Iran promises 'crushing' response as attack toll rises
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards promised a “crushing” response to an attack that killed several senior commanders, state television said on Monday, as the death toll from the deadliest such incident in years rose to 42.
Stepping up accusations of Western backing for those behind Sunday’s suicide bombing in volatile southeastern Iran, one of the Guards’ most high-ranking officers said the United States and Britain trained “terrorists” in neighbouring countries.
The attack and allegations of foreign involvement risk overshadowing talks between Iranian and Western officials in Vienna later on Monday intended to help resolve a standoff with the West about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Pakistan condemned the “ghastly act of terrorism” in an area near its border with the Islamic Republic, and denied suggestions from Tehran that security agents in Pakistan were cooperating with the perpetrators.
The attack in Sistan-Baluchestan province, which killed the deputy head of the Guards’ ground forces, highlighted deepening instability in a region of mainly Shi’ite Muslim Iran bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Many minority Sunnis live in the impoverished area, which has seen an upsurge in bombings and other violence.
On Sunday, state media said a local rebel Sunni group called Jundollah (God’s soldiers) claimed responsibility for the attack, which also wounded many people ahead of a meeting between Guards officers and tribal chiefs.
“At least 42 killed, dozens hurt in southeast Iran terrorist attack,” Press TV, Iran’s state English-language television station, said.
It said tribal leaders and civilians were also among the victims and that the Guards had promised a “crushing response”.
Sunday’s planned meeting in the city of Sarbaz was part of efforts to foster Shi’ite-Sunni unity and the Guards said the attack was aimed at fomenting sectarian strife in the region.
Sistan-Baluchestan is the scene of frequent clashes between security forces, ethnic Baluch Sunni insurgents and heavily-armed drug traffickers.
Jundollah, which accuses Iran’s Shi’ite-led government of discrimination against Sunnis in the remote desert region, has been blamed for many deadly incidents over the last few years.
Iranian officials also accused the US and Britain of involvement, a charge rejected by Washington, which also condemned the attack. Iran has in the past said Washington supported Jundollah to stir up trouble in the border area and has also linked the group to the Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda network.
“The base of the terrorists and rebels has not been in Iran. They are trained by America and Britain in some of the neighbouring countries,” television quoted General Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Guards’ ground forces, as saying.
Pro-government daily Kayhan also pointed the finger at Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy, describing the attack as the “new crime” of the Jewish state’s intelligence agency Mossad.
Sunday’s attack was the deadliest such incident in Iran since its 1980-88 war with Iraq.
A bombing of a mosque in Sistan-Baluchestan last May, reportedly also claimed by Jundollah, killed 25 people.
The attack raised tension between Iran and major powers ahead of nuclear talks in Vienna. An Iranian official said that Tehran will further enrich uranium itself if nuclear talks fail with the United Nations watchdog, Russia, France and the US.
The talks will discuss sending Iran’s low enriched uranium abroad for further processing and return to Tehran.
Iran’s governing hardliners may use the bombing incident as an excuse to further clamp down on moderate opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed re-election in June sparked huge opposition protests, analysts say.
The Guards force, whose influence has increased since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, played a key role in suppressing the street protests after the election.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered Moscow’s cooperation in fighting terrorism and extremism, in a letter to Ahmadinejad, Medvedev’s press service said.
“We are ready to cooperate with Iran in countering these threats,” he wrote, expressing condolences for the attack.
Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying on Sunday that security agents in Pakistan were cooperating with the militants behind the bombing.
“We were informed that some security agents in Pakistan are cooperating with the main elements of this terrorist incident ... We regard it as our right to demand these criminals from them,” Ahmadinejad said, Fars News Agency reported.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abdul Basit told the Daily Times newspaper: “Pakistan is not involved in terrorist activities ... we are striving to eradicate this menace.”
Pakistan has in the past backed Sunni Muslim armed groups, particularly in Afghanistan in the 1980s against Soviet occupiers. Islamabad also supported militants who have been battling Indian security forces in the disputed Kashmir region.
Relations between Iran and Pakistan have been generally good in recent years and the neighbours are cooperating on plans to build a natural gas pipeline link. But Iran has in the past said Jundollah members have been operating out of Pakistan.
Some analysts believe Jundollah has evolved through shifting alliances with various parties, including the Taliban and Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, who saw the group as a tool against Iran.—Reuters