TEHRAN - The chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard accused the United States, Britain, and Pakistan yesterday of having links with Sunni militants responsible for a suicide bombing that killed five senior Guard commanders and 37 others.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said those behind Sunday’s bombing are hiding across the border in Pakistan, and in a phone call with his Pakistani counterpart yesterday he demanded their arrest.
The accusations put some strain on the normally close relationship between Iran and Pakistan, which have had differences over the issue of Islamic extremism in the past. Yesterday’s statements marked the first time Iran has publicly accused its neighbor’s intelligence service of supporting the Sunni rebel group known as Jundallah, or Soldiers of God.
The claims of US and British interference came as those two nations were taking part in talks with Iranian officials over the country’s nuclear program in Vienna. The accusations, however, were not expected to complicated the talks.
Jundallah, which emerged in 2002 in Iran’s remote and mountainous southeast, has waged a low-level insurgency there to protest what it says is government persecution of the Baluchi ethnic minority. Baluchis follow the Sunni branch of Islam and are a minority in predominantly Shi’ite, Persian Iran.
A claim of responsibility in the name of the group was posted on an Islamic website that usually publishes Al Qaeda statements. The posting, whose authenticity could not be verified, made no mention of any assistance from foreign powers.
The group has carried out sporadic kidnappings and attacks in recent years - including targeting the Revolutionary Guard and Shi’ite civilians. In Sunday’s attack, a suicide bomber with explosives strapped around his waist struck as senior Guard commanders were entering a sports complex to meet tribal leaders to discuss Sunni-Shi’ite cooperation in the Pishin district near the Pakistani border.
Revolutionary Guard chief General Mohammad Ali Jafari vowed yesterday to deliver a “crushing’’ response.
“New evidence has been obtained proving the link between yesterday’s terrorist attack and the US, British, and Pakistani intelligence services,’’ state TV quoted Jafari as saying.
He said the attack was “undoubtedly’’ planned and ordered by the three nation’s intelligence services and that a delegation would soon travel to Pakistan to present evidence.
Iran often accuses Western countries, especially the US, of stoking unrest among the country’s religious and ethnic minorities - allegations those nations have denied. Iran has also claimed that Jundallah receives support from Al Qaeda and Taliban militants who operate across the border in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, where Baluchi nationalists have been waging a militant campaign for independence from the Pakistani government.
Iran’s Jundallah, by contrast, does not appear to seek independence, but rather improved rights for the area’s Baluchi people.
In 2007, the group adopted a more secular name, the Iranian Popular Resistance Movement, and said it did not depend entirely on armed struggle, but also on political and peaceful efforts to achieve Baluchi rights. The group is still widely referred to by its previous name.
Several analysts who have studied Jundallah say the group probably receives inspiration and material support from Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan.
But they say there is little evidence of an operational relationship between Jundallah and militants, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that operate across the border.
Ahmadinejad had harsh words yesterday for his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari.