Jundallah, an Iranian insurgent group, claimed responsibility on May 29 for the suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque in eastern Iran. Tehran is concerned that the bombing shows the vulnerability of Iran's eastern flank and illustrates Tehran's security concerns concerning both the United States and jihadists.
Iranian rebel group Jundallah on May 29 reportedly claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Shiite mosque in the eastern city of Zahedan. According to Iranian authorities, the attack, which killed as many as 30 people and wounded many others, involved a suicide bomber. The attack comes two weeks before crucial presidential elections in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces a major challenge and at a time when the Obama administration is pushing a major diplomatic initiative with the clerical regime. Jundallah is a Sunni Islamist Balochi rebel group active in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Balochistan province along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Iranian police have accused the United States of being behind the attack, Tehran has long accused the Pakistanis of allowing the rebel group to operate from their territory because the province shares a much longer border with Pakistan than Afghanistan, and because Washington has a close military and intelligence relationship with Islamabad. Further complicating the matter is Pakistan's close relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional archrival, whom the Iranians suspect of backing anti-Iranian rebel groups, especially Sunni Islamist ones like Jundallah. Though it is fighting Persian domination over ethnic Balochis, the group's Islamist ideology has facilitated close ties with Taliban elements in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recently, there have been reports that Jundallah has forged closer ties with not just Taliban but also with al Qaeda. Such a relationship is a major cause of concern for Iran, especially in the wake of the spreading Talibanization in southwest Asia. Tehran is therefore looking at potentially two jihadist safe havens on its eastern flank — in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is a major threat to its national security. Despite strong diplomatic overtures from the United States, which Iran is very much interested in pursuing, the Iranian government remains extremely suspicious of what it sees as U.S. attempts to subvert the Islamic republic from within. A short time ago, the commander of the country's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Maj. Gen. Mohammad Jaafari, said that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had entrusted the IRGC and the Baseej paramilitary organization with the responsibility to counter any attempts at soft coups or other means of destabilizing the Iranian regime. This latest Jundallah attack will only confirm such threat perceptions, especially because of the nature of the group. While U.S.-Iranian negotiations on issues such as Iraq, Tehran's controversial nuclear program, and the wider Middle East remain on hold, Washington has sought Tehran's involvement in combating the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The Iranians are participating in a limited fashion, but they are very unhappy with U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, as well as Saudi involvement in this process. Given this context, the Jundallah attack will further push the Iranians towards unilateral action in Afghanistan, which will create problems for the United States. Tehran will take action politically, through its influence among Afghan Persian and Shiite actors, and militarily by backing its own Taliban proxies. There have been reports of the IRGC accelerating its efforts in both Sistan-Balochistan province and Afghanistan to both protect its eastern frontier and project power into Afghanistan. The attack will also have a wider impact in terms of the overall U.S. efforts to engage Iran, with the latter becoming even more reluctant to participate in any diplomatic dealings. From the perspective of the two major stakeholders in the Iranian political system — the clerics and the IRGC — increased contact with the United States as part of a normalizing process leaves their positions very vulnerable. These two groups feel that Washington can undermine their positions by privileging the elected segment of the Iranian political hierarchy. Furthermore, the United States would be able to support rebel groups not just among the Balochis but also among the ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Azeris. The Jundallah attack therefore strengthens the hands of the hardliners in Iran who wish to see Ahmadinejad secure a second term and could weaken the more pragmatic elements within the country, who are in favor of robust negotiations with the United States.