On October 26, the Sunni insurgent group Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice) claimed responsibility for an attack in Saravan near Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan (see photo).
Fourteen Iranian border guards, including at least three members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, were killed and six injured. Jaish ul-Adl also claimed that it kidnapped several Iranian officers and carried out another attack against a car belonging to security forces.
Jaish ul-Adl said that the attack was a response “to the IRGC’s savage crimes in the Islamic land of Syria and also as an answer to the oppression and crimes that the regime has committed against the rights of the oppressed Sunni Iranian people”.
Formed in 2012, Jaish ul-Adl and its attacks illustrate the point made by EA’s Joanna Paraszczuk in July, “The resurgence of Sunni separatism and sectarianism in Sistan and Baluchistan poses more than just a local security issue for Tehran.” The costs are not just in personnel but in economic disturbances: Iran has sought to attract foreign investment into the Chabahar Port in the southeast to generate trade with its neighbours, in particular Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
The seriousness of that challenge was marked by the Supreme National Security Council, which held an emergency meeting on the morning of October 26 and formed a special committee to investigate the recent attacks.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called Jaish ul-Adl’s strike “an example of the results of the expansion of extremism in the region.” He added, “Individuals and terrorists do not know borders.”
A statement released by the Revolutionary Guards declared that the attack was “an attempt to create religious division and tarnish the stable popular security in Sistan va Baluchestan”.
Jaish ul-Adl, a resurgence of the Jundullah insurgent group whose leader Abdul Malik Rigi was executed by Tehran in 2010, describes itself as a local movement fighting local causes in the predominantly Sunni area of Sistan Baluchestan, but Iran has attempted to frame it as being supported ideologically and financially by outside forces.
Significantly, that effort by Tehran is supported by groups outside Iran, who have attempted to co-opt local movements to make an ideological argument for a surge of “global jihad”.
A Local Insurgency Or “Global Jihad”?
One of the key issues for Tehran has been how to frame the attack. Was it a purely domestic act of insurgency, or has global terrorism, funded by outside groups, found its way to the Islamic Republic?
The question is particularly sensitive for Tehran, which had claimed to have stamped out Sunni insurgency in Sistan Baluchestan, ” target=”_blank”>after it hanged Jundulah leader Abdul Malik Rigi, on June 20, 2010.
Jaish ul-Adl, whose spokesman Abdul Rauf Rigi claims to be Abdul Malik Rigi’s brother, defines itself as a local group, fighting for issues in the area. It says that it is “composed of young Iranian Sunnis who have come together to defend the oppressed to the divine command” and is dedicated to the cause of Baloch nationalism.
Blaming Outside Forces For Sunni Insurgency In Sistan Baluchestan
Tehran’s line after October 26 has been far different. Hossein Zolfaghari, a the commander of Iran’s Border Force, suggested that “at least three countries in the region and beyond the region” had provided monetary, technicalm and intelligence support to Jaish ul-Adl before the attack.
That view is not new. Iran has long blamed Gulf states for supporting Sunni insurgent groups in Sistan Baluchestan, as well as Kurdish separatist group PJAK in Iran’s northwest border region, through ideology and finance.
In February, the leader of the IRGC’s ground forces, Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, said that “neighboring countries” were funding and sponsoring separatist movements in Sistan Baluchestan.
A month earlier, hardline news outlet Mashregh blamed Saudi, Pakistani and Qatari intelligence for sponsoring “Salafist groups” in Sistan Baluchestan, saying that the three countries were organizing and funding covert terror operations in the province.
Iran’s view is likely to be reinforced by several appearances of Jaish ul-Adl’s spokesman Abdul Rauf Rigi on Saudi cable TV channels. The leader of Sistan Baluchestan’s second insurgent movement, Harakat Ansar Iran, has also appeared on Saudi cable TV, calling on viewers to support his movement.
Proponents of the concept of “global jihad” have also attempted to co-opt the Sunni insurgencies, including in Sistan Baluchestan, by taking over their media operations and couching them in terms of a trans-national, ideological sectarian struggle of Sunnis versus “infidels”.
The Outcome Of The Insurgency: Increased Tensions With Pakistan
The immediate consequence for Iran’s relations with its neighbours of the Saravan attack is increased tensions with Pakistan. A number of prominent Iranians have expressed some concern at Pakistan’s role – intentional or otherwise – in allowing groups like Jaish ul-Adl to operate across the border between the two countries.
The chairman of Parliament’s National Security Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, suggested that “given Pakistan’s inability to provide security in its borders, our armed forces must take action to pursue the bandits inside this country’s soil”.
Beyond the border, Tehran urged the United Nations Security Council to produce “an immediate and appropriate” response to the Saravan attack so demonstrate that such “criminal acts will not be tolerated anywhere or at any time”.
A Throwback to Jundullah — Blaming Israel and America
Fars News, close to the IRGC, went further than Zolfaghari, declaring that Jaish ul-Adl emerged from the remnants of Jundullah “with the strengthening of regional [intelligence] services and with the guidance of America and the supervision of Mossad [Israel’s intelligence agency]”.
Hamid Reza Taraghi, a member of Parliament’s National Security Commission, linked the Saravan attack to Tehran’s ongoing negotiations with the 5+1 Powers over its nuclear programme. He called on Iran’s negotiators to recall America’s hostile policies, including its support for Iranian groups opposed to the Islamic Republic:
An [American] announcement of lack of support for the terrorists must be a precondition to the upcoming negotiations. This is the minimum action that the Americans can take to prove their good intentions….Given America’s role in contributing to Iranian and regional insecurity, the negotiations team must pay attention to this issue in the coming negotiations.
Avaz Heidar Pour, also from the National Security Commissions, argued that the Saravan attack should serve as a reminder of “America’s previous protection of terrorist groups”, citing the example of Jundullah:
Rigi was one of the leaders of a terrorist group who, after his arrest by Iranian security officials, clearly announced that all of his own actions were carried out via consultation and alignment with American leaders. For the same reason, American leaders must [give an] answer for these types of terrorist movements in the Middle East, and especially within our borders.
Echoing Taraghi’s sentiment, he added, “An investigation of terrorist operations [should] be placed on the agenda for the P5+1 negotiations.”
Framing A Local Insurgency As “Global Jihad” — Why?
Two interesting points arise from the comments of these officials.
Firstly, by highlighting “regional” support for Jaish ul-Adl, they are attempting to frame the separatist insurgency as a case of trans-national terrorism. They are trying to deflect domestic and international attention from the local roots of Sunni insurgency to portray it as an international terrorist concern, rather than a domestic movement.
As Paraszcuk wrote last month, the support of non-Iranian actorswritten that , including “media mujahideen” such as Al Farooq Media, has raised the possibility that the Baluch separatist movement may be co-opted by — or transformed into a part of — a “global jihad”.
Another insurgent group based in Sistan Baluchestan Province, Harakat Ansar Iran has used Saudi-based pan-Arab television to urge Sunni Muslims to support them with arms. As Paraszcuk suggests, this “reflect[s] a wider trend of local insurgent groups connecting up with a wider cause while continuing to act locally”:
Although these causes are local, and the groups are fighting for local issues, the groups are increasingly linked — by ideology and via networks of “media mujahideen” who take on the task of portraying their cause — to a conceptual framework of “global jihad” and a wider sectarian fight of Sunni versus Shia Islam.
There may be some truth to the claims that Jaish ul-Adl has received support from outside Iran. But, whether or not the claims are true is tangential — Tehran would frame the militant separatist opposition as a transnational instead of a local threat in any case, hoping to undermine any support it may receive from other Iranians.
Secondly, by tying the success of negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme to a condemnation of the Saravan attack by Washington, opponents of any engagement with the United States — led by Fars News — are looking to undermine President Rouhani’s foreign policies.
EA has already observed that some of the rhetoric emanating from Revolutionary Guards outlets can be read as warnings to Rouhani that “he will lose what backing the IRGC have given him thus far, and the IRGC can blame him for being weak, and even surrendering to the enemy”.
Calling for the issue of the Saravan attack — and the broader question of US support for insurgent groups opposed to the Islamic Republic — to be placed on the negotiating table at forthcoming discussions with the P5+1 countries, MPs like Hamid Reza Taraghi and Avaz Heidar Pour, backed by Fars News, are trying to create further obstacles for the Rouhani-Zarif policy of engagement.
And so the motives of some Iranians intersect with their enemies outside the country. The latter want to use the local insurgency to dent Tehran’s confidence and unsettle the regime, as well as promoting “global jihad”. The former want to use that same “global jihad” not only to chastise Pakisan and Saudi Arabia but to rattle a President whom they seek as weak.