Issues of dissent and rebellion amongst Iran’s elaborate patchwork of ethnic and sectarian minority communities are receiving increasing international scrutiny. Many advocacy organizations representing Iranian minorities accuse Tehran of operating a policy of cultural subjugation aimed at erasing identities distinct from Iran’s dominant Persian culture and Shiite brand of Islam. In some cases, these grievances have led to unrest and bloodshed. The latest round of violence between ethnic Baloch nationalists led by Jondallah (“Soldiers of God”) and Iranian security forces in the province of Sistan-Balochistan is indicative of this wider trend in Iranian society. The shadowy Jondallah group emerged sometime in 2003 to advocate on behalf of Baloch rights. It has been known to operate under other monikers as well, including the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran (PMRI).
Tehran has implicated Jondallah in a series of high-profile terrorist and guerrilla attacks against the security forces and symbols of the regime in Iranian Balochistan. Bold operations—such as the June 2005 abduction of Iranian military and intelligence personnel along the Iranian-Pakistani border and the February 2007 car bomb attack against a bus transporting members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) just outside of the provincial capital of Zahedan that left 11 dead and scores injured—have become a Jondallah signature (see Terrorism Focus, February 27, 2007).
Iranian government sources reported a series of clashes in recent weeks between Jondallah rebels and the IRGC and provincial police forces in Iranian Balochistan. On December 13, Iranian security units reported killing 12 men belonging to Jondallah and arresting others affiliated with the group in the city of Iranshahr. Security officials also reported the discovery of a weapons cache that included automatic rifles, ammunition, detonators and explosives material, as well as communications equipment and what were described as “important internal documents.” They also claimed that the detainees confessed to being part of a cell planning a series of bombings across the province in an effort to foment ethnic and sectarian unrest (Islamic Republic News Agency, December 13, 2007).
Subsequent reports alleged that Jondallah leaders and four men directly implicated in previous terrorist attacks were among those killed and detained by Iranian security forces (Voice of the Islamic Republic TV, December 19, 2007). In a December 14 interview, Jondallah’s young leader Abdulmalak Rigi disputed the official casualty count, and claimed that only one member of his group was killed in the battle. Rigi, who is reported to be in his mid-twenties, also claimed that Iranian forces killed civilians during the skirmishes—including women and children—and that his forces killed 26 IRGC officers. He vowed to “take revenge for the women and children who were killed” (Voice of the Islamic Republic TV, December 19, 2007).
In another sign of escalating tensions, Iran hanged two Baloch men convicted of armed robbery and drug smuggling on December 31, in a Zahedan prison and amputated the right hand and left foot of five others convicted on armed robbery and kidnapping charges a few days later (Iranian Students’ News Agency, January 6; balochpeople.org, January 7). Baloch activists accuse Tehran of systematically harassing dissidents in the province by accusing them of false criminal charges in an effort to intimidate opposition elements. In a January 3 incident, Baloch sources reported that Iranian security forces opened fire against a vehicle delivering drinking water to a wedding ceremony on a busy street in Zahedan. Witnesses videotaped the alleged incident and the ensuing chaos and posted it online .
Nationalism and Rebellion in West Balochistan
The Baloch national question has been a source of simmering tensions for decades. Iran’s approximately one to four million-strong Baloch community inhabits the southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan . This desolate and underdeveloped region is one of Iran’s poorest provinces. Unlike most Iranians, the Baloch are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Violent crackdowns and repression by security services in the economically backward province have engendered deep-seated animosity toward the Shiite Islamist regime among the fiercely independent and proud Baloch people.
Iranian Baloch identify with their kin in neighboring Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan—home to the region’s largest Baloch population at approximately four to eight million—and the smaller Baloch community in southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani Baloch are engaged in their own long-running struggle for greater rights and independence through a violent insurgency against Islamabad. The sum of these circumstances imbues the Baloch national consciousness with a sense of historic persecution at the hands of imperial powers that left the Baloch nation divided and without a state of its own. Baloch nationalists see the unification of their people in an independent “Greater Balochistan” as a historical right. The plight of Iranian Balochistan, referred to as “West Balochistan” by Baloch nationalists, is a pillar of the wider Baloch nationalist cause .
Despite a lack of evidence, Tehran accuses Jondallah of serving as an affiliate of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, claims the group emphatically denies (see Terrorism Monitor, June 29, 2006). Jondallah does, however, rely on religious discourse to highlight its grievances against the Shiite Islamist regime. This most likely represents an effort to highlight the Iranian Baloch position as an oppressed ethnic and sectarian minority within the Shiite Islamist clerical regime. Nevertheless, there are no indications that the group has ties to radical Sunni Islamists. Iran also links Jondallah to other Iranian opposition groups—including the radical People’s Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), more commonly referred to as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), and the affiliated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)—in an effort to tarnish its reputation. Tehran also accuses Jondallah of harboring secessionist aspirations. Abdulmalak Rigi has stated on numerous occasions that his group’s goal is not secession, but the achievement of equal rights for his people in a reformed Iran. Essentially, Jondallah frames its campaign as a war of self-defense. At the same time, Rigi has gone so far as to declare himself an Iranian and Iran as his motherland (roozonline.com, May 10, 2006). This is a position held by other Iranian Baloch dissident groups advocating on behalf of greater Baloch rights. Organizations such as the Balochistan United Front and the Balochistan National Movement coordinate closely with other ethnic and sectarian-minded opposition groups agitating for greater rights and representation in Iran, including the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran .
Iranian authorities often describe the group as Pakistani-based in an apparent effort to implicate outside forces in the insurgency, especially the United States. Iran also occasionally accuses Pakistan of turning a blind eye to Jondallah activities, despite a strong record of Iranian and Pakistani cooperation in suppressing Baloch nationalism on both sides of the border. Iran also suggests Jondallah is a creation of the CIA, an allegation strongly denied by Rigi himself. Iran believes that the United States and other hostile forces are providing moral, material and financial support to ethnic and sectarian-based secessionist movements—including insurgent and terrorist organizations—to undermine the Islamic Republic. Tehran is convinced that any potential U.S. attack against Iran stemming from tensions over its nuclear program or alleged support for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan will include a campaign to destabilize the Islamic Republic from within. Groups such as Jondallah would figure prominently in such a strategy (see Terrorism Monitor, August 2, 2007).
There is no concrete evidence that Jondallah maintains a formal operational base in Pakistan. The difficult terrain that characterizes the Iranian-Pakistani border region is, however, a major crossroads for drug and arms smuggling between locally-based gangs. The porous border also facilitates links between Baloch families and tribes on both sides of the border. In a testament to the extent of Iranian and Pakistani Baloch links, a controversial proposal by Islamabad to construct a wall along the border inspired vocal protests from Pakistani Baloch leaders who labeled the initiative the “anti-Baloch wall” (The News International [Karachi], May 28, 2007). Given this background, it is likely that Jondallah maintains contacts over the border in Pakistan, possibly with Baloch insurgent groups operating there, such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). There is no evidence, however, of formal operational links between the two groups, as both appear committed to furthering their respective causes separately within the Iranian and Pakistani contexts.
The recent assassination of two-time Pakistani Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto raises questions about the trajectory of the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan and—by extension—Iran. As a center of Baloch nationalism, events in Pakistani Balochistan have a profound impact on the Baloch cause in Iran. In an effort to win support in Pakistani Balochistan for her campaign to oust incumbent President Pervez Musharraf, Bhutto promised that her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) would implement a general amnesty for Baloch prisoners and rebels and immediately enter into negotiations with local leaders to help settle the conflict. She also criticized Islamabad’s heavy-handed approach in dealing with the Baloch insurgency, accusing Musharraf of exacerbating regional tensions (Dawn [Karachi], December 21, 2007); her assassination was strongly condemned by Baloch activists. Ironically, tensions between Pakistani Baloch and the state during her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure as prime minister in the mid-1970s were high. The senior Bhutto used brutal tactics—as well as direct material and military support from the Shah of Iran that included helicopter gunships and armored vehicles—to quell the armed Baloch uprising . The history of Iranian-Pakistani cooperation in jointly repressing Baloch nationalism—a trend both countries see as a potential threat to their respective territorial integrity and stability—suggests that Iranian accusations of Islamabad’s support for Jondallah in Iran are unfounded.
Bhutto’s assassination is not likely have a major impact on the situation in Iranian Balochistan, at least not directly. Despite expressions of solidarity and what is most likely limited contact, ethnic Baloch rebels in Iran and Pakistan will continue to devote their efforts to pursuing local agendas, essentially focusing on furthering the Baloch cause in Iran and Pakistan, respectively. Although Bhutto’s amnesty proposal may have set an interesting precedent for relations between Tehran and Iranian Balochistan had she lived to implement it, it is unlikely that Islamabad will pursue a similar course of action in the foreseeable future.
The simmering tensions and violence in Iranian Balochistan will continue to characterize Tehran’s interface with its Baloch minority. The social, political and economic grievances of the Iranian Baloch will remain a source of resentment toward the clerical regime until Tehran commits to integrating minorities into the fabric of society. Despite Iranian claims, there is no conclusive evidence that the United States is providing material support to Jondallah. It is likely, however, that the group calculates its activities and operations to correspond with periods of tension between the United States and Iran. This enables Jondallah to maximize the effect of its campaign. At the same time, Iran does have cause for concern, as the United States could consider the possibility of supporting active insurgencies as a means to pressure Iran during any potential conflict.
1. See “Iranian Security Forces Shooting at Furious Baloch Demonstration,” Balochistan News, January 1, 2008. For footage of the alleged incident, see the official website of the Baloch People’s Party (BPP), a Baloch nationalist organization based in Sweden: .
2. Demographic figures related to ethnic and sectarian minority representation in Iran tend to be heavily politicized, hence the wide ranging estimates.
3. The Baloch national cause is bolstered by a sophisticated network of activists in the diaspora and online advocating for their kin in Iran and Pakistan. For more details, see ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; and .
4. The Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran includes Kurdish, Azeri, Ahvazi (Arab), Turkmen, Baloch and other organizations advocating the federalization of Iran along ethnic and regional lines. For more details, see .
5. Stephen Philip Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2004), pp. 219-221.