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On 13 February 2019, a suicide car bomber attacked a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel, killing 27 and wounding the rest in Sistan and Baluchistan, south-eastern Iran. The highly sophisticated attack, which was carried out by a Pakistani citizen, dealt a serious blow to the IRGC. Jaish ul-Adl (‘army of justice’), a Salafi group designated as a terrorist organization by Tehran, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Iran’s political leaders and military commanders were quick to respond, suggesting that foreign meddlers, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and the United States in particular, were behind the attack and that it will not go unpunished. They also lashed out at Pakistan, which they blamed for not securing its borders. Some even accused Islamabad of supporting the attack.
Despite the accusations, why the bombing happened and who is behind it is still unclear. More broadly, it is also unclear why terrorist activities are on the rise in Iran.
The blast in Baluchistan was not unique as the province has witnessed a series of attacks by extremist groups over the past two decades. The first was in 2001, when an unknown group calling itself Jundallah (‘soldiers of God’) announced it was revitalizing the rights of the Baluch people. Although it did not trumpet any secessionist slogans or announced goals, it was widely perceived to be a secessionist group. It started its bombings, kidnappings and armed clashes with security forces in 2005 and continued until its leader, Abdulmalek Rigi, was arrested in 2010. Over the course of five years, the group conducted more than 20 operations, and more than 200 military and security personnel and civilians were killed. The group was challenged after differences over its leadership emerged following Rigi’s death. As such, a new group, Jaish ul-Adl, emerged and gradually replaced Jundallah.
Jaish ul-Adl used almost the same tactics as Jundallah but went further in exploiting sectarian rhetoric. It criticized Iran’s policies towards Iranian Sunnis, shouldering the task of upholding those Sunnis’ rights. It also sided against Iran in Syria on sectarian rhetoric. At one point, it agreed to release its prisoners on the condition that 50 Sunni women held in custody in Syria also be released.
The group’s actions are premised on Tehran’s discrimination against Sunnis, especially in Baluchistan. Jaish ul-Adl believes that Tehran does not care about its Sunni citizens and does not provide them with the same economic services it does in other provinces. In reality, Tehran has focused much of its development efforts on Baluchistan, with the province coming second among Iran’s 31 provinces in allocation of the country’s development budget in 2018. Developing the Port of Chabahar, for instance, is one of the biggest projects in the country.
Poverty and unemployment rates in Iran reveal that there are provinces with higher rates than Baluchistan that do not show signs of terrorist activities. Despite the rhetoric, this fact neutralizes the economic argument and leaves the ideological roots of the phenomenon.
Besides Jaish ul-Adl’s ideological tendencies, Tehran seems to believe that without receiving support from abroad, it could not have carried out such an attack. Therefore, while the two main groups seem homegrown, Iran’s military and political elites blame other countries for fuelling the terrorist activities in the province.
In an announcement following the 13 February attack, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that the perpetrators are certainly associated with spy agencies in the region and beyond.
President Hassan Rouhani also stressed foreign support, saying that it was another disgrace for the White House, Tel Aviv and their regional contractors.
General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, was more specific when accusing the UAE and Saudi Arabia, saying that Iran’s patience is coming to an end. He also blamed Pakistan for not fulfilling its duties with regards to its own borders. He asked Iran’s Supreme National Security Council to give the IRGC a free hand to retaliate.
This begs the question of why Iran’s ruling elites are focusing on the foreign plot narrative. There are different reasons. Firstly, the bombing was so sophisticated and precise as to suggest the use of satellite images on the one hand and information on the site on the other, neither of which Jaish ul-Adl is known to possess.
Secondly, increased hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia/UAE in recent years, along with the rhetoric emanating from those two countries, have played a role in shaping Iran’s perceptions. As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated publicly that his country will work to take the conflict into Iran, and with the perceived UAE support for the Ahwaz attackers last September, Iran sees the increasing attacks in the country as a sign of the execution of this policy by its regional enemies.
Thirdly, the bombing coincided with the fortieth anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution as well as with the Warsaw conference with its anti-Iran agenda and Bin Salman’s tour of Asia, including Pakistan, to drum up support for his anti-Iran policy. Happening at such a delicate moment, the attack indicated possible cooperation between Jaish ul-Adl and foreign adversaries.
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia denied involvement. So how and against whom will Iran retaliate? With the US policy of isolating Iran in place, it is unlikely that Tehran will seek to increase tensions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
At the same time, it cannot leave such an attack unanswered. As many Iranians suggested, Tehran needs to let Jaish ul-Adl and those backing it know that there will be consequences for such actions. Iran cannot escalate against Pakistan if it thinks this will push Islamabad even closer to Saudi Arabia.
Yet although Iran’s options are limited, the most probable course of action is retaliation against Jaish ul-Adl in cooperation with Pakistan. Pakistan has already announced its readiness to work with Tehran to fight terrorism, an offer Iran is unlikely to refuse.
With regards to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the probable scenario is retaliation in the region, possibly from Yemen where Iran maintains links with Houthi rebels. Iran will likely also continue its investigation into the attack with the aim of embarrassing its enemies, provided they have supported the group as Iran’s military and political elites suggest. Therefore, while a direct act against regional enemies is unlikely at this time, Iran will almost certainly use the opportunity to flex its military muscles.