Sunday, October 18, 2009

Iran Vows Response to Killings of Revolutionary Guard Commanders

Monday, October 19, 2009
00:45 Mecca time, 21:45 GMT

Iran vows response to suicide blast

According to state media, an armed Sunni group claimed responsibility for the attack

Iran has promised a swift and crushing response to a suicide attack in the country's Sistan-Baluchestan province that killed at least 35 people, including 11 Revolutionary Guards commanders.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said on Sunday that those behind the bombing in the city of Pisheen would be "seriously dealt with".

According to Iranian state media, a Sunni group called Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, claimed responsibility for the attack.

But Tehran has also indicated it believes foreign elements were involved in the attack, the deadliest in Iran in recent years.

"We consider the recent terrorist attack to be the result of US action. This is the sign of America's animosity against our country," Ali Larijani, Iran's parliamentary speaker, said.

US blamed

Mohammad Marandi, an assistant professor at the University of Tehran, told Al Jazeera the attack could further damage Iran's relations with the US.

"I think the greatest blow [from this attack] is to any Iranian trust with regards to the Americans," he told Al Jazeera.

"On the one hand, the Americans are talking about rapprochement and building a new future, yet at the same time we see the Americans supporting groups in [Iran's] Kurdish regions as well as in Sistan-Baluchestan."

But Washington has denied involvement with the group, which it has labelled as a "terrorist" organisation, and condemned the attack.

"We condemn this act of terrorism and mourn the loss of innocent lives," Ian Kelly, the US state department spokesman, said in a statement soon after the blast occurred.

"Reports of alleged US involvement are completely false," he said.

Britain blamed

Tehran has also suggested that Saudi Arabia and Britain have supported Jundallah to stir up trouble in the border area and have linked the group to al-Qaeda.

Majid Tafreshi, an Iranian researcher at University College London who specialises in ethnic and religious minorities, said there were clues as to the involvement of Western nations.

"Generally you cannot find any proof about this claim, but there are some clues," he told Al Jazeera.

"The previous American governments used to play with ethnic minority and ethnic religious groups to play with Iranian politics," he said.

"Also you can see in British media nowadays that people who are representative of this terrorist group are easily working and talking to British media and involved in politics and lobbying parliament ... while this group is on the terrorist list and its leaders on the wanted list of Interpol."

Other analysts have rejected the idea that the West supports Jundallah and other ethnic groups.

Ali Nouri Zada, the director of the Arab-Iranian Studies Centre in London, told Al Jazeera: "It's very easy to point at Saudi, to the British and Americans ... [but] it [Jundallah] is a local organisation,"

Frequent clashes

The southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan has been the scene of frequent clashes between security forces, ethnic Baluch Sunni insurgents and heavily-armed drug traffickers.

Its population feels an affinity with the Baluch population across the border in Pakistan and both countries accuse each other of supporting Baluch rebels in the other's territory.

Following the attack, Ahmadinejad called for Pakistan to help Tehran apprehend those behind the attack.

"We were informed that some security agents in Pakistan are co-operating with the main elements of this terrorist incident... We regard it as our right to demand these criminals from them," he was quoted by the Fars News Agency as saying.

"We ask the Pakistani government not to delay any longer in the apprehension of the main elements in this terrorist attack."

Jundallah, which accuses Iran's Shia-led government of discrimination against Sunnis, has been behind a number of attacks on security forces in the region.

"This [attack] is not totally out of the blue," Abdul Sattar Doshoki, a Baluch political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

"It was expected because Jundallah have issued a statement saying they were going to carry out a suicide attack against those who align themselves with the Revolutionary Guards against their group."

Suicide attack

The blast occurred ahead of a meeting between Revolutionary Guards commanders and tribal chiefs, part of efforts to foster Shia-Sunni unity in the region. About 10 senior tribal figures were among the dead.

Television showed footage of three bodies covered with blood-stained clothing and of wounded people being taken to hospital.

Glass shards and other debris were scattered at the scene of the attack.

Among the dead, Fars said, were General Nur-Ali Shushtari, deputy commander of the Guards' ground forces; General Mohammad-Zadeh, Guards' commander in Sistan-Baluchestan province; the Guards' commander for the town of Iranshahr and the commander of the Amir al-Momenin unit.

The Revolutionary Guards vowed to hit back at those behind the attack.

"The Guards will give a very harsh and crushing response to this group," General Mohammad Pakpour, commander of Guards' ground forces, was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.

He said that the group "will never be able to launch another act like this in the country".

Like Tehran, the Revolutionary Guards has also accused the West of involvement in the attack, saying in a statement that "surely foreign elements, particularly those linked to the global arrogance were involved".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

In depth: Sistan-Baluchestan

Zahedan, the provincial capital, has been the scene of several past attacks

Iran's Baluch minority numbers between one and four million people, based mainly in the southeastern region of Sistan-Baluchestan.

The region is poor and underdeveloped. Made up of rugged, mountainous terrain, it has become a haven for heroin and opium-smuggling from across the border with neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Baluchs who live there are mostly Sunni Muslims, while the majority of Iran's population are Shia, and identify themselves as part of an ancient tradition separate from that of Iran's Persian ethnicity.

Instead, they identify closely with the Baluch populations across the border, but rather than considering themselves part of those countries, the Baluchs have in general been fiercely independent.

Those in the Pakistani province of Balochestan have been engaged in a long-running conflict with Islamabad and many Baluchs see their dream of a "Greater Baluchestan" as having been thwarted by colonial and regional powers.

Islamabad claims that Iran has supported the Baluch insurgency in Pakistan.

Lawless region

Majid Tafreshi, a specialist in ethnic and religious minorities at University College London, said it was important not to characterise all Baluchs as taking up arms against Tehran in the name of independence.

"Balouchi Iranians want prosperity and freedom inside their territory and they want local authorities selected from their own people," he said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

"That's one of the main demands and it's never happened totally before or after the revolution [of 1979] because the government didn't trust them."

Iran's Baluch population complains of discrimination and sectarian clashes have occurred sporadically.

A series of bombings were reported in the region in October 2000 and in Zahedan, the provincial capital, in June 2005.

Analysts say the drugs trade and kidnappings for ransom in Sistan-Baluchestan are a major worry for Tehran, which often seeks to blame the criminal activity on organisations such as the Baluchistan United Front.

The Baluch organisations deny these allegations. Instead, there have been suggestions that elements in Iran's Revolutionary Guards has links to the drugs trade.

Baluch organisations also claim the Revolutionary Guards have been involved in atrocities against ethnic Baluchs in the region.

Sunni fighters

Jundallah, a little known armed Baluch organisation operating in Sistan-Baluchestan, has claimed responsibility for several attacks on Revolutionary Guards.

The group is led by Abdul Malik Rigi, an ethnic Baluch.

In 2005, Jundallah claimed to be behind the abduction of several security and intelligence officials.

It has also claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Shia mosque in Zahedan in May and a suicide bombing on October 18, in which about 30 people were killed, including at least seven Revolutionary Guards commanders.

The Iranian authorities have been keen to connect Jundallah, which is thought to have emerged in 2003, to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, though there is only limited evidence to support this.

Jundullah has said in the past that it uses violence only to defend Baluch and Sunni Muslim interests in Iran.

Tehran says that armed groups operating in Sistan-Baluchestan, including Jundallah, are backed by Saudi Arabia and supported by the US and Britain.

Source: Al Jazeera

Sunday, October 18, 2009
20:36 Mecca time, 17:36 GMT

Q&A: Iran's Revolutionary Guards

The Revolutionary Guards has army, navy and air units as well as covert operatives

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has expanded in the past 30 years into a potent force with military, political, social and economic interests.

What is the IRGC?

The IRGC was set up after the 1979 Islamic revolution to protect the ruling system against internal and external threats, but has since expanded beyond its original mandate. It answers to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's highest authority.

It controls the Basij religious volunteer militia, which enforces Islamic social codes and quells civil unrest. Millions of people are said to have volunteered.

The Qods (Jerusalem) Force is a shadowy part of the Guards that carries out special operations abroad. The US, which says the Qods Force backs fighters in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, has imposed sanctions on firms and individuals that have links to it.

The US also says the Guards is a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and has a role in Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Tehran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes alone.

What are the IRGC's military capabilities?

The IRGC initially dealt with internal security, but became an organised fighting force during the war with Iraq. It has about 125,000 members with army, navy and air units. It operates separately from the 350,000-strong regular army.

Guardsmen fought in conventional battles against Iraq, but they also used irregular tactics, such as hit-and-run raids in small craft against shipping.

An Iranian military commander has said "martyrdom-seeking" Basijis could disrupt Gulf oil-shipping routes if the need arises.

The IRGC controls Iran's strategic missile forces and has played a role in developing advanced systems such as the Shahab-3 missile with a range of 2,000km.

How does IRGC operate in the political system?

The IRGC's mandate to protect revolutionary values has prompted it to speak out when it feels the system is threatened.

General Yadollah Javani, the director of the IRGC's political arm, said the Guardsmen who suppressed post-election protests this year had thwarted an attempt to overthrow Islamic rule.

The IRGC's influence appears to have grown since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, came to power in 2005. Two-thirds of his first 21-man cabinet were IRGC veterans, like himself.

Some analysts suggest the corps' political power already eclipses that of Ahmadinejad. Given Khamenei's reliance on the Guard to put down dissent, the supreme leader himself may now be hostage to the force he commands, some analysts suggest.

Others say the IRGC leadership is divided and lacks the cohesion to wield power independently. Some ex-Guard officers, including Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, and Mohsen Rezaie, a defeated presidential candidate, are critics of Ahmadinejad.

The IRGC also conducts military training, operates a domestic media apparatus and runs education programmes to inculcate loyalty to the revolution.

What about business interests?

After the war with Iraq, the IRGC became involved in reconstruction and has expanded its work to cover import-export, oil and gas, defence, transport and construction.

The Corps has become a contractor, with ties to firms controlling billions of dollars in business, construction, finance and commerce, the US treasury has said.

A Rand Corporation report this year said Khatam al-Anbia, an engineering firm affiliated to the IRGC, had been awarded more than 750 contracts in construction, infrastructure and energy projects.

It said the Guards are also reported to control an underground economy of black-market goods smuggled into Iran via illegal jetties and other entry points under their sole control.

Source: Agencies

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