foreign correspondent for the Asia Times who has written extensively about the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province in Iran
Iran’s president is accusing Pakistani agents of involvement in a suicide bombing in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan on Sunday that left at least forty-two people dead and injured dozens more. According to state media, one or more suicide bombers targeted a group of Revolutionary Guard leaders who had arranged to meet tribal leaders in the Sunni region close to the Pakistani border. Some other Iranian officials are pointing the finger of blame at the United States. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said "US action" contributed to the attack. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s president is accusing Pakistani agents of involvement in a suicide bombing in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan on Sunday that left at least forty-two people dead and injured dozens more.
According to state media, one or more suicide bombers targeted a group of Revolutionary Guard leaders who had arranged to meet tribal leaders in the Sunni region close to the Pakistani border. Reports said a suicide bomber detonated a belt packed with explosives as the meeting was about to start. Six Revolutionary Guard commanders were among those killed.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called on Pakistan to arrest the attackers, who he had said entered Iran from Pakistan. Ahmadinejad’s accusation came after Iranian state media said the Sunni group Jundallah claimed responsibility for the attack. The Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson has dismissed claims that Jundallah’s leader is in Pakistan.
Some Iranian officials are pointing the finger of blame at the United States. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said "US action" contributed to the attack, and the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said he believed US and British intelligence were involved and that there would, quote, "have to be retaliatory measures to punish them." The US State Department has denied involvement with the group and condemned the attack.
For more, we’re joined on the telephone by Pepe Escobar. He is a foreign correspondent for the Asia Times who has written extensively about the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province in Iran.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! What do you understand about this bombing and killings?
PEPE ESCOBAR: Thanks very much, Amy.
Look, this is empire of chaos applied to a huge area encompassing southern Afghanistan, eastern Iran and western Pakistan. This is where the Baluchis live. We have, more or less, six million Baluchis on the Pakistani side of the border and four million on the Iranian side. Most of them are Sunnis, including the people who live on the Iranian side of the border. This is the poorest province of the thirty Iranian provinces. It’s neglected by Tehran. There’s a sectarian divide, of course, and, of course, infiltrations by drug gangs. It’s — their drug smuggling is the main activity. They are all Baluchi cousins. And most of them — I mean, the most important businessmen of the region, they are involved in the drug trade.
And all this is — they are extremely conservative in religious terms. I would not say that they are al-Qaeda-style Wahhabis or Deobandis, like the school that indoctrinated the Taliban in Pakistan, but they are very, very anti-Shiite. And that’s the key of this attack by Jundallah. They must have an extraordinary intel on the ground to mount an attack by a suicide bomber against top Revolutionary Guard commanders, including the number two of the armed forces of the Revolutionary Guards who came from Tehran for this meeting.
And the purpose of the meeting was to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites in a small town near the Pakistani border on the Iranian Baluchistan side. So, what does that tell us? It tells us that what Jundallah, which was founded in 2003, and it’s basically a Pakistani-based Sunni outfit composed of Baluchis and against the power in Tehran, basically, the Shiite power in Tehran, they are at the moment organizing what they have called three months — four months ago, in fact, May, before the Iranian presidential elections, a strategic corridor. This strategic corridor starts in Afghanistan in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, crosses through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan in the Tribal Areas through Pakistani Baluchistan and all the way to Iranian Baluchistan. So this is a Sunni hardcore, destabilizing strategic corridor.
And it goes against basically the Pakistani government, of course, in Islamabad, because this Baluchi separatist element is very strong, against Iran. And who would profit from all this in terms of an empire of chaos mindset? Obviously the US. So, no wonder people in Tehran, not only the Revolutionary Guards, but Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani and of course the Supreme Leader, who hasn’t said anything about that, but he will in the next few days, certainly, they are extremely paranoid that this, I would say, all-encompassing Sunni hardcore insurgency in AfPak is spilling over to Iran, as well.
And I think this is the deeper meaning of this attack, because this is the number one attack by Jundallah. They mount basically kidnappings. They kill the Iranian officials near the border. They started kidnapping civilians three or four years ago. They bombed the mosque in Zahedan in Southeast Iran last year before the Iranian presidential elections. And now they mount this extraordinary — I would say their top operation for the past six years, since they were founded in 2003, and it goes directly against the heart of the power in Tehran, because we cannot forget that after the Iranian presidential elections, the Revolutionary Guard, in fact, are the true power ruling Iran nowadays. I tend to call it the military dictatorship of the “mullahtariat,” and that’s exactly what’s happened.
And they have been now threatened directly by a small Sunni outfit based in Pakistan. So you can imagine why Tehran is so absolutely desperate to have a summit meeting with Pakistan to clear this out. How are you going to tackle Jundallah inside Pakistan? Or are we going to mount our own cross-border operations to start attacking Jundallah bases inside Pakistan?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the method of the suicide bombing that was used, Pepe Escobar?
PEPE ESCOBAR: Yes, absolutely. This is an al-Qaeda-style attack, in fact, which has been used by a lot of Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, inside of Pakistan. And this tells an intimate relationship between, I would say, scattered al-Qaeda operatives. I would not say the historic al-Qaeda leadership, maybe new al-Qaeda, as we call them in Pakistan, and Jundallah, as well. This is because of this meeting between the current leader of Jundallah, Abdul Malik Rigi, and some top al-Qaeda operatives. They had a meeting in Baluchistan around four months ago, where they discussed this strategic corridor between AfPak, Baluchistan and Iraq. So, obviously they are using al-Qaeda tactics like suicide bombing.
And the only way they could mount this attack inside an Iranian city, which was obviously very well guarded and fortified, because people came from Tehran the Revolutionary Guards came for this meeting, is that they had local tribal alliances that gave them on-the-ground intel pinpointing the exact location of the meeting. So, you know, it was a — in military terms, was a very well-organized operation, and it could only be organized with extremely good and reliable on-the-ground intelligence, and this means Baluchi Sunni tribal leaders who live inside Iran and not in Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to an article that Sy Hersh wrote in The New Yorker, where he says, “One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. ‘This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists,’” said Tufts University professor Nasr, who went on to say, “They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also thought to be tied to the drug culture.”
Then Sy Hersh goes on to say, “The Jundallah took responsibility for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007. At least eleven Guard members were killed. According to [the former CIA agent Robert] Baer and to press reports, the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefiting from U.S. support.” That was Sy Hersh in The New Yorker.
I have been watching the mainstream media coverage in this country, and they are immediately dismissing the Iranian leadership’s allegations that this has anything to do with US or British or Pakistani support of Jundallah.
PEPE ESCOBAR: Well, Amy, the thing is, the brother of Abdul Malik Rigi, Abdulhamid, he was captured last year by the Pakistanis, by the way, in Baluchistan, and then he was extradited to Iran. He was executed in Iran, in fact. Last year — if I’m not mistaken, last year he gave an interview to Press TV, the semi-official Iranian TV network, where he explained in — I would say in a reasonable detail how the CIA approached his brother starting in 2003 and offering not only support, but cash. He specifically talked about a $100,000 cash advance by the CIA so Rigi could organize not only kidnappings, but starting to behead hostages live on camera and put it on YouTube. In fact, some of these tapes circulated on YouTube, in fact, some who were beheaded, if I’m not mistaken, in an attack in 2007, these hostages. So there is direct involvement of CIA.
It’s — obviously none of us can prove directly. We rely on sources from captured Jundallah soldiers, in fact, who volunteer their confessions, and many good Pakistani analysts, especially Baluchi analysts who have good connections with Baluchi separatist movements, which is not the case of Jundallah, by the way. Jundallah is a sectarian, anti-Shiite movement. They are not involved in Baluchistan nationalism, unlike many other Baluchi separatist groups. So if we take these confessions and some of this analysis, there’s a very good case pointing to direct US involvement supporting Jundallah, as the West supported the Mujahedin-e-Khalq based in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Iran, as the US supports, as well, separatists in Khuzestan province, where the oil of Iran is concentrated, as well. So what we need is a definite smoking gun. There are suspicions. There are confessions. We only lack a smoking gun, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, why the stakes in Sistan-Baluchistan are so high?
PEPE ESCOBAR: Because there’s the pipeline angle, which is never mentioned in most analysis, especially in the US mainstream press. Iran and Pakistan — you probably remember the famous IPI pipeline, which is a direct challenger of the trans-African pipeline, which is one of the main reasons of US presence in Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan last year, they finally reached an agreement to build the Iranian-Pakistani pipeline, which is also called the “peace pipeline,” and now it’s being known as the IP pipeline, Iran-Pakistan. This pipeline goes through Iranian Baluchistan directly to Pakistani Baluchistan. And Baluchi separatist movements are against the pipeline, because they say that Islamabad will get all the money, it won’t be redistributed to Pakistani Baluchistan. And Jundallah doesn’t want a pipeline because they don’t want a collaboration between Tehran and Islamabad using Baluchistan only as a corridor and not profiting Baluchistan in any way. This is the way they see it.
So, obviously, if they have constant destabilization of the Iranian Baluchistan area, investors — and investors not only from Iran and Pakistan, but probably international investors, as well — won’t invest in this pipeline, and the winner would be what? The trans-African pipeline, as well. So there is a vested US interest in all this matter, as well, because the Bush administration, an Iranian-Pakistani pipeline was anathema. I wouldn’t say the Obama administration is as hardcore on this matter, but obviously they would rather go for a trans-African pipeline, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Pepe Escobar, for joining us, foreign correspondent for Asia Times.