Fasten your seat belts; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. As a crucial subplot of the New Great Game in Eurasia, Balochistan – on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border – promises turbulence aplenty. Welcome to United States General Stanley McChrystal’s self-fulfillment prophecy – “Chaos-istan” in action.
There are few doubts the deadly (as many as 49 fatalities) suicide bombing on Sunday in Pishin, near Sarbaz, in the deserted, impoverished Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan, was carried out by Pakistani Balochistan-based Jundallah (“Soldiers of God”).
This is being billed by Iranian state-controlled media as the worst suicide bombing ever in the country. Key casualties include the number two of the armed forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Brigadier Nour-Ali Shoushtari, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the provincial IRGC commander and assorted Sunni and Shi’ite tribal leaders.
The IRGC – the key component of the dictatorship of the mullahtariat currently in power in Tehran – is seething, to say the least. It is one thing to repress student protests in Tehran; but how could they not see this coming, and how could they not prevent it, considering their allegedly good ground intelligence on Jundallah’s support by the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia?
Ibrahim Raisi, the vice president of Iran’s judiciary, says there’s evidence the US and Britain support Jundallah not only with intelligence but with weapons. Conservative paper Resaalat denounces “Saudi money” and “American spies” who “have tried for years to raise ethnic tension in the region”.
Tehran’s paranoia does contain an element of truth: Iran is in effect encircled by the US in invaded Iraq and occupied Afghanistan, and it is a victim of terrorist attacks from outfits based in third countries. The head of the IRGC, General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, said that an Iranian team would go to Islamabad to “prove” that Jundallah was “supported by American and British intelligence services and unfortunately the Pakistani intelligence service”.
Meet the new contras
Jundallah was founded in 2003 by Nek Mohammad Wazir – a top, charismatic Pakistani Taliban commander killed by Islamabad’s forces in 2004. Its current leader is the youthful Abdel Malik Rigi, who studied at the famous Binori mosque in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, the alma mater of many a Taliban luminary.
Approximately 2,000 strong, Jundallah claims to represent the Sunni Balochi struggle against the centralizing power of Tehran. Nonsense: pan-Balochi aspirations actually are better represented by other Balochi nationalist groups, such as the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) in Pakistan. Jundallah for its part does not threaten Islamabad; it is an ultra-sectarian, anti-Shi’ite outfit immersed in the intolerant Deobandi interpretation of Islam.
Jundallah has its headquarters in Karachi and bases in both Balochistans. It does have a firm connection to the South Waziristan tribal areas; it has been connected to the hardcore Sunni and viscerally anti-Shi’ite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; and is definitely tactically connected to al-Qaeda, “talking” if not to the historic leadership ensconced, in theory, in South Waziristan, at least to the “new generation” al-Qaeda.
It was Jundallah that, last December, perpetrated the first suicide bombing ever in Iran, after spending a few years basically practicing sabotage, kidnapping officials and killing border guards. In May, only three weeks before the Iranian presidential election, Jundallah raised the stakes with an attack on the top mosque in Zahedan, the largest city in the southern part of Sistan-Balochistan.
Islamabad – as always when it comes to anything regarding Balochistan – is perplexed. It never knew how to deal with Balochi separatist movements in the first place – apart from iron-clad repression. But as far as Jundallah is concerned, Islamabad did try, it handed over Rigi’s brother, Abdul Hamid, to Tehran, branding Jundallah as a “terrorist organization”, and always protesting its innocence of the outfit’s designs.
Furthermore, in the middle of a sprawling, make-or-break offensive against the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan, the last thing Islamabad needs is diplomatic hell with regard to neighbor Iran. And there’s the inescapable Pipelineistan angle – how will the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline ever take off with both Balochistans on fire?
That inevitably brings out the US connection. Rigi’s brother, condemned to death in Iran, gave an interview to Iranian Press TV a few months ago in which he confirmed direct links between the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Jundallah, not only in terms of support but with cash changing hands. The CIA during the George W Bush years always loved Jundallah’s potential to cause havoc in eastern Iran. It’s no secret that during Bush’s second term, “regime change” in Iran was to be pursued by any means necessary.
Although no smoking gun is likely to arise, it makes sense – the CIA using Jundallah as a proxy army, the new “Balochi contras” (remember Nicaragua?) fighting “evil” Tehran. It’s the same modus operandi of Washington’s support for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and disgruntled Sunni Arabs living in western Khuzestan (or “Arabistan”) province, where the bulk of Iran’s oil is located.
Cynics in Tehran, commenting on the suicide bombing, note the massive US aid package to Pakistan is seemingly being put to good use. But the Obama administration knows very well it needs Tehran to keep western Afghanistan stable. And this attack further complicates the already ultra-sensitive Iranian nuclear negotiations that were back on the table on Monday in Vienna. But one thing is the Obama administrations’ priorities; another is the agenda of “full spectrum dominance” types at the Pentagon and the CIA.
Then there’s all-encompassing Pipelineistan. Chaos in Iranian Balochistan derails the IP pipeline – something that is an absolute priority for full spectrum dominance: Washington wants its horse, the Trans-Afghan (TAP) pipeline, to win at all costs. A “victory” of the IP pipeline means Gwadar port in Balochistan falling into China’s orbit, not the US’s (China built the port to start with).
For the Pentagon, the only acceptable scenario is to “win” Gwadar as a key node of Pipelineistan meeting the US empire of bases. (See Balochistan is the ultimate prize, Asia Times Online, May 9, 2009). There’s a key, new US base in the Dasht-e-Margo desert in southern Afghanistan, a stone’s throw from Pakistani Balochistan. There are another two US-controlled air bases in Dalbandin and Panjgur, in Pakistani Balochistan. Jundallah is resolutely anti-pipeline. It’s easy to see which interests converge.
Although still negligible in terms of a strategic threat to Tehran, Jundallah gains weight when it becomes a component of a warped “vision” – a hardcore Sunni strategic corridor straddling Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, the Khyber Agency in the Pakistani tribal areas, and Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan, with al-Qaeda as the glue. This is directly related to a recent “surge” of Balochis from Pakistan training in al-Qaeda camps in both North Waziristan and South Waziristan.
Tehran has many reasons to wonder whether the Pakistan army during the current, highly publicized offensive in South Waziristan will finally find and clear these camps. It won’t be easy: Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is on all-out fund-raising mode, demanding cash for weapons, food and medicine from assorted tribal politicians, businessmen, drug lords and jewelers, insisting the fight will be long. Only then will the Pakistan army’s offensive in Waziristan really dovetail with strangling Jundallah.
On the other side of the border, the war is set: it’s the IRGC against Jundallah and the massive drug trafficking in Sistan-Balochistan. But in terms of the turbulent, internal political equation in Iran, the symbolic meaning of the suicide bombing could not be more devastating.
It paints the IRGC – the key pillar of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s military dictatorship – as weak and incompetent, capable of beating up students in urban Tehran but incapable of controlling the country’s porous borders. Full spectrum dominance types could not dream of a better outcome.