Page 1 of 2 Balochis intensify rebellion in Iran
By Chris Zambelis
The conflict between Iranian security forces and ethnic Baloch insurgents led
by the Jundullah (Soldiers of God) - an obscure militant group also known as
the People's Resistance Movement of Iran - that has been raging in Iran's
southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan since 2003 is experiencing an
increase in hostilities.
The latest spate of violence was sparked by Iran's refusal to heed Jundullah's
June 2008 demand that it release Abdulhamid Rigi, the brother of Jundullah
founder and leader Abdulmalak Rigi, along with three other jailed members of
Jundullah. Pakistani authorities detained Rigi and his associates in Quetta in
Pakistan's Balochistan province for attempting to pass as Pakistani nationals.
The men were later transferred into Iranian custody. After the handover,
Jundullah ambushed an Iranian police outpost and abducted 16 police officers in
Saravan, a town located near the Pakistani border. The Iranian hostages were
reportedly then transferred over the Iranian-Pakistan border into Pakistani
In another incident, Iranian security officials arrested a prominent Baloch
cleric in early August 2008, setting off a wave of protests in the province.
Iranian authorities then bulldozed the Abu Hanifa mosque and school in Zabol a
few weeks later and arrested students and members of the congregation, sparking
further outrage among the Baloch. 
Jundullah later released a video that was aired on al-Arabiya news channel
claiming that they had executed two of the 16 police officers they were holding
and were prepared to kill the rest of the hostages if Iran failed to release
200 of its members currently held in Iranian prisons. Jundullah also
assassinated an Iranian official in Sistan-Balochistan, prompting another
crackdown by the security services. While Jundullah is reported to have freed
one of the hostages under mysterious circumstances sometime in September 2008,
a December 5 announcement by Iranian authorities claimed that all of the
hostages had been executed. The statement also promised "massive retaliation"
Resort to new tactics
Tensions in Iranian Balochistan flared again when Jundullah introduced a new
tactic in its violent campaign against Tehran by executing a suicide car
bombing on December 28, 2008, against the headquarters of Iran's joint police
and anti-narcotics unit in Saravan.
The attack killed four officers and injured scores more. The bombing was highly
uncharacteristic of Jundullah's previous operations. While suicide car bombings
have been used to great effect by Iraqi insurgents, especially among groups
representing the radical Islamist strain of the Sunni Arab insurgency and
increasingly by militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, similar attacks are
unheard of in Iran.
Jundullah's violent track record has generally entailed terrorist attacks and
guerilla-style operations against Iranian security forces and other symbols of
the state across Sistan-Balochistan, as well as abductions and assassinations
of state officials. The introduction of suicide bombings into the conflict
points to a new and increasingly violent stage in Jundullah's struggle against
Tehran, one that is sure to elicit harsher crackdowns by Iranian security
forces and contribute to wider instability in the region.
The identity of the bomber also adds to the significance of Jundullah's attack.
By all accounts, the bombing was executed by Abdulghafoor Rigi, the younger
brother of Jundullah leader Abdulmalak Rigi. According to Baloch activist
sources, the attack was intended to serve as an example for others within the
Baloch nationalist movement to follow, in Iran and beyond. At the same time,
the same sources also emphasize that suicide bombings are not compatible with
Baloch values, but have become necessary due to the nature of the Baloch
struggle and Iranian repression. 
The suicide attack is also being compared to the first and, until recently,
only suicide bombing by a Baloch militant; in 1974, Abdul Majeed Lango targeted
Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a suicide bombing in Pakistani
Balochistan, but failed to hit his target. 
While Jundullah's emphasis has been to attack Iranian targets in
Sistan-Balochistan, the group has threatened to carry out more suicide attacks
in other parts of Iran, including in major cities such as Tehran.  Despite
this apparent threat, there are no indications that Jundullah has a genuine
interest or ability to expand its violent campaign outside of
Sistan-Balochistan in the foreseeable future. Suicide attacks against Iranian
targets in Sistan-Balochistan, however, especially those targeting Iranian
security services, may become more common.
Roots of the Baloch insurgency
To understand the roots of the Baloch insurgency, it is important to consider
Iran's complex ethno-national and sectarian composition. Iran's ethnic Persian
and Farsi-speaking population represents only a slight majority of Iran's total
population of approximately 70 million, a population that includes sizeable
Azeri, Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, and Baloch ethnic communities.
A large majority of Iranians are Shi'ite Muslims. In contrast, the ethnic
Baloch minority in Iran numbers between one and four million, nearly all of
whom are Sunni Muslims. Iranian Balochistan is also one of Iran's poorest and
most underserved provinces. Tehran has great difficulty administering law and
order in the region, having to rely instead on harsh security crackdowns that
alienate the public. Given its poverty, lawlessness, and porous border with
Pakistan, Iranian Balochistan has emerged as a smuggler's paradise, a
reputation that has made it both a regular target of the Iranian security
services and an attractive base for enterprising criminals.
These factors contribute to the belief among many Baloch - and other ethnic and
sectarian minorities in Iran - that the highly centralized Shi'ite Muslim and
Persian-centric face of the Islamic Republic operates a policy of
state-sponsored discrimination and cultural subjugation of non-Persian and
Baloch disaffection with the Islamic Republic must also be seen in the context
of the Baloch historical narrative. Iranian Baloch, for instance, identify
strongly with their kin in neighboring Pakistan, which is home to the region's
largest Baloch community, and the Baloch community in Afghanistan. Baloch
family and tribal links also span across the Iranian, Pakistani, and Afghani
Iranian Baloch look to their kin in Pakistan, who have been waging a war for
self-determination for decades. Baloch nationalists often refer to the lands
where all Baloch reside as "Greater Balochistan", and Iranian Balochistan as
"West Balochistan". The Baloch narrative is also shaped by a feeling that the
legacy of colonialism has left the Baloch people divided and without a
homeland, much like the predicament facing the Kurds in the Middle East.
The Baloch also feel as if they have no allies, as even regional rivals of Iran
have a history of collaborating to curb Baloch nationalist aspirations to
further their mutual interests. Iran and Pakistan, for instance, have a history
of jointly suppressing Baloch nationalism through harsh measures, as both
countries perceive Baloch activism as a threat to their territorial integrity.
Pakistan's speedy handover of Jundullah members to Iran reflects one aspect of
Iranian-Pakistani security cooperation in this area.
The politics of energy pipelines also help foster closer cooperation between
Iran and Pakistan in suppressing Baloch nationalism. The greatly coveted
Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline that will carry natural gas from Iran's
South Pars field to Pakistan and India will traverse both Iranian and Pakistani
Balochistan on its way to India and possibly even to China down the line.