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The Race for Iran

Guest Post by Dr. Jasim Husain Ali: Regional Implications of the Sistan-Baluchistan Attack

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Editor’s note: As we noted in our first post, The Race for Iran is meant not only as a platform for our analyses of Iran and its geopolitics, but also for assessment by other commentators, writing from their own intellectual and national or regional perspectives. We are pleased to present here our first “guest” post, by Dr. Jasim Husain Ali, a member of the Bahraini Parliament, director of the University of Bahrain’s Economic Research Unit, and a columnist on GCC political and economic affairs for Gulf News. In this post, Dr. Jasim offers an astute “local” perspective on the regional implications of Sunday’s Jundallah attack in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. We look forward to presenting the views of Jasim Husain Ali and other guest bloggers as we move forward with The Race for Iran.

The bloody attack of 18 October in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province could have far reaching regional implications. Among other considerations, the attack could deepen the region’s Sunni-Shia divide, as a Sunni extremist group known as Jundallah (“Soldiers of God”) took credit for the attack. Certainly, the style of the attack – which was perpetrated by a suicide bomber – bore hallmarks of Sunni Jihadi groups’ operations.

One theory prevalent in the region suggests that Jundallah is linked to Sunni elements in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Certainly, Sunni extremist groups such as Jundallah and some Sunni officials in the three countries share the goal of undermining Shi’a Iran.

The attack, which killed more than 40 people, including ranking commanders from the elite Revolutionary Guard, is already raising tensions between Iran and Pakistan. The Sistan-Baluchistan, where the attack occurred, is located in southeastern Iran bordering Pakistan. Certainly, Jundallah has supporters in Pakistan who share the group’s sense of grievance against Shi’a Iran for allegedly discriminating against its Sunni minority.

Tehran has openly suggested that some people associated with Pakistan’s intelligence services might have facilitated the attack. However, even if this Iranian charge is correct, it would be unfair to assume that Pakistani security officers acted on official orders. Pakistan needs all the support it can get while its forces are fighting Sunni extremists in provinces bordering Afghanistan. There is an opportunity for Islamabad to win Iranian support for these efforts if it identifies and publicizes connections between Jundallah and other Sunni extremist groups operating in Pakistan.

Of course, it is impossible to rule out the possible involvement of Iran’s rivals elsewhere in the region. One such possibility would link the assault to actors in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – most likely probably in either Saudi Arabia or the UAE, both of which have problems with Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Iran take opposing positions regarding current controversies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia has, for a long time, shunned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Dawa party (like other Shi’a parties) has close ties to Iran. In Afghanistan, Iran bitterly opposes the Taliban, which has longstanding links to Saudi Arabia.

There are also suspicions that some elements in Abu Dhabi have provided logistical support to Jundallah. Relations between the UAE and Iran are at a low point. Recently, Iranian media sources accused the UAE of revoking residency permits for Lebanese Shi’a merely because of their faith. Over the past several months, UAE authorities have expelled tens of Lebanese Shi’a in what these authorities described as a sovereignty practice. Visiting Abu Dhabi in October, the (Shi’a) Speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament, Nabih Berri, failed to persuade UAE officials to reverse these policies. More fundamentally, the UAE’s problems with Iran flow from a longstanding dispute over the ownership of three Gulf islands – Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs – that are controlled by Iran.

It is hardly surprising that Tehran blamed both Washington and London for the attack, given the state of Iran’s relations with the two Western capitals. It would be more surprising, at least in the near term, for Iran to accuse Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE of helping the attackers. Nevertheless, the Sistan-Baluchistan attack has the potential to deepen the Sunni-Shia divide and escalate regional tensions.

– Dr. Jasim Husain Ali

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