Saturday, 17 July 2010

FT: Defeated group returns to haunt Iran

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
It is less than a month since the Iranian regime claimed victory over the country’s main ethnic opposition group by hanging its commander, but Thursday’s bomb attack claimed by Jundollah shows that the organisation is still capable of causing damage.

The group, which says it is fighting for independence for Iran’s Baluchi minority, claimed responsibility for two suicide bombs outside a mosque in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan province, late on Thursday, which left 27 dead.
It said the attacks were in retaliation for the execution of its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi. But on Friday the authorities stuck to the official line that Jundollah has been virtually eliminated and instead blamed the US, Israel and Britain for the bombs.

“It cannot be true” that Jundollah masterminded the blasts, said Ali Mohammad Azad, the governor-general of the province on state television. “We are investigating to see who did it,” he added.

It would be embarrassing for the Iranian regime, which has adopted an iron fist policy towards dissident ethnic groups, to admit that more hangings have failed to bring security.

Hassan Abedini, a conservative commentator, said the US felt the need to divert world opinion away from the return of Shahram Amiri, the nuclear scientist who was allegedly kidnapped by the CIA, to Iran on Thursday. He hinted this motive might have been behind the attack.

However, many reform-minded analysts blame the religious radicalism of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the fundamentalist president, and repression by the Revolutionary Guard Corps for fuelling ethnic tensions.

While Iran is dominated by Shia Muslims, most of whom are Persians, some ethnic minorities, notably the Baluchis and Kurds, are largely Sunni. They complain of both religious and ethnic discrimination.

The regime does not employ Sunni Muslims in senior government jobs and restricts their religious ceremonies to the ethnic regions. Shia clerics have so far resisted the establishment of a Sunni mosque in Tehran.

Moreover, Iranian governments over the past century have adopted an unspoken policy of keeping ethnic areas under-developed to help foil separatist movements.

Sistan-Baluchestan province is one of the most deprived areas in Iran, where there is naked poverty and high unemployment.

“Such discriminatory policies and an increase in the regime’s violence have in fact paved the ground for radical groups like Jundollah to recruit forces in Baluchestan,” said one analyst.

People in the restive province claim that Sunni religious seminaries have been placed under more restrictions in recent years, with some clerics being hanged. Meanwhile, youths who are suspected of joining Jundollah - which means the “army of God” - have allegedly been killed under the pretext of the fight against drug smuggling.

Jundollah has resorted to kidnapping and beheading officials in front of television cameras, and killing civilians in ambushes.

The explosion on Thursday was the second outside a Shia mosque, creating fears in Tehran that religious sites might become more frequent targets.

Iran has long argued that western governments, notably the US, have been helping Jundollah with money and logistics to undermine the Islamic regime.

Yadollah Javani, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard, which is responsible for security in Sistan-Baluchestan, said there was “no doubt” that the US, Israel and some other western countries – an implicit reference to Britain – were behind the explosions. The aim, he said, was to spark sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni.

Tension between Shia and Sunni is nothing new in Iran, but these sentiments have been intensified under Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, who promotes a radical interpretation of the Shia faith. This encourages Sunni radicals to spread their version of Islam, which Iran says is close to Wahhabism.

The central government has been also struggling with Pejak, an armed Kurdish group in the north-west, and has hanged some of its fighters in recent months.

“Violence by the regime brings violence by Baluchi and Kurdish groups,” said an analyst. “Ethnic and religious tensions need cultural work, not bullets.”

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