In a brazen attack on Iran’s military elite, a suicide bomber on Sunday killed six Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and 36 others at a gathering of tribal leaders in a southeastern province near the Pakistani border known for drug running and religious extremism, according to the official Iranian news agency.
The assault was carried out by a lone man who reportedly disguised himself in tribal dress and detonated an explosives belt at a gymnasium in the city of Pisheen in Sistan-Baluchistan, a harsh land beset by heroin smuggling and ethnic animosities.
At least 28 people were wounded, and images of carnage were broadcast across a stunned nation.
State media said the Sunni Muslim militant group Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, which operates along the Iranian-Pakistani border, claimed responsibility for the attack. The organization, part of a regional Sunni insurgency in Shiite-dominated Iran, has for years killed and kidnapped Iranian soldiers and police officers.
The bombing highlighted the increasing dangers in a region near the intersection of Iran and two of its troubled neighbors: Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are battling a resurgent Taliban, and Pakistan, where the military this weekend launched a major offensive against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Jundallah has its own agenda in Iran, but its ideology and proximity to the other militant groups prompted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to caution Pakistan about cross-border violence.
“We have heard that certain officials in Pakistan cooperate with main agents of these terrorist attacks in eastern parts of the country. It is our right to ask [for extradition] of criminals,” Ahmadinejad said Sunday night, shortly after Iranian news agencies reported that Tehran had summoned the Pakistani charge d’affairs to the Foreign Ministry.
The attack also came as the world has been focused on Iran’s controversial nuclear development program and on widespread protests over alleged vote fraud in Ahmadinejad’s June reelection victory. The issues have put tremendous pressure on the president and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, both of whom have moved to crush internal dissent while offering a mix of defiance and conciliation with world powers over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
The Baluchistan bomber, dressed in a loose white robe, struck during what was to have been a reconciliation meeting between Shiite and Sunni tribesmen to calm sectarian tensions in southeastern Iran. State-owned Press TV reported that a simultaneous second bombing targeted another group of Revolutionary Guard officers traveling in a convoy near Pisheen. The number of casualties was unclear and the report could not be independently confirmed.
The region is a tangle of disenchanted clans and sects that have claimed ethnic and religious discrimination for generations. Jundallah and other groups pose no serious threat to the central government, but they are capable of deadly ambushes against state and Shiite institutions, such as a mosque bombing in May that left more than 20 people dead.
Iran’s postelection unrest may have also helped inspire Sunday’s bloodshed. Jundallah had vowed to take revenge against the Revolutionary Guard for cracking down on protesters marching against Ahmadinejad. The peaceful opposition movement led by vanquished presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi never associated itself with Jundallah, but some analysts suggested that the group plotted the attack to exploit the political turmoil at a time the Revolutionary Guard is tightening its hold on the country.
“It was a measure to show that IRGC is susceptible and penetrable. A suicide bomber infiltrated a gathering that was supposedly held under tight security because of the presence of the high-ranking IRGC commanders,” said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a political analyst. “And, secondly, the timing was important because IRGC is associated with the heavy crackdown against postelection protesters, so the terrorist attack can be an intensified echo of public opinion.”
The official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that those killed included two of the Revolutionary Guard’s top commanders: Gen. Noor Ali Shooshtari, commander of the guard’s ground force, and Rajab Ali Mohammadzadeh, a chief commander for the region. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Shooshtari was a follower of Khamenei, who was then a rebellious mullah. He rose through the Revolutionary Guard ranks and in March was appointed to oversee the Sistan-Baluchistan province.
The Revolutionary Guard and hard-line politicians blamed “global arrogance” for the bombing and said the U.S. was funding and arming Jundallah and other militant groups to overthrow the Ahmadinejad government.
The accusations came the day before officials from the U.S. and other world powers are to meet in Vienna with Iranian delegates over Tehran’s nuclear development program. The West says Iran wants to build an atomic bomb, while Tehran says it is focused solely on civilian energy purposes.
“There is no doubt that this violent and inhumane act was part of the strategy of foreigners and enemies of the regime and the revolution to destroy unity between Shias and Sunnis and create divisions among the unified ranks of the great Iranian people,” according to a statement issued by the Revolutionary Guard.
Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, agreed. “We consider the recent terrorist attack to be the result of U.S. action,” he said. “This is the sign of America’s animosity against our country.”
IRNA quoted Larijani as telling lawmakers: “The goal of the terrorists is to disturb the security of the Sistan-Baluchistan province. They do not want to have economic progress in this region. But certainly the guards will react with additional forces to establish security.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly denied American involvement, saying Washington condemns “this act of terrorism and mourns the loss of innocent lives. Reports of alleged U.S. involvement are completely false.”
Jundallah is mainly made up of ethnic minority Baluchis scattered across Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Press TV reported that “Jundallah is a Pakistan-based terrorist group closely affiliated with the notorious Al Qaeda organization. The terror ring has carried out countless bombings and other violent attacks in Iran.”
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.