The State Department on Wednesday formally designated an Iranian anti-government group as a foreign terrorist organization, which some analysts took as a gesture of U.S. goodwill toward Tehran.
The group, Jundallah, is a Sunni Muslim organization that has killed dozens of Iranian civilians and military personnel with the declared aim of defending the Baluch minority in Iran's remote southeastern corner. Tehran has accused the United States of supporting the group to destabilize the government, and has demanded that Washington regard Jundallah as a terrorist organization.
The State Department said in a statement that since 2003 the group has used suicide bombings, ambushes, kidnapping and assassinations "resulting in the death and maiming of scores of Iranian civilians and government officials."
In May 2009, the group attacked a crowded Shiite Muslim mosque in the city of Zahedan, destroying the building and killing and wounding numerous worshipers, the State Department said. The group also has killed members of the Revolutionary Guard, the elite military arm at the center of power in Iran.
The U.S. designation "could be intended by the [American] government as a goodwill gesture," said Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist at the Rand Corp. in Virginia.
Western powers are hoping to resume negotiations with Iran this month over its disputed nuclear program.
However, Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, said the move was "not made to curry favor with the Iranian government.... This group is engaged in terrorism and it's trying to destabilize a sensitive region of the world."
The 47 designated terrorist groups are barred from receiving any U.S. government assistance and are subject to asset freezes and travel restrictions.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan have long pushed for the Obama administration to blacklist the group as a terrorist organization, hoping the move would help persuade Tehran to halt its support of the Taliban. But some analysts are skeptical that will be Iran's response.
Ray Takeyh, a former advisor on Iran to the administration who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Iranian government is so convinced of American conspiracies that "I don't know if they're persuadable.... They may see this as a conspiracy within a conspiracy."
The late leader of the Jundallah group, Abdulmalak Rigi, was shown on television confessing to support from high-ranking U.S. officials, who he said encouraged him to carry out attacks in the Iranian capital. He was put to death by hanging June 20.
The group follows a strict version of Sunni Islam similar to the puritanical version practiced by Osama bin Laden. Security experts suspect that it receives funds from sympathetic interests in the Arabian Peninsula. The group's current leadership denies having anything to do with the U.S.
Whether Jundallah has ties to Al Qaeda, as Iran contends, is a matter of debate.
The group's goals are sectarian, rather than jihadist, said Nader, the Rand expert. But it is still conceivable that there have been contacts between Jundallah and Al Qaeda, he said.
Crowley said the administration believes the group has no ties to Al Qaeda. He said reports that the U.S. government has supported Jundallah are incorrect.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.