Anti-Iran militia faces terrorist designation

US is weighing conciliatory step

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / May 30, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The State Department is seriously considering placing a shadowy anti-Iranian militant group on its terrorism list, a move that would send a conciliatory signal to Iran as the Obama administration is trying to restart diplomatic talks, according to US officials.

The militia, known as Jundullah, or Soldiers of God, has killed scores of Iranian soldiers and border guards since 2003 and brazenly attacked an Iranian police station in December. Yesterday, it claimed responsibility for a rare suicide bombing Thursday in an Iranian mosque that killed 25 and wounded 125.

The Iranian government accuses the United States of funding the group, making its deadly attacks a key obstacle to rapprochement between the two countries. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly yesterday strongly condemned the killing of Iranian civilians and said that the US government does not fund Jundullah, whose fighters are disgruntled members of the Baluch ethnic minority.

"We do not sponsor any form of terrorism in Iran," Kelly said. "We continue to work with the international community to prevent any attacks against innocent civilians anywhere."

But as debates rage in both Washington and Tehran over how to move forward with the first comprehensive diplomatic dialogue between the two countries in 30 years, some US officials argue that the administration should swiftly place a terrorist label on Jundullah as a sign of Washington's good faith.

"It would be a pretty substantial gesture that would carry the implications that the US is disavowing this organization," said Mark Gasiorowski, professor of political science at Louisiana State University, who has taught at the University of Tehran.

Others, however, see the move as a premature giveaway to a regime that has so far rebuffed President Obama's overtures.

"The administration is sensitive towards not coming across as giving concessions with the Iranians before they have come to the table," said Trita Parsi, an Iran specialist who founded the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based group that advocates better relations between the United States and Iran.

State Department officials say the process of officially designating a terrorist group is not based on whether it is attacking an ally and can take six months or longer because officials have to compile detailed dossiers that would hold up under a court challenge.

To make the list, a group must "threaten the security" of US citizens or the defense, foreign relations, or economic interests of the United States. But the criteria are broad enough, US officials say, to argue that Jundullah should be placed on the list if stability in Iran is deemed to be in the interests of the United States.

Jason M. Blazakis, chief of the State Department's Designations Unit, declined to say whether Jundullah was being considered.

But one official estimated that the State Department is halfway through the designation process, while another said the process is underway but might never be completed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Inclusion on the list would prohibit US citizens, companies, or government agencies from supporting the group, and trigger criminal or civil penalties for doing so. Another option would be for Jundullah to be put on a separate, much longer Treasury Department list of terrorist organizations whose assets can be frozen or tracked and who would face the same punishment.

Last year, the State Department opted to keep another anti-Iranian group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, on its terrorist list, despite strong pressure from European allies to remove it.

In February, the Treasury Department designated the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, an anti-Iranian guerilla group based in the mountains of Iraq, as a terrorist organization, because it is controlled by another group that was already listed.

But Jundullah has been of particular concern to Iran because of its allegations of US support and because of increasing unrest in southeastern Iran where they operate and want more autonomy.

On Thursday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque in the southeastern border city of Zahedan. Arabic news channel Al-Arabiya said a Jundullah spokesman called to claim responsibility. Yesterday, gunmen on motorbikes in the same city attacked a campaign headquarters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wounding three people.

Iranian officials have swiftly blamed the United States and Israel for both attacks. The deputy governor of Iran's Sistan-Baluchestan province, Jalal Sayah, told the Fars news agency yesterday that the bomber was "hired by America and the agents of the arrogance."

The claims of US interference are not new. Last month, in a speech to celebrate the Iranian New Year, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed to have intercepted communications between US officials and the Baluch militants.

"Bandits, terrorists, and murders are in touch with American officers in a neighboring country," he said.

"[The Americans] say, 'Let's negotiate. Let's start relations.' They have the slogan of change. But where is the change? Change has to be real. You change, and we will change as well."

The New Yorker magazine and ABC News have reported that the US government has been in contact with Jundullah and used such groups to keep tabs on Al Qaeda, which operates in the same territory in Pakistan. A key source for the ABC News story was later discredited, and US officials strenuously denied both reports.

One senior US defense official who has traveled extensively in Pakistan, including to Baluch areas, said the US military sees Jundullah as an enemy.

"This is one area where the United States and Iran could potentially cooperate on counterterrorism," he said.

Until now, the United States and Iran have fought their own separate battles in the lawless tribal areas of western Pakistan - US forces and their allies against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Iran against Jundullah. The group has found sanctuary among its ethnic countrymen in Pakistan, and crosses the border to launch attacks, just as the Taliban attacks Afghanistan.

In 2005, nine Iranian guards died in a shootout after pursuing Jundullah fighters into Pakistan. In 2007, a Jundullah car bomb killed 11 Iranian soldiers. And last year, 16 Iranian police officers were kidnapped and executed after the arrest of the brother of Jundullah's leader, Abdolmalek Rigi.

Banditry and militancy among the country's Baluch population - a Sunni Arab minority that often complains of discrimination at the hands of Iran's Shi'ite, Persian-led government - has simmered for decades. In the 1970s, the United States tried to help the Shah of Iran pacify Iran's Baluchi province, according to Alex Vatanka, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute who is also managing editor of Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst and Jane's Intelligence Digest.

In recent years, the Iranian government has begun to build a border wall to keep out drugs and militants. Baluch insurgents also threaten the stability of Pakistan, which has its own festering Baluch nationalist movement to deal with. Obama has called for a regional solution to the problem of militancy and tried to beef up coordination to fight the Taliban. But so far, Iran has not been a part of those efforts.

Last weekend, Ahmadinejad held a first-ever summit in Iran with the heads of state of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The three leaders vowed to join hands in a common fight against terrorists on their borders.

"Iran has its own war on terror," said Michael Rubin, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank. "Jundullah has become a consistent threat."