By: Chris Zambelis
The Islamic Republic of Iran sits in the crosshairs of the United States, Israel, and the Gulf Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia. The array of geopolitical threats that face Iran is daunting; Iran is surrounded by states that are threatened by the revolutionary Islamist principles that define its domestic affairs and foreign policy orientation. Many of Iran’s regional rivals also host U.S. military installations. The effectively permanent presence of U.S. military forces in the international waters surrounding its territory, the increasingly rigid economic sanctions regime and the steady stream of covert operations launched by its enemies on its soil to undermine its nuclear program, pose another set of dilemmas for Iran. The aggregate impact of these factors is intensified when considered in the context of the shifting regional landscape brought on by the wave of revolts in the Arab world. With the Iranian economy buckling under the pressure of economic sanctions, its leadership is now facing the return of a challenge once thought to be extinguished—a nationalist insurgency in Iran’s ethnic-Baloch community. Iran is also contending with internal challenges stemming from disaffected members of a number of ethnic and sectarian minority communities and questions surrounding the character of its national identify. A period of heightened unrest led by ethnic Baloch nationalist insurgents in recent years, particularly an obscure militant group known as Jundallah (Soldiers of God) based in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan (also known as Iranian Balochistan), was a testament to the extent that these issues permeate Iranian society. Jundallah’s campaign of violence and terrorism was ostensibly motivated by its desire to defend the rights of the Baloch, a mostly Sunni ethnic minority that sees itself as the victims of a state-sponsored campaign of cultural and religious subjugation. The capture or death of most of Jundallah’s leaders by 2010, however, was supposed to have neutralized the threat of Baloch militancy. An October suicide bombing executed by Baloch radicals claiming to belong to a previously unknown group that calls itself Harakat Ansar Iran (HAI – Movement of the Partisans of Iran) in Sistan-Balochistan, suggests, however, that a resurgence of Baloch nationalist militancy in Iran may be on the horizon (Fars News Agency [Tehran], October 19).
On October 19 a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vest in the port city of Chabahar, in Sistan-Balochistan province. Two members of Iran’s Basij (Mobilization) paramilitary force were reported to have been killed and scores of mostly civilian bystanders were wounded in the ensuing blast (Press TV [Tehran], October 21; Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran [Tehran], October 19). Several reports issued immediately following the attack claimed that the perpetrator detonated his explosives outside of the Imam Hussein mosque in Chabahar. Subsequent reports containing further details suggested that the alleged attacker, dressed as a police officer, attempted to gain entry into the mosque to detonate his explosives among worshippers, only to be chased away by Iranian security officials on the scene. Having failed to gain access to the mosque, the attacker was then said to have detonated his explosives approximately 400 meters from his intended target (Fars News Agency, October 20; Iranian Students’ News Agency [Tehran], October 20; Islamic Republic News Agency [Tehran], October 20). HAI issued a claim of responsibility for the attack on its network of official English, Persian and Arabic language websites and social media outlets a few hours after the operation. HAI’s account of the attack, however, differed markedly from that released by Iran. In addition to the suicide bombing acknowledged by Iranian authorities, which represented the first in what the HAI called its “Operation Ra’ad [Thunder] 1” series of operations, the movement also claimed to have successfully targeted a detachment of ranking members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), including members of its elite Quds Force, during a secret meeting held at a Basij base in Chabahar. According to its statement, HAI operatives remotely detonated an explosives-laden van parked near the base just as attendees of the meeting were leaving the facility. HAI claims that approximately 20 IRGC members and other security officials were killed in the attack (Ansariran.blog.com, October 19). In contrast to the suicide bombing, Iran has not acknowledged the reported car bombing. HAI’s version of the October 19 events has been circulated on media sources known to be antagonistic toward Iran or sympathetic toward the Baloch nationalist cause in Iran. The confirmed attack in Chabahar represents the first suicide bombing by Baloch militants since December 2010, when Jundallah executed a suicide bombing at the same Imam Hussein mosque, killing 38 and wounding hundreds during a mourning ceremony commemorating the death of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and a revered figure among the Shi’a (Press TV, December 20, 2010; al-Jazeera [Doha], December 15, 2010).
There is no conclusive evidence to discern whether HAI is formally linked to Jundallah in operational and personnel matters. The capture or deaths of most of its known leadership and other key operatives, including the arrest and subsequent execution of its founder and leader Abdelmalik Rigi, were widely believed to have devastated Jundallah’s ability to reconstitute its campaign of violence and terrorism. Jundallah did manage to execute a series of major attacks in Iranian Balochistan following Rigi’s arrest and eventual execution (see Terrorism Monitor, January 14, 2011). A perusal of its political and ideological discourse available online reveals that, at the very least, HAI draws its inspiration from Jundallah.  HAI’s website is adorned, for example, with pictures of the late Rigi, who is eulogized as the symbolic “Amir [commander] of the Iranian Baloch.” In its “Statement of Purpose,” HAI once again references Rigi as its commander and outlines an agenda that coincides closely with the one propagated by Jundallah, including its commitment to defend what it refers to as the “oppressed Sunni minorities of Iran” (Ansariran.blog.com, September 22). There are indications, however, that HAI’s interpretation of advocacy on behalf of the Baloch community departs drastically from the agenda promoted by Jundallah. Under the late Abdelmalik Rigi, Jundallah appeared to go to great lengths to rebut allegations leveled against it by Iran and others that it harbored an explicitly sectarian or separatist agenda or any affinities with radical Islamist ideologies. This point is best demonstrated by Jundallah’s attempt to reinvent its image by adopting the name People’s Resistance Movement of Iran (PRMI). The obvious religious undertones apparent in the name Jundallah, left the group vulnerable to accusations that it was affiliated with transnational radical Islamist organizations, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Rigi was always adamant that Jundallah never harbored radical Islamist or separatist leanings. The language that appears on HAI’s website, however, is imbued with an anti-Shi’a sectarian vitriol reminiscent of the ultraconservative Salafist militancy that is spreading in the Middle East. Salafist militants tend to view Shi’a Muslims as heretics and apostates. Just as important, HAI’s discourse also touches on foreign affairs. While HAI portrays itself as the vanguard of Baloch rights in Iran, it is also concerned with events in Syria. In its own words, HAI seeks to “strike a blow against the Shi’a government in their own lands, thus damaging their economic, financial and military capabilities (especially their ability to contribute to the Syrian genocide)” (Ansariran.blog.com, September 22). In terms of its tactics, HAI’s resort to a suicide bombing is very much reflective of Jundallah’s operational evolution. Originally concerned with striking military and security targets and other symbols of the Islamic Republic through ambushes, abductions, and other traditional guerrilla tactics, Jundallah eventually added suicide bombings to its repertoire in late 2008. Jundallah also began to strike civilian targets such as mosques with increasing regularity. Its steady resort to suicide bombings, targeting Shi’a houses of worship and other locations imbued with religious symbolism, were reminiscent of the al-Qaeda-style attacks that have become all too frequent in the Middle East after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  In this context, HAI appears to be following closely in Jundallah’s footsteps. Identified by the HAI website as the movement’s Amir, Abu Yasir Muskootani, provided further insight into the group’s ideology and the identity of the bomber. Muskootani declared that the attacker “showed the enemies of the Ahlus Sunnah [i.e. Sunni Muslims] of Iran that the students of our amir Abdul Malik Baloch are still alive. They showed them that, till now, the people of Balochistan heed to the call for Jihad…” Muskootani extolled the actions of the attacker, a nineteen-year-old man named Hamzah Saravani, as those of a hero and martyr (Ansariran.blog.com, October 21). A video produced by HAI eulogizing Saravani’s feat described him as a man who toiled his entire life under the “oppression” of the “Shi’a government of Iran.” This experience prompted him to “join the Mujahideen to wage Jihad against the Shi’a kuffar [unbelievers]” (Ansariran.blog.com, October 21). The style and presentation of the video montage, as well as the accompanying narrative, evoke similar productions released by radical Salafist and al-Qaeda-style militants.
Estimated to number around 4 million, the Baloch of Iran inhabit one of the poorest and most inhospitable parts of the country. Critical socioeconomic indicators in Sistan-Balochistan lag consistently behind other regions of Iran. As a predominantly Sunni community, the Baloch religious identity has often clashed with the Shi’a Islamist character of the Islamic Republic. The Baloch have preserved a sense of ethnic and national consciousness separate from what tends to be viewed as an ethnic Persian-centric cultural and bureaucratic edifice that is embodied by the Islamic Republic. As has often been expressed in their nationalist discourse, Iranian Baloch attribute their difficult predicament to a deliberate policy directed by Tehran that aims to eradicate their religious and ethnic identity and undermine their ability to improve their standing in Iranian society. Iran’s harsh approach to governance and security in Sistan-Balochistan has also aggravated matters. Sistan-Balochistan’s proximity to Iran’s eastern borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan place it along some of the world’s most dangerous narcotics, arms, and human trafficking arteries. The prominent role of the Baloch-led smuggling networks in regional trafficking operations that extend into Pakistan and Afghanistan has also influenced Iran’s treatment of the region. The specter of Baloch nationalism and the idea of “Greater Balochistan” remain alive as well. Most of the region’s Baloch inhabit the Balochistan province of neighboring Pakistan, a region that is embroiled in its own violent insurgency. As a result, Iran is worried about the threat Baloch nationalism poses to its territorial integrity and regional stability. Consequently, Iran tends to view the region through a security prism and its Baloch minority as a national security threat.
For Iran, the return of emboldened Baloch resistance in the form of the HAI comes during a heightened period of geopolitical tensions in the Middle East revolving around the crisis in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the region. Iran continues to blame foreign forces, including the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, for fomenting instability within its borders (Fars News Agency, October 19). The attack in Chabahar occurred shortly after the United States removed the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK – People’s Mujahideen), an Iranian opposition movement with a history of violence and terrorism against Iran, from its list of designated terrorist organizations in a decision that infuriated Iran. Reports that Israel may have been behind an attack against an arms factory in Sudan that was said to have been linked to Iran, an act some have interpreted as a possible demonstration of Israel’s potential to launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, adds another layer of concern to Iran’s strategic calculus (al-Jazeera, October 25).
When considered against the larger context of these threatening developments and the activities of foreign intelligence services hostile to Iran over the years, the timing of the Chabahar attack raises valid questions about HAI’s possible links to Iran’s rivals. In this regard, the appearance of HAI may signal the beginning of a renewed campaign to destabilize Iran from within by provoking a new round of ethnic and sectarian militancy.
The seeming influence of radical Salafist ideology among Baloch militants also raises questions about its potential to gain adherents within the wider Baloch nationalist movement in Iran, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a telling insight into HAI’s philosophy, a Pakistani Baloch insurgent asked about his movement’s connection to the Baloch cause in Iran replied: “We know the people fighting in Jundallah [i.e. HAI] are also Baloch but we have no relation with them. Ours is a pure nationalist war, miles away from Jundallah´s religious extremism” (Inter Press Service, October 26). At this stage, HAI’s Salafist-influenced ideology does not seem to resonate within the broader Baloch nationalist current, even as it is making inroads into Iranian Balochistan.
Chris Zambelis is an analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global Inc.
1. The official website and Facebook page of Harakat Ansar Iran (HAI) are available at: http://www.ansariran.blog.com/ andhttps://www.facebook.com/ansariranen, respectively.
2. For more background into Jundallah’s operational evolution, see Chris Zambelis, “A New Phase of Resistance and Insurgency in Iranian Balochistan,” CTC Sentinel 2(7), 2009, pp. 15-18.