Tag Archives: Baluchis

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.

A step in the right direction for Iran’s forgotten languages

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

On May 27, the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution – a powerful institution in Iranian cultural politics – took a very interesting step. Resolution 2950-88 declares that relevant universities are to be allowed to create two academic units worth of non-obligatory courses in the languages and literatures of ‘native tongues and dialects’. In other words, Iran is going to allow native non-Persian languages to be taught on a regular university level in several provinces. In particular, officials have mentioned Azeri, Kurdish, Turkmen and Baluchi as relevant to the resolution. As far as I can see from the sparse media coverage of the issue, the resolution is not necessarily limited to these languages.

The resolution is interesting for several reasons. First of all, language is at the center of the growing movement for ethnic rights among Iran’s many minorities. The resolution is clearly a concession to this movement and a high level recognition of the demand among minority proponents for the government to implement Article 15 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. This article stipulates that while Persian is to be the national language of Iran, local languages can be used in education and media. However, there have in effect always been limitations on and discrimination against the public use of ethnic minority languages in Iran.

Secondly, the resolution is important since it is exactly that: a resolution, and not just a proposal. Even though critics were quick to point out that it seemed very much like propaganda in the last days before the elections, the resolution is nonetheless passed and have been publicized. Even if we can expect major delays in its implementation, it will be hard for the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic to back down on this promise. The resolution was passed in the name of ‘strengthening and securing national unity’. The state is clearly aware that minority rights are an explosive issue. They want to preempt a full-fledged ethnic crisis.

Thirdly, we could maybe even call the resolution historic. Under the Pahlavi regime, ethnic minority languages were presented in official state discourse as despised remnants of foreign barbarism and medieval ignorance to be rapidly replaced with the pure Persian tongue of the ‘Aryans’. Tribal populations were subdued, Persian language strictly enforced and kids caught talking in their mother tongues in public schools were punished. The avant-garde of the 1978-9 Islamic Revolution promised freedom for all, language rights and multi-ethnic harmony, which never materialized. Minority media have only been able to work sporadically and under severe pressure, intimidation and repression; intellectuals and poets expressing themselves in non-Persian indigenous languages have been monitored and censored; and until recently, there was no institutionalized academic study of any of these languages in Iranian universities.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there has already been much skepticism about the resolution. Detractors argue that the resolution falls short of the demands of the ethnic movement: they want public education in the mother tongues from elementary school and up. They argue that in minority regions, children never learn Persian properly because they are analphabets in their own languages. They are supported by studies that clearly show the importance of mother language education for bi-lingual children.

Many remain skeptic if the resolution should even be seen as a sincere move. It is suspicious that it was passed on the eve of the elections and with the attendance of Ahmadinejad himself. Indeed, all opposition candidates talked openly about the ethnic issue and Musavi even promised a similar resolution. This may be no more than Ahmadinejad’s symbolic gesture towards voters amongst the discontented minorities.

Maybe the resolution will just end up somewhere in the vast bureaucracy or turn out in just a couple of showcase examples. Furthermore, it certainly does not look good that it is the Cultural Academy for Persian Language and Literature that is going to decide what languages are suitable and then design courses (even though they are to make these decisions in cooperation with another committee). It would also have been a good idea to set up an open process of cooperation with scholars and intellectuals, and to do some research into resources and perspectives, before announcing the resolution. It does not seem that the Council have done any of this.

It is going to be difficult to live up to the promises inherent in the resolution in a short period. Difficult, but not impossible: there are quite a lot of unofficial teaching materials in Azeri and Kurdish. However, the Islamic Republic will have to be willing to invest in updating and developing new materials, standardizing grammars, training teachers and cooperating with institutions in the Republic of Azerbaijan and maybe Iraq – and with scholars outside the region.

It is, for example, going to interesting to see if Iran is willing to teach with materials such as that of Baku, which is written not in the Iranian Turkic-Arabic alphabet but in the Latin (Azərbaycan əlifbası) alphabet. This would also create some interesting complications regarding the differences between what can be called Northern and Southern Azeri (and maybe even the future emergence of a Standard Azeri?). Furthermore, will there be two sets of teaching materials for the Kurds – one in Kurmanji and one in Sorani?

It will be even more interesting to see what the state will do with Baluchi and Turkmen: languages that have barely been studied and taught in Iran before, and languages that still need much academic attention and research. Iran will be able to learn something from their Turkmen neighbors in Ashgabat – but again, there is the Latin / Arabic divide. As far as I know, Baluchi is not taught in universities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iranian Turkmen and Baluchi have only recently become literary languages. A whole new branch of academic studies will have to be created. The list of interesting, inter-related questions continues…

But most interesting is that it would put the Iranian state in a precarious position of involuntarily supporting the trend towards increased communication and exchange over the borders that separates these ethnic groups. The alternative is that the Iranian state will develop a half-baked, amateurish set of teaching materials – maybe even of the heavily Persianized kind that made Iranian Azeris protest over the early state radio and TV programming in their mother tongue. That would surely be the recipe for disaster and one must expect the Cultural Academy to be more foresighted than that.

One can only hope that the Iranian state will live up to this new promise. Even though it is far from what proponents of the ethnic movement desire, it is a step in the right direction that will help strengthen national unity.

I’m intrigued. If anyone receives any new information from Iranian universities when the new semester begins, please let me know. I, for one, would love to see a brand new, standardized, government-approved Iranian set of teaching materials in Baluchi and Turkmen!

The looming threat of sectarian violence on Iran’s borders

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Jondollah, a Baluchi militant group, has executed 16 Iranian police officers. Now, Tehran accuses Saudi-Arabia of supporting Sunni terrorism in Iran’s restive southeastern border area.

Jondollah (also spelled Jundullah, Jundallah, etc.) – ‘God’s Army’ in Arabic – has been active for at least four years. Its young leader Abdolmalek Rigi is Iran’s most wanted man. Rigi has stated that his band of Baluchis – an ethnic minority living across the deserts between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – are fighting for their rights as a Sunni Muslim community in Shiite-ruled Iran. He also claims to fight for a democratic Iran respecting human rights. Yet, in 2006-7, Jondollah launched a string of gruesome terror acts. In March 2006, Jondollah militants dressed as Iranian soldiers stopped a convoy of cars on a remote desert road. The militants pulled the travelers – a mix of civilians, military officers and local administrators – out of their cars and shot down all 22, execution-style. In May 2006, during a similar ambush, Baluchi militants killed 12 travelers and took others hostage – this time near Kerman, in the centre of southern Iran. Video footage of Jondollah beheading hostages reached Iranian web sites. And in February 2007, Jondollah detonated a bomb in the provincial capital of Zahedan, killing 18 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Basiji officers on their way to work.

Iranian officials condemned the attacks as ‘blind terrorism’ and pointed accusing fingers at Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the US for supporting Jondollah. Iran has also criticized Pakistan for not cooperating in the hunt for Rigi and his group. The province of Sistan-Baluchistan – Iran’s poorest region and historically home to bandits and smugglers – has since seen a heavy military presence and severe security measures. Baluchi proponents have claimed that innocent civilians are harassed and local Sunni clerics persecuted while the leader of Jondollah hides across the borders in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Due to the inaccessible location and due to restrictions, it has been difficult for international media and human rights groups to verify claims of human rights abuse.

In June 2008, it was reported that militants abducted the police officers of a checkpoint near Saravan on the Iran-Pakistan border. Rigi claimed responsibility for the attack and demanded the release of 200 of his compatriots from Iranian prisons in return for the hostages. BBC reported that one of these prisoners was probably Rigi’s own brother, who had allegedly been handed over by Pakistani authorities to Iran. In October, one hostage was released; however it was also reported others had been killed. Indeed, the Arabic news channel Al-Arabiyya showed footage of the execution of three police officers.

Then, last week, deputy police commander Ahmad-Reza Radan confirmed that all 16 officers abducted from Saravan had been killed. Since the news broke, the Iranian government has promised to give a “tooth-breaking” response to Jondollah. On Monday, state-run Tehran Times reported that “Iranian intelligence and police forces have arrested some terrorists who were behind the killings of 15 Iranian police members”. The Minister of Intelligence, Hojjatoleslam Mohseni-Ezhe‘i stated that Pakistani authorities “did not cooperate sufficiently” in anti-Jondollah operations. MP Kazem Jalali said that Islamabad, after receiving evidence that Jondollah is supported by Pakistani “elements”, had promised to strike down on “terrorist groups”. Jalali also reported that footage of the trial against those arrested would soon be aired on national TV. Indeed, in this footage, Iranians are to see ‘nation-betrayers’ confessing to their terrorist acts and to the ‘regional and international’ support they have allegedly received. Furthermore, Jalali promised tougher action against smugglers of opium and heroin from Afghanistan. Iranian authorities and media have often linked Baluchi militant groups to the thriving drug trade that has blossomed since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Just as they did after previous Jondollah attack, Iranian media outlets have recently accused foreign powers of supporting the Baluchi militants. State-run Press TV quoted Pakistan’s former Army Chief, who allegedly stated in July that Jondollah was “the main recipient of US financial and military aid”. Iranian media has also used the work of investigative journalists from the US itself: Press TV regularly points to a 2007 ABC News report about US aid for Jondollah and to Seymour Hersh’s alleged revelations about US Congress funding for ‘covert operations’ in Iran. Indeed, in the Jondollah case, the Iranian state has found yet another tool to turn the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric on its head and present US as a major hypocrite in world politics. Thus, during Tuesday’s Security Council session, Iran’s UN representative could justly state that “Iran is a victim of terrorism. It has taken practical and effective measures in its fight against terrorist and extremist groups including Al-Qaeda and Jundullah”. The case of Jondollah’s terror is thus used to present Iran as an innocent victim of the West’s double standards.

However, this time, the accusing finger not only points to Washington but also to Iran’s rivals across The Persian Gulf. Apparently, the Arabic news website Nahrayn Net recently quoted ‘informed sources’ in Peshawar claiming that Jondollah is supported not only by the US but by the secret service of Saudi-Arabia. The Iranian News Agency Shahâb News wrote: “These sources stressed that evidence from Peshawar shows that Saudi-Arabia’s intelligence agency is directly and fully supporting Jondollah in its terrorist acts in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province …”. In the report, it is claimed that Riyadh is financially supporting Jondollah and that the ruling family in Saudi-Arabia has commanded Arabic media to report regularly on the actions of Jondollah.

Thus, Iranian media today portray Jondollah as a proxy army with which several enemies are fighting the Islamic Republic. Such reports should of course be seen on the historical background of tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf. Indeed, when Al-Arabiyya showed the Jondollah footage in October, Iranian Press TV published a piece titled ‘How to sponsor terrorism, Saudi-style’. The issue of Jondollah has become yet another point of conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia.

The Islamic Republic’s media exposure of Jondollah’s terror have caused politicians and spokespersons across the board to express their disgust with the group. However, this wide publicizing of Jondollah’s acts can also hurt the government itself. Student activists use the issue of Jondollah’s terror to depict the state apparatus, and Ahmadinejad’s government in particular, as incompetent. Speaking in the language of nationalism and patriotism, student groups have demanded that the government respond to the threat, confront Jondollah and force Pakistan to take responsibility for security on its side of the border. The main student organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity, recently criticized Ahmadinejad’s government for focusing on international issues, on defending Iran’s nuclear energy program and on repressing peaceful opposition in Tehran while the real threat is actually on Iran’s borders. The students also lambasted Iran’s security and intelligence agencies for being incompetent and inefficient in combating the terrorist threats.

However, the issue should not be reduced to the fight between the Iranian state and a militant group. What is much more dangerous is the lurking threat of a widening Sunni-Shia divide in Iran. Iran is predominantly Shiite and the political system dominated by Shiite clerics. However Baluchis, Turkmens and many Kurds are Sunnis, which makes them a sort of ‘double minority’ in majority-Persian Iran. Recently, Iranian Sunnis have become increasingly vocal in their expression of discontent with discrimination and marginalization. Indeed, there have been many signs of rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Baluchi areas: last month, a Sunni cleric was killed in Saravan, the border town mentioned earlier. Thus, when Iranian officials, state media and even opposition forces describe Jondollah’s attacks as a fetne – the Koranic word for discord – they convey an imbedded warning of sectarian violence looming on the horizon. There is indeed good reason to fear that Jondollah’s actions will provoke Shiites to attack Sunnis and cause further persecution of proponents of Sunni and ethnic minority rights.

Last but not least, the case of Jondollah threatens to make Iranians, and the world community, forget the plight of the Baluchi people. In their 2007 report, Amnesty International portrayed a broad-ranging clampdown on ethnic activists as well as militants. Despicable human rights breaches in the region and the economic and cultural discrimination against civilians were among the issues Amnesty pointed out. Furthermore, as the line between criminal and political activity has been blurred in the state discourse, it is feared that Iranian authorities use the fight against drug smuggling as a pretext for executing Baluchi activists. Thus, with Jondollah’s terror warfare, there is no room left for the voices of ethnic and religious minority rights. Indeed, over the last couple of weeks, Baluchi students at Zahedan University have protested against violent attacks by security forces – attacks that have resulted in the death of a student and the wounding of many others.

The question that remains is: if Western powers or Arab states are indeed supporting Jondollah, are they not in fact doing Iran’s Baluchis a great disservice? It is true that, potentially, Jondollah’s attacks can further destabilize the region and even cause confrontations between Iran and its neighbors. However, we must not forget that, apart from Iranian officers, the real victims are the Baluchis, who are being criminalized and persecuted on a daily basis as punishment for Jondollah’s actions.

The public debate in Iran leaves no doubt that Jondollah as a terrorist group is hated by common people. Even though its leaders have learned to place the group in the headlines of Iranian and international media, Jondollah is not a positive contribution to the democratic struggle in Iran – or to the fight for its own people.