘reformist’ alternative or through overthrow – certainly do not cheer for Jondollah. Even though these bloggers are among the most ardent critics of The Revolutionary Guards, they forcibly condemn Jondollah’s suicide mission. One example is this blogger who is clearly not a fan of the Islamic Republic. His view is that of the classical Persian nationalist, and his blog post is introduced in the name of the Zoroastrian diety:

“This act clearly underscores that [Jondollah] do not care the least bit for Iran. They are a bunch of extremist Wahhabis, who are abusing the diversity of the Iranian people. They want to create ethnic strife, and on top of it, religious-sectarian strife. The existence of such people in Iran is a disgrace for all Iranians. The age of ethnicity and tribalism is over, and our country must discard all ethnicities in order to enter the new world – even though we’ve never actually have had ethnic units in our country”

Another ‘Green’ (that is, pro-reformist) blogger condemns the attack on ‘defenseless people’ and identifies the two sides of Sunday’s fight, The Revolutionary Guards and Jondollah:

“The Guards are now known to everyone, and they do not need thorough introduction. They are an organ, the members and employees of which may be of the Iranian race but surely do not share the positive traits of the people of this country… We have all witnessed how they violently and vehemently attacked [their own people] … But Jondollah, on the other hand, is no more than a bunch of bandits and thieves: people who stop innocent and unarmed civilians on the road, in the middle of the night, tie their hands and shoot them all down [referring to earlier Jondollah ambushes].”

He continues to portray Jondollah as ‘rabid dogs’, ‘hungry wolves’, ‘wild pigs’ and rhetorically asks those who have named Jondollah a ‘popular resistance movement’ exactly what good Jondollah has ever done for Iran. He states that the group’s leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, has never been and will never be a representative of neither the Iranian people nor the people of Sistan-Baluchistan. He concludes:

“I would personally never want my name alongside that of the Revolutionary Guards … and would certainly never cooperate with them. However, if I should ever be forced to chose between the Guards of the Islamic Republic and Jondollah, without doubt I would chose the fortress of the Guards, and I would fight to root out the terrorism of this extremist religious and Taliban-esque [Jondollah] …”

However, the more or less nationalistic view on the issue – i.e., Jondollah being a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and not the regime of the Islamic Republic – is also supplemented with more nuanced views. Indeed, in the Persian blogosphere one often encounters an understanding for the bereaved, extremely poor people of Baluchistan, as well as sympathy for civilians who are inevitably going to get caught up in the ‘bloody revenge’ promised by Iranian authorities. One commentator on a website wrote that ‘tomorrow they will surely round up four random, innocent guys and execute them in public as “terrorists”’.

As usual, there are several conspiracy theories floating around cyberspace. One blogger – identifying as an Iranian woman – argues that this bombing should be seen as the latest in a string of ‘IRGC eliminations’: in other words, she is implying that the killing of the Revolutionary Guards commanders is part of a wider attempt at eliminating the old cadres of the IRGC in order to let the younger members take over. That theory seems a bit too far-fetched, but nonetheless reflect how widespread myths and ideas about the IRGC are in Iran today.

However, in my interpretation, the main point that shines through most cyberspace writing in Iran is the belief that Jondollah is a mercenary group. Thus, both the regime and the ordinary people will see the latest attack as the mindless spilling of (more or less) innocent blood by foreign powers pursuing their own geostrategic agendas through proxies such as Jondollah.

In February this year, the US State Treasury branded PJAK, the PKK-affiliated Kurdish guerilla group fighting the Iranian state, as terrorists. It will be interesting whether or not the US under Obama’s administration will also place Jondollah on the list. According to this article from ILNA, an Iranian news agency, Obama’s administration is considering to do exactly that. It would be the only decent thing to do. Jondollah is an extremist and opportunist group, willing to work with anyone, and willing to shed the blood of both civilians and military personnel. It is not a ‘popular resistance group’, as VOA once introduced them. Jondollah is a terrorist group, nothing more, nothing less.

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