Iran’s Chabahar port is the latest flashpoint in a region already plagued by local conflicts and strategic competition. The suicide attack in the city on Dec. 6 is unusual on multiple levels.
It was the third major attack inside Iran since the June 2017 attempt to storm the parliament building and Khomeini’s mausoleum in Tehran. Oil-rich Ahvaz was the scene of a daring attack on a military parade in September this year. But the attack in Chabahar has raised the red flag in Tehran.
The suicide bomber who tried to enter the police headquarter in Chabahar walked past two of the strongest security rings in the Islamic Republic, in a city that lies at the heart of Iran’s future strategy for Afghanistan.
On the day of the attack, Brigadier-General Mohmmad Pakpour, the IRGC Ground Force Commander, arrived in Chabahar for a security meeting. The attacker was able to walk past the strong security measures in place for the top general.
The IRGC is the top military force in Iran, answers directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei, and gets preferential treatment in arms and money, surpassing Iran’s armed forces, which were sidelined after clerics seized power in 1979. And yet this massive force was unable to secure a town of 100,000 people for a top general’s visit.
The port is an attempt to shift Afghanistan’s trade from Pakistan to Iran and will allow India to trade directly with Central Asia and Russia, bypassing Pakistan and rendering useless its geographic advantage as a bridge
The second security ring in the city protects the Iran-India joint port project, the crown jewel of Tehran and New Delhi’s Afghan strategy, which started in early 1990s and continues today. The port allows India to counter China’s Gwadar deep-sea port project across the border in Pakistan.
The port is an attempt to shift Afghanistan’s trade from Pakistan to Iran and will allow India to trade directly with Central Asia and Russia, bypassing Pakistan and rendering useless its geographic advantage as a bridge.
The two countries have been working closely to counter Pakistani influence in Afghanistan since early nineties, going as far as joining the war by supporting the now-defunct Northern Alliance and prolonging the Afghan civil war. These actions frustrated Islamabad and Washington’s hopes to install an allied government in Kabul. Now Chabahar takes this strategy to a new level.
But the Dec. 6 attack shows this won’t be easy. Iranian and Indian diplomats often tried to convince officials in Beijing that the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, which ends at Gwadar port in Pakistan, is not feasible because Islamabad is unable to provide security for the project. Iranian officials have been so confident about this that they even pitched their Pakistani counterparts to abandon Gwadar and instead use Chabahar.
For example, on August 3, 2017, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s key advisor, Hossein Sheikholeslam, told the Indian media in New Delhi that the Gwadar project was unworkable, and the Pakistani port could not compete with Chabahar on the long run.
“[T]he Gwadar to China road is still not secure, unfortunately,” Sheikholeslam told the Indian wire service ANI in a TV interview. “This [Chabahar] is secure. Iran is an established government. I mean, you don’t hear someday bombs in Tehran or Balochestan. No, no. All around us is fire, but we are sitting there, clam in Tehran.”
Sheikholeslam could barely conceal his smile as he said this. He knew what he was talking about. After all, he belongs to the inner circle of power in post-1979 Tehran. He was one of the militants who took hostages at the US embassy on the eve of the revolution.
But within a year, this narrative of Iranian officials, that Chabahar is safe, lies punctured. And this has panicked officials in both Tehran and New Delhi. The confusion was visible immediately after the attack. An IRGC general accused Saudi Arabia of orchestrating the attack. Zarif in his tweet seemed to be pointing the finger at UAE.
Interestingly, Iranian officials refrained from hinting at Pakistan. Gen. Pakpour visited Pakistan in October to seek help in the release of 12 IRGC soldiers kidnapped by an Iranian group and transferred to Pakistani territory. Pakistani law enforcement recovered five of them, while efforts to get the rest continue.
Facing crippling sanctions, the Iranian government does not want to alienate a major neighbor like Pakistan. And while the Iranians remained silent on Pakistan, the Indians did not. Several Indian news outlets published reports linking Ansar Al-Forqan, the Iranian group that claimed Chabahar attack, to Pakistani extremist groups.
But the situation on the ground does not support this narrative and no evidence links the attack to Pakistan. The target in Chabahar was not Indian interests but Iranian police.
The Pakistanis are no longer interested in Chabahar after 2016, when they busted an Indian intelligence ring based in the Iranian port city and involved in terrorism inside Pakistan, including in sectarian attacks. Islamabad pressured Tehran to end Indian intelligence presence in Chabahar, and President Rouhani had to face questions on this during a visit to Islamabad.
It would be impossible for militants to travel roughly 150 km from the Pakistani border to Chabahar, enter the city, circumvent IRGC security for the visiting general, and then another layer of security for Indian port project, execute the attack, and then exit the city again toward Pakistani border.
Even in the case of the 12 IRGC kidnapped border guards in October, experts say indigenous Iranian rebel groups that have local support can operate inside Iranian territory and use the no man’s land between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan at will.
This region is infested with criminal groups involved in human and drug smuggling, often well-armed, and always ready to work with rebel groups, like Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and others. In fact, a courier for Al-Qaeda used this region to carry a message from Iran-based leadership to bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. American accounts cited this courier as ultimately resulting in blowing the fugitive leader’s cover.
Tehran blames Gulf states and neighbors for its troubles, but the reason militants can move freely in a tightly-controlled city like Chabahar is local support. The region where the port is located is beset with ethnic and sectarian conflict.
Another twist to the story is IRGC’s past link to Ansar Al-Forqan. Iranian journalist Raman Ghavami says the group was created by Tehran to fight locals, but it rebelled later.
In an analytical thread on the Chabahar attack on Twitter, Ghavami wrote, “Four years after its establishment by the IRGC, Ansar Al-Furqan’s significant part led by Jalil Qanbarzehi rejected working for Iran. However, this wasn’t accepted by the IRGC and an operation was conducted in June 2017 to destroy the group.”
Ahmed Quraishi is a journalist, public policy writer, researcher and television commentator on security & foreign policy. He tweets @Office_AQpk.