Insurgent Group Jundallah Worries Iranians

Read Robert Baer's piece, "Iran's Biggest Worry: Growing Ethnic Conflict"

Authorities in Iran have blamed outsiders for recent bombings there. But Jundallah, an ethnic Baluch group living in southeast Iran, has claimed responsibility. Robert Baer, intelligence columnist for Time, explains the possibility of ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iran.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Eight days ago, a pair of suicide bombs shook Iran. Forty-two people died, including six senior members of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard. A group called Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, claimed responsibility, while Iran blamed Pakistan, the United States and Britain.

Jundallah's members are Balochis, a ethnic group that straddles the border between Iran and Pakistan. Some have long-argued for autonomy. Others, even for an independent Balochistan.

Former CIA field officer Robert Baer, now Time.com's intelligence columnist, say they illustrate the deep-seeded religious and ethnic divisions inside Iran. Baer's most recent book is "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower." And he joins us from a studio at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Author, "The Devil We know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower"): It's great to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And most Americans are by now familiar with the big ethnic divisions inside Iraq, and inside Afghanistan as well. But you point out that in Iran, just a bare majority of the population there is Persian.

Mr. BAER: It's 51 percent are Persian. The largest minority is Azeri, they're Turks. And they have about nine percent of the population is Sunni Islam, and they straddle all the ethnic groups. And that's really Iran's problem right now because, not surprisingly, this chaos on its borders both in Iraq and in Pakistan and Afghanistan are seeping across the border, if you like.

And the attack we saw at Sunday before last was a Takfiri group, and that's a group that in its very heart hate Shia Muslims. It's very close ideologically to bin Laden and to the Taliban.

CONAN: Takfiri is again one of those words that we've come to know in its connection to al-Qaida. So these Balochis are largely Sunni Muslims, as opposed to the vastly - great majority in Iran who are Shia.

Mr. BAER: Overwhelmingly Sunni. And don't forget that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 was a Baloch and a Sunni, and so was Ramsey Yusef, the man who blew up the first World Trade Center. So we're starting to see a pattern here, but more to the point is it is truly a threat to the Iranian regime. I mean, this is a fault line, the Sunni-Shia divide. And it's a fault line that the Iranians are worried about.

CONAN: We think of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as the, well, the forefront of Iran's ideological commitment. What are they doing running this province of Iran?

Mr. BAER: Well, it's a lawless province. You have a lot of heroin traffic going through it. There's a lot of arms coming across the border. And on the Pakistani side of Balochistan, the Pakistani government's only got limited control of the capital city, Quetta. And the rest of it - Mullah Omar, in fact, the head of the Taliban, could be living there as well. There's not much they can do about it, so the Iranians have this chaos on its border that they don't know how far it's going to get inside Iran.

CONAN: And in fact, you've said - well, let me put it this way, why would the Iranians blame the United States and Britain and Pakistan for this bombing?

Mr. BAER: Oh, that's an interesting question. I happen to know a little bit about it. I don't have complete knowledge of the matter. But the head of Jundallah's family lives in New Jersey. Not his immediate family, his cousins. And there's been connections naturally between American intelligence and Jundallah, simply we want to find out who they are and what they are. And if they're willing to open channels, we'll listen to them.

And that's as far as it went. Now, I understand that at one point there was a bombing two years ago of a bus full of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members. It was a gruesome attack. I think 11 were killed. I'm not sure. Anyhow, the pictures were shown to the vice president and he asked the question, is this group, Jundallah, a threat to the Iranian regime? My understanding is that it never went any farther than that. The intelligence community said no, we can't deal with these people. They're effectively dealing with bin Laden, it's not worth it, and they can't overthrow the government at the end of the end of the day.

CONAN: But they could represent a threat to local control and foment a local uprising in the interest of an independent Balochistan or in the interest of -as I understand it, this group's aims are more limited, more autonomy for Balochis.

Mr. BAER: Well, absolutely. We have a catastrophic failure at Afghanistan or Pakistan, this will affect Iran, and Iran knows it. You know, it's ironic in a sense that they're rooting for us in Afghanistan and Pakistan because they do not want to see failed states in either of those countries.

CONAN: So this is, in effect, as you describe it, Iran's own Taliban, these Sunni Muslim groups that are agitating, as you said, Takfiri associated with al-Qaida.

Mr. BAER: Absolutely. They are no different. The ideology is the same. They look at the same sources in Islam. They are the same unforgiving philosophy. And again, I go back. It's anti-Shia. And you know, they're only nine percent of Iran's population but they could still wreak havoc.

CONAN: And when people say Iran wanted to cooperate with the United States after - in the immediate after the aftermath of 9/11 when the invasion of Afghanistan began, this might be one very good reason.

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. They went to us and they allowed the Northern Alliance to join forces with us in October 2001 to help us because they didn't want the Taliban in Kabul, because they remember back in - it was in 1995 that - when the Taliban pulled 12 diplomats out of their embassy in Mazari Sharif and slaughtered them - I mean, they don't like these people.

CONAN: Now, alright, that's a reason that the Iranians might blame the United States for this because there have been contacts, as you suggest, between this group and at least some parts of the American government. Why the Pakistanis?

Mr. BAER: Well, the Pakistanis early on have supported these groups in Iran as defensive measure because through the '90s the Iranians were supporting Shia groups inside Pakistan. This was a tit-for-tat retaliation. It is one of these shadow wars. It didn't go far. But I've seen no evidence that recently Pakistan has been supporting Jundallah. And there's certainly no evidence that it supported this attack the Sunday before last.

CONAN: And just today, news on wire services that - I think 11 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard arrested at a crossing point with Pakistan. Does that suggests that relations between those two countries are - well, at least rocky?

Mr. BAER: I think it's rocky. And I think the Iranians are probably going to start sending forces across the border to control it if the Pakistanis won't. And of course what we're facing there is a potential accident of some sort of a war in that part of - between Pakistan and Iran.

CONAN: Would either - would that be in the interest of either country?

Mr. BAER: No. Not at all. It's just going to add to the chaos in Pakistan. I mean, Pakistan is still a fragile country. This offensive in South Waziristan appears to be stalled. It's certainly not going very fast. A lot of the bombings in Pakistan are not being conducted out of Waziristan. The Pakistanis have really an uphill battle, and the lasting they need right now is to be fighting Iran in any sort of war across that border.

CONAN: Yet a lot of countries - well, the appearance of an external threat can be a unifying factor.

Mr. BAER: Especially for Iran. And you know what? Another irony of this is that in fact we are on Iran's side. We hope they put down Jundallah.

CONAN: And then there's the third person - country lumped in this group. That would be Britain.

Mr. BAER: Yeah. I don't understand the British. You know, there are a lot of (unintelligible) Sunnis living in London. But the Iranians traditionally blame the Brits for everything that goes wrong in their country. They have going back to the '50s or even farther.

CONAN: Now, we're describing this one pack of - this one group that straddles the Pakistan and Iranian border, the Balochis and nine percent of the population. Does Iran have similar kinds of difficulties with other ethnic groups? You mentioned the Azeris. There with long-running tensions with the Kurds. And of course they are in Iran as well in Iraq and Syria and in Turkey too.

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you could get all the ethic and sectarian minorities in Iran to rise up simultaneously, the state would - its existence would be called into question. I don't think it's going to. But the Azeris, you know, 20 to 30 percent of the population, they're the majority population in Tehran. The Bazaaris - they've been quiescent. You know, in the past they've conducted attacks, in the '80s and '90s, but not so much anymore.

CONAN: And they - were they - in the context of the long and bloody war with Iraq, were they drafted? Were they conscripted? Were they asked to, well, contribute in their numbers to the sacrifices on the battlefield?

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. And they were patriots. I mean, the Arab-Iranians did as well. I mean, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the senior officers, a lot of them are ethnic Arabs. And see, Saddam, when he invaded, you know, Iran in 1980, he was hoping that the Arabs would rise, the Azeris would rise. So what I'm saying is, don't bet on ethic differences dividing that country and bringing it down, especially if it's concerted or its covert action on the part of an intelligence service like the United States or Pakistan.

CONAN: And how does this play into the unrest following the presidential election?

Mr. BAER: It doesn't much. But what it does is it helps Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the spiritual leader, because they can say, look, we've got real problems on our border. We don't have time for this - this velvet revolution. You know, we'll deal with that later. So that gives them more control over the country and it's less likely that there's going to be internal opposition, effective internal opposition.

Because it is a real threat. You know, Iranians, as you said, do unite under external threat.

CONAN: And as you look at these groups in Balochistan, and the Jundallah is just one of them, there are others, this seems to represent a leap in its capability, this attack just eight days ago.

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely, because the Iranians had hoped that the Pakistanis would crack down on this. They had arrested 18 people over the last 16, 18 months, turned them over to the Iranians. They turned over the head of Jundallah's brother to the Iranians. They thought they were in control of this, and so did the Iranians, but this attack obviously came as a surprise. And the Iranians can't be sure what's more to come.

CONAN: Well, we know, for example, the Taliban trained in bases inside Pakistan before it recrossed the border to resume the offensive against NATO forces and the United States. Where is Jundallah? Where are their forces based? Are they on the Pakistani side or are they on the Iranian side, or both?

Mr. BAER: They're on both sides. The leadership of Jundallah is on the Pakistani side. The rank and file is inside Iran. It's an indigenous movement. You know, but this kind of bombing that took place Sunday before last doesn't take a lot of training. You know, you have an arm switch and you have another switch to set the bomb off and that's all it is. It's just a matter of getting explosives across the border. That border is very porous. I mean, you and I can wander across it with a guide.

CONAN: Well, it does suggest they knew where these high-ranked officials of the Revolutionary Guard were going to be.

Mr. BAER: It was a brilliant operation. I mean, they used a lot of explosives. They're killing 42 people. It was devastating to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps because they're supposed to be, you know, the elite and immune from attacks like this.

CONAN: We're talking with Bob Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, Time.com's intelligence columnist, author of "See No Evil," and most recently "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the Iranian Superpower." He's with us today from a studio at the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Is this going to - how is the Revolutionary Guard going to respond to this attack? There were all kinds of dire threats, as there usually are after such incidents. Are they being carried out?

Mr. BAER: They are with an iron fist in Balochistan, in the province of Sistan and Balochistan. And obviously this crossing of the border - I mean, the Iranians know where they're border is and the fact that they send 11 Guard force members across the border tells me that they've got a situation where they've got a potential insurgency. Otherwise they wouldn't have taken that risk.

And there's been meetings between the Pakistanis and the Iranians which have gone well. But I think the Pakistanis probably delivered the message, is we cannot close this group down entirely. Our forces are occupied in South Waziristan.

CONAN: We've seen in the case of other insurgencies, iron fist sometimes, well, they may deal with an immediate tactical problem, but they can sometimes spread the insurgency.

Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. What's going to happen if Jundallah starts setting off car bombs in Tehran? Are they going to have to crack down on Sunnis across the country? This kind of terrorism, al-Qaida terrorism, is not easy to stop.

CONAN: You talk about this as a home-grown Balochi group. Where does it get its funding?

Mr. BAER: It get its funding from the Gulf largely, as far as from Kuwait, from Qatar, from Dubai, there's a huge Baloch community. It's easy to get money, you know, the hawala system, to get it in. And again, it doesn't take much money. A suicide bombing like this might cost you $200 and that's it. But 10 of them for that amount of money, you could cause the Iranians real problems.

CONAN: And this tactic of suicide bombing, which of course wreaked such havoc just recently in Iraq, the tactic has certainly spread to Afghanistan - is this something we are going to see so much more of? I guess it originated in Sri Lanka.

Mr. BAER: It originated in Sri Lanka, but keep in mind another irony of this is the Iranians originated in 1980 when a 13-year-old boy was rolled under a tank with a suicide vest, an Iraqi tank, and there it spread to Lebanon and then it spread to the Palestinians, and now it's coming back to the Iranians all these years later, 30 years later.

CONAN: So what goes around comes around, especially in the Middle East.

Mr. BAER: Exactly.

CONAN: The Iranian authorities, are they going to let the Revolutionary Guard deal with this? Is Tehran monitoring what's going on?

Mr. BAER: They're very good, the Revolutionary Guards. They are not a fundamentalist group. They have a paramilitary wing, they have excellent intelligence service. And they - and what they're trying to do is like the same thing we tried in Iraq and then we're also trying in Waziristan, is going to the tribes, the traditional tribes, and hoping the Baloch tribes will come down on Jundallah and close it down. But I think up until today that policy has failed.

CONAN: And the tribes would have the same kind of influence over the situation and may have the same kind of concerns that the tribes in Anbar province eventually had about al-Qaida in Iraq?

Mr. BAER: It's the same theory. They're hoping to turn the locals against this sort of violence that doesn't pay. But as we know, it's an iffy proposition. As we saw in Baghdad. And keep in mind, this explosion in Baghdad yesterday is part of the same phenomenon. It's not going away, either in South Asia or in the Arab world.

CONAN: Robert Baer, with that gloomy note, I guess we'll have to bid you farewell. Thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. BAER: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Robert Baer is Time.com's intelligence columnist and the author of "The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower." He joined us from a studio at the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley, California.

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