Iran wages lonely war on terror
By M K Bhadrakumar
The timing of the attack on the Ali ibn Abi Talib mosque in the eastern Iranian
city of Zahedan in the Sistan-Balochistan province bordering Pakistan was by no
means casual. Zahedan is a Sunni city. And Shi'ites were mourning the
anniversary of Hazrat Zahra, granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad. Over 25
worshippers were killed in last Thursday's attack on the Shi'ite mosque, and
But there are three other reasons why a high-profile, cross-border terrorist
attack on Iran from Pakistan took place. One, Iran-Pakistan relations are
passing through a period of cordiality and warmth and a cross-border strike was
just the right thing to do to
dissipate the newfound bonhomie. Two, US President Barack Obama's much-awaited
address to the Muslim world on June 4 raises expectations in the region that a
momentous period is at hand in which Iran could be the focal point.
Three, the most crucial presidential election, arguably, in Iran's
post-revolution 30-year history will be held on June 12, and marring it will be
sweet revenge against the government headed by the "Holocaust-denying",
"Israel-hating", "America-bashing" Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Plot to disrupt Sunni-Shi'ite amity
Tehran would have a watch list of "naughty powers" with stakes in Middle
Eastern geopolitics. Yet, as indignation boiled over regarding the Zahedan
attack, it took exceptional care while articulating its feelings. We have not
heard an explicit word so far about an American or British intelligence hand
behind the Zahedan attack.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei referred to "certain expansionist superpowers and
their spying organizations" and warned the people against "opponents of the
country's independence and progress" and against "certain people trying to harm
national unity". Again, in a demarche with the Pakistani ambassador in Tehran,
the Iranian Foreign Ministry vaguely mentioned that "certain people" oppose any
expansion of the Iran-Pakistan relationship and "whenever they observe any
improvement of ties, they try to tarnish it". It almost appears the
Obama-driven detente is gaining traction.
The Iranian leaders underscored that the Zahedan attack was aimed at agitating
"Islamic solidarity". Ahmadinejad said: "Sunni and Shi'ite brothers will
undoubtedly recognize and neutralize conspiracies through their vigilance."
Indeed, the attack took place against the backdrop of a public spat between
Iran and Saudi Arabia in the recent period. Tehran has objected to the
anti-Shi'ite stances of the Saudi-based Wahhabist clergy.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki revealed that Tehran recently
told Riyadh that "Saudi alims [scholars] are not allowed to impose their
own beliefs and religious viewpoints over others and that Muslims must be free
to act in accordance with the rules of their own Islamic schools of thought,
which of course is not equal with the breach of Saudi laws."
Mottaki said Tehran was in possession of evidence pointing at "foreign
elements" in Afghanistan supporting the Jundallah. But the reference could as
well have been to Wahhabist elements like al-Qaeda, whom Iran in the past
blamed for promoting Jundallah. More so, as he also spoke positively in the
same media interaction about the prospects of "practical and fruitful talks"
between the US and Iran once the Iranian elections of June 12 are over.
The official news agency IRNA even featured amid all this a commentary on
Saturday saluting Obama. It quoted an Iranian expert that "the US opposes
Israeli adventurism against Iran"; that Israel has become presently the "most
serious challenge" to the Obama administration; that "extremist and violent
elements" in Israel regarded Obama as a "big challenge to Tel Aviv"; that
"Israel preferred US policies to stay unchanged and wanted America, like in the
[George W] Bush era, to follow a policy of animosity towards Iran and that is
why it is trying to fan the flame of dispute between Iran and the US". The
commentary added that "Israel would never be capable of any military action
against Iran unless it manages to get the green light for it from Washington
... [and] Israel could not get the green light from the US for adventurism
Long-time observers of Iran would rub their eyes in disbelief. Doubly so, as US
State Department officials leaked to the American media over the weekend its
advisory that Iranian diplomats will be included in the guest lists for the
July 4 Independence Day receptions in the American chancelleries worldwide - an
extravagant gesture of courtesy by a superpower to a country it doesn't
Meanwhile, Tehran is probing deeper and deeper into the Zahedan attack. Tehran
cannot raise an international scandal when the June 12 election is delicately
poised. There is a genuine four-cornered contest, which might push the election
to a "run-off" on June 19. An incumbent Iranian president has probably never
before faced such a real challenge. Secondly, Tehran is seized of the
geopolitical reality that the US-Israeli honeymoon that seemed evergreen may
not be so, after all. Tehran knows diplomatic opportunities lie ahead and
rhetorical outbursts against Washington will only play into Israeli hands.
Thus, there is growing frustration that Pakistan could do more to curb
cross-border terrorism. An Iran-Pakistan counter-terrorism mechanism is in
place with regular exchange of intelligence and even coordinated security
operations. The chief of the Iranian armed forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi,
claimed on Saturday that Tehran had passed on to Islamabad pin-point
information about Jundallah's base camps inside Pakistan.
But it seems Islamabad doesn't follow up. According to Fars news agency,
"Tehran has repeatedly warned Islamabad that if it cannot handle the situation
at and inside its borders with the Islamic Republic, Iran has the required
power and military capabilities to trace and hunt down such terrorist groups
inside Pakistan." The Iranian Foreign Ministry maintains that the Zahedan
attacks could have been averted if only Islamabad had acted promptly on the
intelligence passed on by Tehran about such a Jundallah operation.
Grey area in AfPak strategy
Evidently, Jundallah is a thorn in the flesh and Tehran badly needs to get rid
of it, but cannot quite have its way. There have been persistent reports that
US Special Forces operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan have provided arms and
training to Jundallah.
Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani told agitated Iranian parliamentarians
on Sunday that the US had "long had contacts" with Jundallah. "Due to the
obstacles they face in the region, Americans seek to find a way forward for
attaining their objectives at all costs, but these terrorist acts will
eventually cost them dearly," he warned.
The fact remains that although Washington has publicly distanced itself from
the Zahedan attack, it still refuses to include Jundallah in its list of
terrorist organizations, plainly ignoring Tehran's claims that Jundallah is
associated with al-Qaeda. To be sure, there is a grey area in the US's AfPak
strategy, which creates misgivings in regional capitals. The Obama
administration must come clean if an Afghan settlement is to be durable.
The Russian official state television channel Rossiya recently featured a
program on the Pakistani military operations in the Swat region. The
commentator pointed out that there are "many contradictions" in the US role in
Pakistan. "There are many indications that by pushing Pakistan towards the
chaos of civil war, Washington is trying to destabilize the general political
situation in the region for its own benefit and to the detriment of is
geopolitical rivals," the commentator said.
For 30 years now, Pakistan has been China's key
ally, a sort of buffer for Beijing. Islamabad is the main customer for Chinese
weapons. Beijing has been helping with its nuclear program ... Beijing has been
allowed to use the port of Gwadar in Balochistan. With this port, China can
open a direct energy corridor from Africa and the Middle East.
Destabilization of Pakistan is a direct challenge to China and China
understands this very well ... India, Central Asian states and of course Russia
are also watching developments with alarm. As happened many times in history,
Washington is creating a problem and then using it to gain new benefits.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two former Iran hands in the National
Security Council during the George W Bush administration wrote in an article in
the New York Times recently about much the same thing - that Obama is yet to
dismantle the covert program that Bush installed to destabilize Iran.
Hillary Leverett told the BBC last week that Iran had given substantive
cooperation on al-Qaeda, including at one point providing Washington with a
list of 220 suspects and their whereabouts. In one instance in December 2002,
she says, soon after the US gave Tehran the names of five al-Qaeda suspects it
believed were in Iran, Tehran found two and delivered them to the US air base
at Bagram in Afghanistan.
The Iranian response to the presence of hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects in the
region was such that "the [Iranian] Foreign Ministry took the evidence,
passports, vital information - and gave us [Washington] pages and even a chart
showing the disposition or what they'd done with each person", broken down by
"those who had been turned away at the border, or been detained or deported".
Ironically, all this traffic continued for a while even after Bush labeled Iran
as part of an "axis of evil" until the hardliners in Washington cried halt to
any cooperation with Tehran. No wonder, Iranian rhetoric often contemplates
whether al-Qaeda could be a strange beast with stars and stripes.
The Zahedan attack opens a can of worms. Obama needs to be wary of his own team
scuttling Iranian attempts at rapprochement. Equally, US special representative
for AfPak Richard Holbrooke, who might seek a "grand bargain" with Tehran at
some point, shouldn't be surprised if his interlocutors are fundamentally
defensive - like cats on a hot tin roof.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.