Ethnic spat heats up Pakistan-Iran border

Balochistan rebels may damage Iran's relations with neighboring Pakistan.

While Tehran stares down Washington and deflects Arab concerns over its nuclear ambitions, it is now also fighting a skirmish with militants across its Western border with Pakistan, fanning concerns that an area already mired in Taliban violence and an ethnic insurgency could be further destabilized.

For weeks, Jundallah, a militant group with operatives in Pakistan and Iran, has launched a wave of attacks on Iranian policemen, security forces, and even the vaunted Revolutionary Guards, Iran's elite fighting corps, leaving dozens dead in escalating violence. The group, which claims to have 1,000 operatives at its disposal, says it fights for the rights of the Baloch people, a Sunni ethnic minority clustered in Iran's Sistan-Balochistan province, which borders Pakistan and the Southern tip of Afghanistan.

This week, in its largest measure to date to crack down on the group, Tehran announced the arrest of 90 Jundallah members in a sweeping raid.

The crackdown has many observers worried. Sistan-Balochistan straddles areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Taliban's Sunni-extremist violence is already raging and where Baloch separatists in Pakistan are fighting an insurgency with the Pakistani government. What happens on the border could have the most immediate consequences for Pakistan, given that more than 1 million Balochis are settled within Iran and have strong ties to more than 3 million Balochis across the border in Pakistan.

"If the Baloch in Iran are targeted by the state, obviously the Baloch in Pakistan are going to feel sympathy," says Samina Ahmed, the South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG). "We often say that what happens to the Pashtun population in Afghanistan affects the Pashtuns in Pakistan. Why shouldn't we use the same analogy?"

Like Pakistan itself, Iran is a confederacy of ethnicities, each with its own nationalist priorities. Although the central government champions the Persian Shiite dimension of the state over other groups, Persians constitute only half the country's 69 million people. Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, and Balochis comprise the other half, and many of them are Sunni.

Observers note with alarm that the country's ethnic and sectarian cleavages, although precarious for decades, have widened, particularly in the last two years. Deadly explosions erupted in the Arab-minority enclaves of the southwest in April 2005, and tensions flared in July 2005 in the Kurdish-dominated northwest after security forces shot and killed a young Kurdish boy.

By far the worse violence, however, has erupted in the last year in Sistan-Balochistan. It is home to more than 1.4 million ethnic Balochis, who, like Balochis in Pakistan, live amid conditions ripe for discontent and violence. Unemployment rates are estimated at between 35 and 50 percent; guns, organized crime, and drugs mix freely – elements of lucrative smuggling and heroin routes.

As in Pakistan, the Balochis of Iran have long accused the government of neglect and abuse. Four years ago, those expressions of popular discontent gave birth to Jundallah, a militant group which claims to have killed 400 Iranian soldiers and policemen. Last month, ABC News reported that Washington, in collaboration with Pakistan, has secretly advised Jundallah's activities in a bid to destabilize Tehran, claims that both Washington and Islamabad have denied.

Whatever the case, Jundallah's campaign of violence peaked in February, when its operatives killed 13 Revolutionary Guards, a highly publicized and stinging blow. Iran struck back by publicly hanging a suspect held responsible and arresting several more. Apparently unfazed, Jundallah abducted four Iranian policemen, three of whom were later recovered in Pakistan. Now, following Tehran's sweeping arrests, many wonder how Jundallah is holding up.

Jundallah's organizers were incited by Iranian and Pakistani state policies that do not extend equity to minority communities, some observers say. "The lesson is for states to understand that you can't target whole communities and expect not to see a response. This is exactly the Pakistani tactic as well. This is going to lead to more alienation, more confrontation," says Ms. Ahmed.

But some also see the fighting as a dimension of the growing divide between Sunnis and Shiites that appears to have transcended national borders.

"This is sectarian," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "Sunni organizations content on challenging Iranian influence in Pakistan would like to open up another front in Iran, which has been untouched by the sectarianism that is affecting Pakistan.

"The regional implications are going to be very serious for Pakistan," Mr. Rais adds. "Pakistan-Iranian relations are likely to deteriorate. Iran is likely to encourage the sectarian aspect in Pakistan."

It's an alarm bell that Islamabad denies hearing. "This cannot cause tension. [Iran and Pakistan] are on the same page about it. We are working together," says Tasneem Aslam, the Foreign Ministry's spokesperson. The problems on the border are not due to clashes with militants based in Pakistan, she says, but are an issue of armed gangs operating on the border.

Tehran certainly doesn't see it that way. After its Revolutionary Guards were killed, Iran immediately pointed a finger across the border at Pakistan.

"Though Pakistan is our neighbor, little by little it is losing its neighborly manners. Pakistan has become a haven of terrorists who kill people in Zahedan," influential Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Ahmed Khatami said on Iranian state radio, referring to the province where the attack took place.

Finger-pointing across the border is nothing new. Tehran has long held Pakistan responsible for the incubation of the Taliban, which killed nine Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan in 1998. Tehran has also blamed Washington for the violence, drawing upon ABC and other media reports that have suggested secret US backing. Whether the reports are true or not, American analysts have long advised that Baloch separatists are a viable option to be used for exerting diplomatic pressure on Tehran.

But the long-term regional implications of such a strategy, critics argue, are likely to outweigh short-term benefits.

"It could unleash much darker forces of nationalism and religious zealotry that could plunge the entire region into years if not decades of bloody crises," wrote Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born journalist, in a January editorial in the Arab News.

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