TEHRAN, Iran – A suicide bomber killed five senior commanders of the elite Revolutionary Guard and at least 26 others in an area of southeastern Iran that has been at the center of a simmering Sunni insurgency, state media reported.
The official IRNA news agency said the dead included the deputy commander of the Guard's ground force, Gen. Noor Ali Shooshtari, as well as a chief provincial Guard commander for the area, Rajab Ali Mohammadzadeh. The other dead were Guard members or local tribal leaders. More than two dozen others were wounded, state radio reported.
The commanders were on their way to a meeting with local tribal leaders in the Pishin district near Iran's border with Pakistan when an attacker with explosives around his waist blew himself up, IRNA said. The explosion occurred at the entrance of a sports complex where the meeting was to be held.
Top provincial prosecutor Mohammad Marzieh was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency as saying that a militant group from Iran's Sunni Muslim minority called Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, claimed responsibility.
The region in Iran's southeast has been the focus of violent attacks by Jundallah, which has waged a low-level insurgency in recent years. The group accuses Iran's Shiite-dominated government of persecution and has carried out attacks against the Revolutionary Guard and Shiite targets in the southeast.
Iranian officials have accused Jundallah of receiving support from al-Qaida and the Taliban in neighboring Pakistan, though some analysts who have studied the group dispute such a link.
Jundallah's campaign is one of several small-scale ethnic and religious insurgencies in Iran that have fueled sporadic and sometimes deadly attacks in recent years — though none have amounted to a serious threat to the government.
The attack does raise questions about Iran's grip on a sensitive border region beset by criminal gangs and drug smuggling.
The latest violence, a symptom of the tension between Iran's majority Shiites and impoverished minority Sunnis in the southeast, appeared to have no connection with the street unrest triggered by the dispute over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election in June.
Ahmadinejad vowed to strike back at those behind Sunday's attack, the official IRNA news agency reported.
"The criminals will soon get the response for their anti-human crimes," IRNA quoted him as saying. Ahmadinejad also accused unspecified foreigners of involvement.
Iranian officials have often raised concerns that the United States might try to incite members of Iran's many ethnic and religious minorities against the Shiite-led government, which is dominated by ethnic Persians.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States condemned what he called an "act of terrorism." Reports of alleged U.S. involvement are "completely false," he said.
The Guard commanders targeted Sunday were heading to a meeting with local tribal leaders to promote unity between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities.
In April, Iran increased security in Sistan-Baluchistan Province, at the center of the tension, by placing it under the command of the Guard, which took over from local police forces.
The 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guard controls Iran's missile program and has its own ground, naval and air units.
Iran's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, condemned the assassination of the Guard commanders, saying the bombing was aimed at disrupting security in southeastern Iran.
"We express our condolences for their martyrdom. ... The intention of the terrorists was definitely to disrupt security in Sistan-Baluchistan Province," Larijani told an open session of the parliament broadcast live on state radio.
In May, Jundallah claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque that killed 25 people in Zahedan, the capital of Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province, which has witnessed some of Jundallah's worst attacks. Thirteen members of the faction were convicted in the attack and hanged in July.
Jundallah is made up of Sunnis from the Baluchi ethnic minority, which can also be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The group has carried out bombings, kidnappings and other attacks against Iranian soldiers and other forces in recent years, including a car bombing in February 2007 that killed 11 members of the Revolutionary Guard near Zahedan.
Jundallah also claimed responsibility for the December 2006 kidnapping of seven Iranian soldiers in the Zahedan area. It threatened to kill them unless members of the group in Iranian prisons were released. The seven were released a month later, apparently after negotiations through tribal mediators.
Despite Iran's claims of an al-Qaida link, Chris Zambelis, a Washington-based risk management consultant who has studied Jundallah, said in a recent article that there is no evidence al-Qaida is supporting the group. He does note, however, that the group has begun to use the kinds of suicide bombings associated with the global terror network.
He said Jundallah likely looks to Baluchi insurgents in Pakistan as a source of inspiration and possibly material support. Its ties to the Taliban based in Pakistani Baluchistan are less clear, but Zambelis said any connections are probably limited to smuggling between the two countries.
"Jundallah's contacts with the Taliban are most likely based on jointly profiting from the illicit trade and smuggling as opposed to ideology," Zambelis wrote in the July issue of West Point's CTC Sentinel.