The country hopes to strike a blow against the the Baluch Sunni terrorist group when it publicly hangs 12 members of the cell this week.
Hunt for Iran's most wanted man
Iran's most wanted man is just 26 years old, never sleeps in the same bed two nights running and will only shake someone's hand if he is wearing a glove. Abdolmalik Rigi has reason to fear. He heads Jundallah (Soldiers of God), a shadowy ethnic Baluch Sunni terrorist group that has killed many Iranian security forces and civilians since it burst on to the scene six years ago. This week Iran hopes to deal a devastating blow against Rigi when it publicly hangs 12 Jundallah members in a square in the south-eastern city of Zahedan near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Among the condemned men is Rigi's brother, Abdolhamid.
"They will be hanged, inshallah, by the end of the week," said Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Hamidi, an Iranian judiciary official. Jundallah's favoured tactic has been to abduct Iranian military forces and videotape them being beheaded. Rigi has even released gruesome footage showing him decapitating his brother-in-law, whom he accused of spying for the Iranian regime. Most recently, Jundallah claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack at a Shia mosque in Zahedan at the end of May that killed 25 people and wounded 80 others. The group boasted that its intention was to undermine stability in the run-up to Iran's June 12 presidential elections. It sought to justify the mosque carnage by claiming that the victims were Iranian basij militiamen meeting secretly to co-ordinate election strategy.
Jundallah, which is thought to have between 100 and 1,000 armed fighters, maintains it is waging a struggle against official discrimination of Sunnis in the impoverished and lawless south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Iran's ethnic Baluchis, who are estimated to number between 1.5 million to two million, are mostly Sunni Muslim. Iran's majority Persians and its sizeable Azeri community are mostly Shia Muslim.
Iran says Jundallah has ties to Sunni Islamist militants linked to al Qa'eda and the Taliban who operate across the border in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tehran has also accused the US and Britain of supporting Jundallah to foment sectarian strife in the hope of destabilising the Tehran government. Iranian suspicions of American perfidy were fuelled by reports in some mainstream US media outlets last year that Jundallah was being secretly encouraged and advised by American officials to destabilise the Iranian regime.
Washington and London have denied all such accusations, as well as Iranian claims that they have stirred the crisis that has gripped Iran since the June elections, which were allegedly rigged to give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another four-year term in office. But Tehran is using purported confessions from Rigi's condemned brother to bolster its claims of western malfeasance. Iran's state-run English language television station, Press TV, quoted him as saying that the Jundallah leader was on the payroll of the US military.
"My brother Abdolmalik met several times with US forces in Pakistan," Rigi allegedly said. He added that during one of the meetings, two female US agents had offered the group weapons, safe bases in Afghanistan and professional trainers. "I myself took part in one of those meetings, where we discussed recruitment, training, infiltrating Iran and methods of inflaming Sunni-Shia sectarianism for three hours. During that meeting, the Americans gave my brother $100,000," Rigi supposedly said. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, accused the US of being behind the mosque bombing.
The respected International Crisis Group ridiculed such accusations in a recent report on Iran. "The claims appear wholly unfounded and have been roundly denied by the US," it said. But the group acknowledged Iran has reason to be concerned about Sunni extremism spreading to its Baluchistan region bordering Pakistan where tension has recently been rising. Iran has lost about 3,000 men in the past decade, fighting heavily armed drug traffickers in the remote area smuggling Afghan-produced heroin and opium to markets in Europe. Apart from the mosque bombing in May, Jundallah killed four security officers in a suicide attack in Saravan on the Iranian side of the border last December. Six months earlier, Jundallah kidnapped 16 Iranian police officers and whisked them across the border in Pakistan where it murdered them. The group had reportedly demanded the release of 200 of its members, including Rigi's brother, in return for the hostages' release. In February 2008, 18 members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards were killed in a car bombing in Zahedan.
"Officials fear that Jundallah will carry out similar operations in major Iranian cities, including Tehran, as well as attacks against the energy infrastructure," the ICG report said. "The Iranian-Pakistani-Indian pipeline is due to run through Baluchistan, further enhancing the area's strategic importance and deepening the risks presented by Sunni radical activism." In an interview with Al Arabiya television last December, Rigi threatened attacks in the Iranian capital if the government did not grant Iran's Sunnis their "full rights". If Tehran complied, he said Jundallah would lay down its weapons and "engage in political life".
Rigi also took the opportunity to deny that his group is connected in any way to the US. Jundallah also maintains that it has no links to Pakistani Baluchi separatists groups that want an independent Greater Baluchistan, uniting Baluch areas in Iran and Pakistan. Iran appeared confident yesterday that the net was closing in on Rigi. Mr Hamidi, the head of the judiciary in Sistan-Baluchistan, said Tehran had sought Interpol's help because the Jundallah leader was operating from beyond Iran's borders.
Iranian officials suspect he is hiding in Pakistan, whose government has denied helping Jundallah and which handed over Rigi's brother and other senior members of the group to Tehran. Some analysts believe that a US-Pakistani offensive on Pakistani Taliban and their al Qa'eda cohorts could force the two groups to seek refuge in Pakistan's remote Baluchistan province, where they would need to cement ties with Jundallah. If so, Iran and the US, despite their mutual hostility, could find themselves with a convergent interest in co-operating to defeat a common enemy that both mistrust and dislike more than each other.