Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Enemies at the borders

Right Web | Profile | Iran Policy Committee: "...the IPC paper maintains that the Bush administration should find a role for “the Iranian opposition in Iraq to build a national compact among the Iraqi factions.” For the IPC, the “Iranian opposition in Iraq” is represented by the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a group that has been identified by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group. "


An explosion in the south-eastern Iranian city of Zahedan should give pause for thought about wider instability in the Middle East.

February 14, 2007 5:17 PM

Ian Black

It's bombs in Baghdad that tend to hit the headlines these days, but a deadly explosion in the south-eastern Iranian city of Zahedan should give pause for thought about wider instability in the Middle East, who is targeting whom and why.

Reports from the scene, close to the Pakistani border, confirmed at least 11 revolutionary guards killed by a car bomb that destroyed their bus. Iran's official media reported that the attack had been claimed by a Sunni group called Jundullah (Soldiers of God), which Tehran has linked both to al-Qaida and the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan. Zahebad is the capital of the province where Iran's own Baloch minority is concentrated.

Predictably, given current tensions over Iraq and Iran's nuclear ambitions, an official Iranian source was quick to charge that the attack had been perpetrated by a group "with support from the US."

It's hard to be certain about the truth of these claims in the swirl of propaganda and misinformation that surrounds such incidents, always grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists. But there is common sense in the view of one strategic analysis website that this is part of a much wider conflict.

"The US-Iranian standoff over Iraq has reached a high level of intensity," commented (subscription only) Stratfor, supplier of intelligence to the international business community. "While the hard-line rhetoric and steps toward negotiations absorb the media's attention, a covert war being played out between Iran on one side, and the United States and Israel on the other, will escalate further. While Israel appears to be focused on decapitating Iran's nuclear programme through targeted assassinations, the United States has likely ramped up support for Iran's variety of oppressed minorities in an attempt to push the Iranian regime toward a negotiated settlement over Iraq."

Much hangs on that tentative word "likely".

Jundullah has been blamed in the past for kidnappings and killings in this wild border area, where drug-smuggling is a big preoccupation for the Iranian security forces. It was accused last year of killing 12 people as well as a security guard protecting the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The alleged al-Qaida connection also makes nonsense of the occasional suggestion in the west that Tehran is somehow in cahoots with Osama bin Laden.

It is not the first time that Iran has linked trouble in its border regions to its enemies. Tehran regularly accuses the US and Britain of fomenting separatism in Khuzestan, the oil-rich, ethnic Arab majority area in the south-west. That was where, on the eve of the 1980 war, Saddam Hussein backed the young men who took over the Iranian embassy in London - triggering the famous siege by the SAS in 1980.

And there have been unsubstantiated claims that the US is using the Iranian exile group the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) - banned as a terrorist group in the US and EU - as a proxy to mount attacks in both Baluchistan and Khuzestan.

Iran's Balochs form part of the country's 9% Sunni Muslim minority, so it was heartening to see a swift appeal from a local religious leader to avoid sectarian revenge attacks. Sunni Saudi Arabia, banging the drum over the "Shia crescent" and rising Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, has repeatedly made clear in recent days that fomenting sectarianism can cut both ways. The Zahedan bombings might have been an illustration of that point.

Ian Black is currently the Guardian's leader writer on foreign affairs and has previously been its European editor in Brussels (2000-2004), diplomatic editor in London (1993-2000) and Middle East correspondent based in Jerusalem. (1984-1993).

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