Following the suicide bomb attacks on 15 July against a Shi'a mosque in Zahedan, Iran, by the Jundallah, a Sunni Islamist Balochi separatist group, Iranian officials predictably blamed the West for the attacks, claiming that the insurgents were "mercenaries of the U.S. and U.K." Nevertheless, Obama and Hillary Clinton strongly condemned the attacks and continued echoing the long, official denial of U.S. support for the Jundallah.
So far, the question of Balochistan has rarely been discussed in the West and is largely confined to the writings of human rights activists such as Peter Tatchell. In the present circumstances, however, we should be focusing on the area and formulating a coherent policy towards it.
To begin with, though, some background information: The region of Balochistan encompasses the southeast of Iran, as well as the southwest of Pakistan. In Pakistan itself, the province named Balochistan is the largest, most sparsely populated, and least developed area. Originally an independent kingdom, it has been dominated since the 15th century by foreign empires, though from the late 19th century until the end of the British Raj, the parts of Balochistan contained in modern day Pakistan formed a British protectorate known as Kalat. It was then incorporated, without the consent of the people, into the state of Pakistan.
The Balochi people have suffered racial discrimination in Pakistan since the country's creation, and they resent being part of a state formed because of religious identity. Consequently, since 1948, there has been an active Balochi insurgency against Pakistani forces stationed in the province of Balochistan. At times, with the assistance of Iran, the separatist movement has been brutally suppressed, especially during the administration of Ali Bhutto in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has encouraged the settlement of Punjabis in the area, who receive a host of financial incentives. Indeed, since 2000, Balochi insurgents have intensified attacks on these settlers, whereas in Iran, discrimination against Balochis is due to the fact that they are predominantly Sunni Muslims.
Whilst it cannot be determined for certain whether the U.S. is backing the Jundallah, there are many good reasons why it should covertly support Balochi separatists in both Iran and Pakistan, with the goal of at least an autonomous Balochistan in mind.
Above all, support for Balochi separatism could well serve Western economic interests. As Mustafa Qadri of the Guardian points out, Pakistan's firmest ally has always been China, which "has been busy trying to exploit coal, copper, and zinc deposits and gas and oil reserves" of Balochistan (apparently home to some of the largest copper deposits in the world). This includes the construction of a seaport in Gwadar, in Pakistani Balochistan, giving the Chinese a presence on the approach to the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, the "indigenous Baloch population says these ventures systematically disenfranchise them." A tilt towards Balochi separatists could therefore open up Balochistan's resources to Western access and prevent potential Chinese economic hegemony in the region.
Moreover, there is in fact deep tension between Pakistan and Iran over the issue of Balochi separatists, for both countries have repeatedly accused each other of providing safe havens to armed insurgents. For example, recently Iran's deputy police chief accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary to members of the Jundallah, whilst police chief Ahmadreza Radan issued a warning to "neighbors on the eastern borders of Iran" (without specific mention of Pakistan). He added that the "Islamic Republic considers it its right to deal with insurgents who disappear into the other side of the border." Hence, backing Balochi insurgents in both countries would effectively amount to "rooting for both sides" and could cause tensions between the two nations to rise to a military standoff.
Such an outcome would be desirable for Western interests in two ways. Firstly, issues that are seen by the Iranian regime as threats to the nation's stability, such as the domestic opposition movement to the present government, are in fact regarded as being of greater priority than the nuclear program, so following the recommended policy could help divert the regime's attention from pursuing the nuclear program and embolden the Green movement.
Second, growing tensions with Iran could distract the Pakistani military and intelligence, which set the agenda for Pakistan's foreign policy, from pursuing the expansionist policy of "strategic depth" that has cost the U.S. and NATO billions since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Indeed, if Balochi separatists could control at least the provincial capital of Quetta in Pakistani Balochistan, they could return the favor of covert Western support by cracking down on the Taliban Shura based there. This would isolate the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The subject of Balochistan has been neglected for too long, and it is now time to support covertly Balochi separatists in both Pakistan and Iran. This does not mean supporting Islamists like the Jundallah, but rather ending the designation of the Balochistan Liberation Army as a terrorist group by the U.K., inter alia. Adopting such policies is in Western interests, and we must acknowledge that fact.