By Momin Iftikhar

Abdol Malik Rigi Under Arrest with Iranians

The sight of a subdued Abdol Malek Rigi, surrounded by Iranian black clad commandos hiding their faces behind matching balaclavas, was viewed with much relief not only in Iran but in Pakistan as well. Rigi, Iran’s most wanted man, and the face of the terrorism rocking Iran’s southeast province of Sistan-Baluchistan, had become the cause of much friction between the Iranian and Pakistani security establishments. As the head of Jundullah (the Army of God), a militant organization claiming to be struggling for the alleged ethno-sectarian persecution of Sunni Baloch population , Rigi was responsible for launching suicide attacks and  targeting Iranian security personnel that had raised the diplomatic temperatures of Iran and Pakistan relations close to the boiling point. The details of his arrest are scant but the reports that Pakistan played a major part in providing the intelligence augur well for the long term prospect of good neighborly relations of the two brotherly countries.

Though there are other versions of the circumstances leading to his arrest, it is widely reported that Rigi was arrested once the Kyrgyzstan Airways flight QH 454 heading from Dubai to Bishkek was intercepted by the Iranian Jet fighters and forced to land at Bandar-e-Abbass. Flushed with success, Iran’s intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, left hardly a doubt as to quarters – U.S and UK – that Iran was convinced were supporting the terrorist activities in Iran. It was heartening though that Pakistan’s name that had earlier surfaced in the Iranian rhetoric was after all not mentioned. Hyder brandished Rigi’s Afghan passport and identity card, at the briefing, as manifest proof of the US and Western support for Jundullah’s anti Iranian terrorism. In a successful intelligence operation, Rigi was photographed by the Iranian intelligence at a US base located in Afghanistan, virtually hours before his ultimate flight. The wave of satisfaction in Iran following Jundullah Chief’s arrest and a sigh of relief taken in Pakistan served to highlight the pain that Jundullah is incurring upon the Pak-Iran relations.

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Based in the extremely inhospitable terrain of “triangle of death” at  the confluence of Pak-Iran-Afghan borders, the potency of attacks by Jundullah have been incrementally increasing ever since the organization came into being in 2003. During 2009 these attacks turned particularly virulent and the tone of Iranian political establishment and media became bitter and incriminating; brashly accusing Pakistan of its culpability. On May 28, 2009 Jundullah carried out a suicide bombing attack inside the Amirul Momenin Mosque in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan – Baluchistan Province, killing 25 people and injuring 130. The lamentable episode turned into a kind of watershed in the loss of the diplomatic cool by Iran. Pakistani Ambassador was called to be informed that the explosives for the bomber were provided by three Pakistani Baloch insurgents collaborating with Jundullah. It was followed by Iranian ambassador in Pakistan calling a press conference, lashing out at the supposed Pakistani inaction; followed by the unprecedented action of Pak Iran border being closed.

Jundullah’s most serious attack materialized on 18 Oct last year when a suicide bomber struck at a border town of Pishin district located few kilometers inside the Pak-Iran border. The attack came when Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, along with local tribal chiefs were attending a meeting to promote sectarian harmony. The impact was devastating; five IRGC officers including two generals and 40 of their men and Baloch tribal chiefs were killed in the attack. Given the rising Iranian frustration to settle scores with Jundullah, the backlash for Pakistan was imminent and didn’t take long in coming. President Ahmadi Nejad went to the extreme limit of holding Pakistan responsible for the attacks, alleging that some quarters in Pakistan were providing patronage to the Jundullah terrorists. The spiteful rhetoric was repeated by the Iranian intelligence minister who alleged that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies were supporting the Jundullah operations. Commander of the IRGC ground forces raised the ante further when he sought permission to cross the border to attack the Jundullah bases in Pakistan; reminiscent of the Indian rhetoric at the height of Indo Pak stand off in 2001-2002.

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The unsubstantiated Iranian claims asserting the use of Pakistani territory by Rigi for conducting acts of terrorism against Iran have persistently been denied by Pakistan. Given the strong bonds of friendship and a manifest urge to extend close cooperation to Iran in the hunt for terrorists, Iranian allegations come across as surprising; accompanied by a much justified sense of hurt and incredulity. The threat posed by Jundullah’s presence in Pakistan is a cause of serious concern; duly treated as a veritable source of trouble and instability. Jundullah has cleverly weaved a strategy that combines an agenda for promoting Sunni sectarianism with Baluch nationalism; providing it common grounds alongside various offshoots of terrorist elements operating in Pakistan. Pakistan is eye deep in a fight against terrorism for its survival with its resources stretched to the limit. There are already reports of its connections with the TPP and Pakistan can ill afford the Jundullah to bring together the Baluchi sub-nationalists to join hands with sectarian motivated terrorism.

With the arrest of Abdol Malek Rigi the establishment in Pakistan has heaved a sigh of relief. His arrest vindicates Pakistani assertions that Jundullah is not operating from Pakistan nor does it have the patronage of official quarters. The reports that Pakistan made its contribution and provided meaningful assistance in netting the terrorist are reassuring. Recognition must emerge in Iran that there are no dynamics that should advance Pakistan’s interests through developing a soft corner for forces that rake terrorism in Iran. On the contrary, given the economic stakes associated with the flow of energy from Iran it is imperative from Pakistan’s perspective that the Sistan – Balochistan region remains tranquil and peaceful. Pak-Afghan-Iran border spawns some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world and while Iran should accept its responsibility of sealing the border against Jundullah and riveting attention on infiltration from Afghanistan, Pakistan must do all within its means to destroy Jundullah modules that bear a common threat to Pak-Iran interests.