Here in Iran’s lawless southeast, the authorities in Tehran who have sent military advisers and hardware to help fight the so-called Islamic State in far-off Syria and Iraq are engaged in their own battle with Sunni militants.
The fight here, near the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, is with Jaish al-Adl, or Army of Justice, a radical group that claims to fight for greater rights for Shiite Iran’s ethnic Baluchs and Sunni minority.
While there is no known direct connection between the regional agenda of the Islamic State (IS) and Jaish al-Adl, a recent surge of cross-border attacks along this remote frontier indicates that the Pakistan-based militants are taking inspiration from IS successes in Syria and Iraq.
“When [Jaish] see that [IS] is expanding and moving ahead, in a way it stimulates these people, too,” says Molavi Abdul Hamid, the controversial Sunni Friday prayer leader for Zahedan, in a rare interview.
“This is what is going through their mind: ‘If [IS] are going ahead on the other side, then we should do the same here,’ ” says the bespectacled and thickly bearded Mr. Abdul Hamid, who oversees Iran’s largest Sunni seminary here and is one of the country's most influential Sunni clerics.
For Iran, the two militant Sunni groups may be two sides of the same terrorist coin. But while Iran’s approach to IS has been military in nature, on its southeastern border, with the help and encouragement of local Sunni leaders, it is using a more nuanced blend of force, negotiation, and economic investment to defeat the far smaller Jaish al-Adl.
One reason is that Shiite-majority Iran controls many more variables when dealing with the grievances of minority Sunni citizens, who make up some 10 percent of Iran’s population, than it does in the broader regional fight against IS. And while Jaish al-Adl and its predecessor Jundallah created much insecurity and fearful headlines with a decade of assassinations, ambushes, and explosions in Shiite mosques that killed soldiers and civilians alike, the militants have never endangered the Iranian state.
Iran’s Sunni insurgent groups are not big enough to create a state, and do not have “any” popular support, says Abdul Hamid. “They are just doing attacks here and there, to say. ‘We are here, we exist.’ ”
Still, for some the example of the swift spread of IS should serve as a warning for Iran.
“A country is wise that does not underestimate the enemy; we should be careful not to make it too small,” says Molavi Abdulqani Barani, a Sunni cleric from Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province.
A long-neglected region
Restless for decades and impoverished for centuries, this long-neglected region has become a priority for President Hassan Rouhani, who calculates that security will improve with a better economy.
In the June 2013 presidential elections, Mr. Rouhani received more than 73 percent of the vote in this province – higher than any other – compared with 51 percent nationwide. He has vowed to end discrimination against minorities, and, in a visit last April, said to rapturous cheers: “We don’t have second-class citizens.”
Rouhani’s attention may bring change to this troubled province, because while the IS seeks to impose itself across the Middle East and into Pakistan, Jaish al-Adl “are very local,” says Narjes Khatun Barahoi, a Tehran-based researcher on Baluchi affairs. “Jaish al-Adl was created to be an Iranian problem, and it can be solved by Iranians,” she says.
Zahedan is known as Iran’s lawless “Wild West,” where the bleak desert borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan intersect. Iranian officials, soldiers, and police have lost some 3,000 men during years of combat with heavily armed drug smugglers along a major opium and heroin route to Europe.
More sophisticated attacks
Into this volatile mix, Sunni leaders say the latest rise in attacks may be revenge for the recent killing of two militant leaders in Pakistan – with suspicions falling on Iran – as well as the militants’ desire to match IS gains with some of their own.
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpur, an Islamic Revolutionary Guards commander, said recently that Iran had “no evidence” of a direct link between Jaish al-Adl and the IS, but that the quality of Jaish-al Adl attacks had greatly improved.
He described in uncommon detail a sophisticated attack on border post No. 171 in September. In tactics that mirror those used so effectively by the IS in Iraq, a vehicle packed with 1,300 pounds of explosives caused a “cataclysmic” blast that leveled the outer wall, as 70 insurgents in a convoy of six trucks raced to attack.
Iranian officials often accuse Pakistan of hosting – and the US and Israel of supporting – Jaish al-Adl so as to fan sectarianism and undermine Iran. After 14 Iranian border guards were killed a year ago, for example, Iranian officials claimed the “blood-sucking US regime’s hands were sticking out of the terrorists’ sleeve,” and killed 16 prisoners in retaliation.
And yet despite that tit-for-tat cycle, Iran has also shown a willingness to negotiate.
Captive border guards released
The best example came earlier this year when five Iranian border guards were captured in February from their lonely post – a single tent atop a barren hill. Two months later four of them were released unharmed, due to the efforts of Iranian Sunni leaders – with Abdul Hamid at their center.
Iranians were captivated by the fate of the soldiers, and few expected them to survive. Abdul Hamid sent a Quran as a gift and, in coordination with local tribes, a delegation of “white bearded” elders to Pakistan to negotiate. They told them that keeping the hostages would only bring more insecurity.
“We convinced them that these [soldiers] should be freed,” recalls Abdul Hamid, speaking close by a towering Sunni mosque built to resemble the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
“We told them the new [Rouhani] government in power is after dialogue, and to come and try to solve your problems with them based on dialogue,” says Abdul Hamid. The Quran clinched the deal, he says, but divisions among the kidnappers led to the killing of one Iranian soldier and the creation of a breakaway faction called Jaish al-Nasr.
Plans for direct dialogue between this faction and the Iranian government have so far gone nowhere. “Presently security officials conclude that these groups are small, that they are insignificant, and they can prevent [attacks] by targeting them,” says Abdul Hamid.
And while Sunni leaders say the April hostage release offers a model to defang Jaish al-Adl, conservative critics and media charge that talking to “terrorists” is dangerous. The very contacts that enabled such dialogue raised suspicions of Abdul Hamid: Hardline Vatan-e Emrooz newspaper warned Iran’s security forces to be “sensitive” that those “close to terrorists … not be strengthened or purified.”
However Ms. Barahoi, the Tehran researcher, says the nonconfrontational approach is finely calibrated and that Jaish al-Adl has “no roots and no support among Baluchs.” Rouhani’s government, she says, “has a will to work on Baluchistan development, to increase employment and education, and enable more political participation.”
'Dialogue is our basis'
Indeed, the provincial governor, Ali Ousate Hashemi, says he has issued 60 or 70 “amnesty letters” in the past three months to captured militants, to integrate them into normal life.
“Dialogue is our basis,” Mr. Hashemi says in an interview in the city of Zabol, two hours drive from Zahedan. “Our main goal is to get the enemy on our side … and to make use of the elders and religious leaders, to talk to these people.”
The governor has a long list of big-ticket projects that could improve lives and dampen the insurgency. The capacity of the Chabahar port is to be doubled in the next year, and irrigation piping in some areas expanded eight-fold, he says. Transit and pipeline projects are underway.
“The more jobs, the more we will have security, and the more the government follows up in this region, the more it will be reflected,” says Sunni leader Abdul Hamid. “The people are after security and against any violence and extremism.”