Page 1 of 2 Iran trapped in a ring of unrest
By Mahan Abedin
Sunday's suicide bomb attack on a conference hall in the Pishin region of
Iran's vast Sistan and Balochistan province is by all accounts a major blow
against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the most important
military and security institution in the country.
It is now known that at least 42 people were killed in the attack, among them
four of the most senior commanders of the IRGC. They include Generals Noor Ali
Shooshtari (the deputy commander of IRGC land forces), Rajab Ali Mohammad-Zadeh
(the commander of IRGC forces in the Sistan and Balochistan province), Hossein
Moradi (commander of the IRGC garrison in the county of Iranshahr) and Ali
Alavian (the commander of the IRGC's "Sarallah" Corps - a prestigious infantry
unit). This is the
biggest blow against the IRGC since the days of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
The loss of Noor Ali Shooshtari is particularly significant, since aside from
his role as the deputy commander of IRGC land forces at a national level,
recently he had taken direct control over all IRGC operations in the volatile
southeast of the country. According to IRGC sources, for the past five months,
Shooshtari had acted as the effective military governor of Sistan and
Balochistan province, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan and which is a
major center of activity for organized criminals, secessionists and other
political and religious extremists.
In this unofficial capacity as military governor, Shooshtari had presided over
attempts to involve as many local actors as possible in the large-scale effort
to bring security to the volatile province. The large gathering on Sunday was
the fifth meeting of its kind and was designed to deepen ties between competing
tribal elders and rival Shi'ite and Sunni groups in the province.
Contrary to some local and international reporting, Shooshtari had not been a
member or commander in the IRGC's fabled Quds Corps, the foreign special
operations unit of the Revolutionary Guards. The confusion may have arisen
because of Shooshtari's ties to the Quds garrison (no relation to the Quds
Corps), which is one of the main national operational headquarters of the IRGC.
Details of the early morning attack are still sketchy, but IRGC sources now
rule out a second suicide bomber. The lone suicide bomber is believed to have
hid explosives on his body and detonated them as he approached the senior IRGC
commanders. The sheer scale of the loss has led some Iranian and international
media to speculate about a "sophisticated" operation, but all the available
information in the local media and information supplied by IRGC and
intelligence sources in Tehran point to a simple and straight-forward suicide
The meeting had been semi-open and the tribal elders had been encouraged to
bring relatives to the gathering. It seems that neither the IRGC nor the local
branch of the Ministry of Intelligence had subjected the list of participants
to forensic and exhaustive vetting. Indeed, one source has told me that the
list of participants had been changing up until Saturday evening, thereby
giving the Sunni militant group, Jundallah, plenty of opportunity to sneak in a
The same source contends that body searches of the participants had been
"perfunctory" at best and that some tribal elders and their guests had not been
body searched at all.
This spectacular terrorist attack brings lax IRGC security into sharp relief.
The weaknesses may be less institutional and more bound up with the culture of
senior IRGC commanders who feel compelled to project physical courage and take
extraordinary risks with their personal security. But in a highly volatile and
dangerous environment like Sistan and Balochistan, where the IRGC has been
burdened with a complex set of security, political, social and administrative
tasks, security consciousness must override any other consideration.
At a broader strategic level, this attack exposes the Iranian government's lack
of strategic vision and action. While the United States may not have directed
this terrorist attack, the fact is that the emergence of suicide bombings in
Sistan and Balochistan is a recent phenomenon that is entirely connected to the
prevailing regional strategic environment, which has been shaped for the most
part by the Americans.
To counter this threat successfully, the Iranian government needs to articulate
an alternative strategic vision for the region and develop and implement more
complex policies on the outstanding issues in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Jundallah: An overstated threat
The Iranian establishment's strong reaction to the terrorist attack must be
understood not only in the context of the scale of the loss but also its
symbolism. The IRGC is not only the most important military and security
institution of the country; it is also the most important institution to have
emerged from the Islamic Revolution of 1979, from both practical and symbolic
points of view.
The Revolutionary Guards may not be the most popular institution right now,
owing to the post-election disturbances in June, where the Basij (the
paramilitary arm of the IRGC) played the leading role in suppressing rioters
and protesters alike. But to hardcore supporters of the Islamic regime, the
IRGC is nothing less than a hallowed institution; an attack on the IRGC is
considered an assault on the heart and soul of the Islamic Republic. The IRGC
is deemed to represent the military will of the Islamic Revolution and the
readiness of Iranian Islamists to safeguard the achievements of the Islamic
Revolution, through force of arms if necessary.
Ideology and symbolism aside, the IRGC plays the leading role in the military
and security spheres. Iran is the only country in the world to operate two
completely independent military commands; one by the regular military and the
other by the IRGC, which maintains its own army, navy and air force. Weakening
the IRGC does not only imperil the Islamic regime, it also has a detrimental
effect on internal security and Iranian territorial integrity.
Notwithstanding the severity of the attack, the strong reaction by Iranian
politicians and the overstated desire to wreak retribution runs the risk of
inflating Jundallah and drawing yet more disaffected people in the province
towards the terrorist outfit.
Jundallah, which also styles itself as the "People's Resistance Movement of
Iran", is a small terrorist outfit that emerged on the scene in late 2003 and
early 2004. While the group has conducted numerous low-scale hit-and-run
attacks it has up to now only conducted nine major or well-planned terrorist
operations. Aside from the latest attack, the most significant have been the
so-called "Tasooki" massacre in March 2005 when Jundallah militants set up fake
road blocks and killed 22 people, most of whom were civilians; a February 2007
attack on a bus carrying IRGC personnel, killing 18 Revolutionary Guards; the
mass abduction of 16 personnel of the Law Enforcement Agency (Nirooyeh
Entezami) in June 2008 and their transfer to Pakistan (the fate of the
abductees is not clear but they are thought to have been killed in Pakistan);
and the bombing of a Shi'ite mosque in Zahedan (capital of Sistan and
Balochistan province) in May 2009 which killed at least 25 worshippers.
The group's success in carrying out spectacular terrorist operations has not
been matched by the elucidation of a clear and cohesive ideology. Indeed, the
group's spokesmen (who often appear on Saudi-owned satellite broadcasters,
particularly al-Arabiyah) outline an inconsistent and confused narrative; at
times projecting clearly secessionist demands and at other times merely calling
Similarly, at times the group's spokesmen bemoan the Iranian government's
alleged discriminatory policies towards Balochi Sunnis and at other times they
exhibit clear hostility towards Shi'ite Muslims as a whole. In one
extraordinary telephone interview in May 2006, Abdolmalek Rigi (the founder and
leader of Jundallah) told Rooz (an online news and commentary outlet run by the
more radical wing of the Iranian reformist movement) that he considered himself
an "Iranian" and that Baloch grievances must be settled within the boundaries
of present-day Iran.
While Jundallah deploys suicide bombers and its supporters at times express
hatred towards Shi'ite Muslims, there is little else that connects it to
so-called militant Sunni extremist groups operating in Pakistan and
Afghanistan. Inside Sistan and Balochistan, the group does not enjoy widespread
popular support, but hardcore and veteran Baloch nationalists (who tend to be
secular for the most part) have extended moral and practical support, albeit
grudgingly. Jundallah also enjoys rhetorical support from small exiled Baloch
nationalist groups, particularly in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Norway.
Iranian counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence efforts have succeeded in
containing the group and driving it across the border into Pakistan. The
Iranians have arrested hundreds of members and supporters of Jundallah in
recent years and tried and executed dozens of them for terrorism-related