Iranian officials say a Sunni militant group has claimed responsibility for a deadly car-bomb attack Wednesday morning against Iran's Revolutionary Guard in the provincial capital of Zahedan.
Iran's Fars News Agency reports that the Sunni militant group Jundallah, "led by a well-known gang leader Abdul-Malik Rigi, released a statement [Wednesday] and claimed responsibility for the terrorist operation."
The group under Abdul-Malik Rigi is well-known in Iran due to the several other terrorist operations that it has already conducted in the southeastern province of Sistan and Balouchestan.
The Guardian reports that the attack, which killed up to 18 members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, was just the latest violence in southeast Iran's Sistan-Baluchestan province, "one of Iran's most unstable provinces."
The attack took place in the Sistan-Baluchestan provincial capital, Zahedan, in south-east Iran, as the guards were being bussed to work. Witnesses said the bus was travelling in the city's Ahmadabad district when it was overtaken by a car which then stopped suddenly.
The car's occupants jumped out seconds before it exploded and fled in motorcycles parked nearby. Television footage showed the bus, which had 24 passengers, reduced to a mess of twisted wreckage.
Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reports that the governor of Zahedan said that the "main culprit" in the attack "was killed by security forces during a hit and run operation." The IRNA also cites a smaller number of fatalities than some reports, saying "at least 11" guards were killed.
Though accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism, Iran has not been immune to terrorist attacks. Reuters offers a chronology of major bombings in Iran, which include attacks on shrines, a bank, and a shopping mall.
Prior to Jundallah's claim of responsibility, an official from Zahedan told the Iranian parliament that "insurgents and drug traffickers" were behind the attack, The Associated Press reports. AP also writes that five of those involved in the attack were arrested.
Drug trafficking and insurgents have long been a problem in the Sistan-Baluchestan region of Iran, the Guardian writes.
Sistan-Baluchestan, straddling the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan and sitting on a major drugs route, has been the frequent scene of violent incidents involving militant Sunni groups and drug traffickers. More than 3,000 Iranian security personnel have been killed in armed clashes with traffickers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The province is home to a large ethnic Baluchi Sunni population, which has alleged discrimination at the hands of Iran's Shia majority. Jundallah, which Iran has in the past linked to al-Qaida, has been blamed for several high-profile attacks on Iranian forces.
Bloomberg reports that even before the Iranian revolution in 1979, the region was troubled by "nationalist revolts."
Nationalist revolts by Sunnis from the province's Baluchi ethnic group preceded the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the country's monarchy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a 1997 report. The unrest has continued since the religious leadership appointed a Shiite member of the ethnic Sistan minority as the province's governor, the UNHCR said.
Bloomberg writes that the Zahedan car bombing is the most deadly attack in the province "since May, when officials said insurgents killed 12 civilians." Bloomberg also reports that an Iranian official in Zahedan declined to specify the size of the Sunni majority in the region, calling it sensitive information. Iran as a whole is 89 percent Shiite.
In a May 2006 commentary for The Christian Science Monitor, analyst Abbas William Samii wrote that Iran in fact faces many ethnic tensions, of which the Baluchi group Jundallah is but a single example. However, the Iranian government tends to respond to ethnic unrest "with a combination of repression and scapegoating," which Mr. Samii predicts will eventually fail.
Tehran's method of dealing with the ethnic issue will ultimately backfire. It can successfully employ overwhelming force against geographically isolated groups, but it would be much more difficult to handle angry Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, and other minorities if they act against the state simultaneously. If such an occurrence coincides with other forms of disorder, such as the violent student demonstrations that took place in Tehran May 23 and 24, then the regime could find that it has more than it can handle.
However, Iranian minorities are not pursuing separatism or special privileges. They identify with the Iranian nation - many defended the country in the Iran-Iraq War, and others serve in the government and legislature. When minorities protest they are not making unreasonable demands, they are just insisting on their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Such rights include use of their languages in local media, as well as the absence of discrimination. They also object to levels of unemployment and underdevelopment that affect their regions more severely than other parts of the country. The Iranian regime ignores minority rights and dismisses their concerns at its peril.