Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, in which five senior officers of the Revolutionary Guard and at least 30 other people were killed, marks a significant escalation in an ongoing Sunni Islamist terror campaign directed against the Islamic Republic. We do not believe that Sunday’s attack and the ongoing campaign of terrorist violence represents a fundamental threat to the Islamic Republic’s basic political stability. However, we do believe the attack will exacerbate Iranian threat perceptions about its regional neighbors and the United States at a delicate point in the diplomatic process launched at the October 1 Geneva meeting between senior Iranian officials and representatives of the P-5+1.
The attacks appear to have been carried out by Jundallah (Arabic for “soldiers of God”), which is also known as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran. Jundallah is a Sunni Islamist group that claims to be fighting for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. Its activities and attacks are focused on Sistan-Baluchistan, which is the Islamic Republic’s only Sunni-majority province.
Jundallah’s involvement in Sunday’s attack exacerbates Iranian threat perceptions in two important ways.
First, the attack will intensify Iranian suspicions about the strategic intentions of Pakistan and Sunni Arab states allied to the United States. In no small part, these suspicions flow from efforts launched by President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama to forge a coalition of Sunni Arab states, along with the United States and Israel, to rollback the recent expansion of Iran’s regional influence. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among other U.S. officials, continues to exhort Sunni Arab states to bolster their own military capabilities and join together with the United States and other regional players to “contain” the Islamic Republic.
For their part, Sunni Arab states are increasingly concerned about the Islamic Republic’s rising influence in important regional arenas – Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian politics – which these states decry as Iranian influence in “Arab affairs”. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states have been particularly exercised about what they see as Iranian “meddling” even in Yemen, where indigenous Shi’a have been protesting – sometimes violently – against what they claim is systematic discrimination against them.
Saudi Arabia has been actively seeking ways to “push back” against Iran. For example, the Kingdom played a critical role in funneling money to the March 14 coalition in Lebanon’s recent parliamentary elections – including paying for Lebanese expatriates to travel to Lebanon to vote for the March 14 bloc and against Hizballah, which has close ties to the Islamic Republic. In this context, support by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni states for Sunni Islamist groups operating against Iranian interests takes on an ominous cast in Iranian perceptions.
Jundallah is based in Pakistani Baluchistan, part of a dangerous “triangle” encompassing Baluchi areas in Iran, Baluchi areas in Pakistan, and Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. Jundallah has long received various types of support from Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. Indeed, Iranian officials have already said that they believe the perpetrators of Sunday’s attack received assistance from ISI. From its base in Pakistani Baluchistan, Jundallah has ample opportunities to forge cooperative ties not only to ISI, but also to the Taliban and third-country intelligence services interested in stoking anti-Iranian activism. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service has a longstanding strategic collaboration with the ISI as well as a long record of dealing with Sunni Islamist groups operating out of Pakistan.
Second, and even more significantly, many experienced observers of U.S. intelligence activities in Central and South Asia believe that U.S. intelligence agencies have their own ties to Jundallah, and are using the group to foment instability – or, at least, the perception of instability – inside Iran. We do not know what the nature of the CIA’s links to Jundallah might be. However, as we wrote in a New York Times Op Ed in May, President Obama inherited from his predecessor a number of overt programs for “democracy promotion” in Iran, as well as covert initiatives directed against Iranian interests. Obama has done nothing to scale back or stop these programs – a posture that has not gone unnoticed in Tehran.
In this context, it will be easy for the Iranian leadership to believe that there was an American hand in Sunday’s attack. Notwithstanding State Department denials of U.S. involvement, Iran’s Parliament speaker Ali Larijani said explicitly that “the terrorist attack is the result of U.S. efforts and a sign of U.S. hostility towards Iran”. Larijani contrasted this “U.S. hostility” to President Obama’s offer of an extended hand to Iran, noting that the Iranian people rightly doubt America’s intentions.
Those readers familiar with our previous writings on Iran know that we believe the United States needs to reorient its policy toward the Islamic Republic as fundamentally as President Nixon reoriented U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. In this regard, it is illuminating to recall that, within months of taking office in January 1969, Nixon directed the CIA to stand down from a covert operations program in Tibet that had been going on for more than a decade. Similarly, Nixon ordered the Seventh Fleet to stop patrolling in the Taiwan Straits. Nixon took these steps to demonstrate to the Chinese leadership his seriousness about Sino-American strategic rapprochement. It is disappointing that President Obama is not prepared to demonstrate a similar level of seriousness about getting America’s Iran policy right.
– Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett