Iran vowed retaliation Monday after accusing Pakistan, the U.S. and Britain of aiding Sunni militants who stunned the Islamic regime with a suicide bombing that killed top Revolutionary Guard commanders and dozens of others.
A commentary by the official news agency called on Iranian security forces "to seriously deal with Pakistan once and for all." And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told his Pakistani counterpart that his nation must hunt down suspected members of Jundallah, or Soldiers of God.
"The presence of terrorist elements in Pakistan is not justifiable and the Pakistani government needs to help arrest and punish the criminals as soon as possible," state TV quoted Ahmadinejad as telling President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday.
Iran made no specific threats against the U.S. or Britain, but the accusations came as talks began in Vienna over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. is part of those talks, which observers said made little headway Monday beyond spelling out each side's position.
Iran has often claimed that Western powers use groups such as Jundallah to try to destabilize the country. But the direct finger-pointing at Pakistan — and the warnings of a stepped-up offensive — present a different and risky scenario for Iran's leaders.
Area of Sunni tribes
Sunday's attack occurred in a region that is home to several minority Sunni tribes in rugged southeastern Iran. It is one of the country's most restive areas. Until now, authorities have avoided widespread security offensives that could draw in outside extremists such as al-Qaida.
Sharper tensions with Pakistan could severely hurt Iran's efforts to battle drug trafficking and jeopardize important trade deals at a time when Tehran could face more sanctions over its nuclear program. In May, the two countries signed a landmark pact for a natural gas pipeline into Pakistan.
Pakistan's president quickly condemned the attack that killed at least 42 people — including five senior Revolutionary Guard officers — in a district near Iran's border with Pakistan. The dry canyons and hills are crisscrossed by smuggling routes and home to Sunni Muslim ethnic groups known as Baluchi.
Jundallah gained notice more than five years ago with sporadic attacks and kidnappings, claiming the minority Sunni tribes in southeastern Iran suffer at the hands of Iran's Shiite leadership. Its leader, Abdulmalik Rigi, has been quoted as saying the group does not seek to break from Iran but that violence is necessary to draw attention to discrimination.
Most experts estimate Jundallah has no more than 1,000 main fighters from Baluchi clans, whose territory extends into Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran has claimed the group has ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban, but most analysts say no evidence has been produced.
Guard targeted before
Jundallah has targeted the powerful Revolutionary Guard before, including a February 2007 car bombing that killed 11 members. The group also claimed responsibility for a May suicide bomb that killed 25 worshippers in a Shiite mosque.
Sunday's blast was the most deadly. Reports said a suicide bomber ambushed a high-level delegation of Guard commanders arriving for talks on promoting Sunni-Shiite reconciliation with tribal leaders in Pishin near the Pakstani border.
Revolutionary Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari vowed to deliver a "crushing" response and said an Iranian delegation would travel to Pakistan soon to present evidence of links to its agents.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement on his official Web site vowing to punish those behind the attack.
Several analysts who have studied Jundallah say the group likely receives inspiration and material support from Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan, but no direct backing from militant factions.
U.S., U.K. reject claims
"Evidence shows that U.S., British and Pakistani intelligence supported the group," state TV quoted Jafari as saying.
The State Department and Britain's Foreign Office strongly rejected claims of any involvement.
Zardari called the incident "gruesome and barbaric" and pledged full Pakistani support to fight the militants, according to a statement from his office.
Peiman Forouzesh, an Iranian lawmaker representing the region where the attack took place, called on the Guard to carry out military operations inside the Pakistani soil against Jundallah.
A statement in the name of Jundallah said the attack was carried out in "retaliation for the Iranian regime's crimes against the unarmed people of Baluchistan."
The victims of the attack included the deputy commander of the Guard's ground forces, Gen. Noor Ali Shooshtari, as well as a chief provincial Guard commander, Rajab Ali Mohammadzadeh. The others killed were Guard members or tribal leaders.