February 15, 2007 -- A BUS carrying a dozen military officers is stopped in broad daylight by a group of police officers, who ask its civilian driver to disembark. Minutes later, a car bomb explodes nearby, shattering the bus and killing the passengers.
Soon, a government spokesman appears on television to blame "terrorists" for an operation that has sent shivers throughout a major city. The spokesman reveals that the attackers' police uniforms had been stolen.
No, this did not happen in Iraq. It happened yesterday in the city of Zahedan, capital of the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And this was not the first incident of its kind.
Since 2002, 75 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been killed by assailants in the same region. Last May, in one incident, 23 people, including at least a dozen guardsmen, were killed.
The province has been something of a no-go area for many years, with armed bandits, drug smugglers and dissident tribesmen often clashing with security forces in the rugged mountains. Kidnappings of foreign nationals and the holding of hostages has been a major local industry along with the smuggling of hundreds of thousands of Iranians, mostly young people, who wish to flee to Pakistan or the Persian Gulf states.
Yesterday's incident, however, is different. First, it targeted the regime's elite force. Second, its perpetrators appear to have had inside knowledge about the movements of the military, and access to genuine police uniforms.
For the ruling mullahs in Tehran the shock could not have been greater. The incident confirms their fears that they now have enemies that can use precisely their own tactics against them. Car bombs, fake uniforms and suicide attacks were introduced to the Middle East by Khomeinists first in Iran under the Shah and later in Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and as far away as Argentina by branches of Hezbollah. In the past three years, groups allied to Tehran have used the tactics against the new regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Khomeinist regime is having a taste of its own medicine, and is clearly panic-stricken by the experience.
Interior Minister Mustafa Pour-Muhammadi has announced a wave of arrests, including the "smashing of a ring of American and Israeli spies."
But who was really behind the attack?
A group called Jund Allah (The Army of Allah) claimed responsibility. It is a predominantly ethnic Baluchi outfit whose stronghold is the area between Khash and Taftan, close to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The group's leader is one Abdul-Malik Khan, who calls himself sardar (headman).
The Baluch, although an Iranian people, are distinct from the Persian majority thanks to their language and culture. However, the main cleavage is because Baluchis are Sunni Muslims while Persians are Shiites.
Iran's Baluch community, more than 2 million souls, is part of a 20 million-strong nation spread across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Oman and the Persian Gulf states. As Sunni Muslims, the Baluchi feel shut out of Iranian life that, since 1979, has been dominated by Shiite clerics. Under the Khomeinist constitution, no Sunni can run for president, let alone the office of "Supreme Guide." There are no Sunni Cabinet ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors, high court judges or directors of public corporations. Sunnis are not allowed to have their own schools and mosques outside areas where they form a majority.
Sunnis account for almost 12 percent of Iran's population of 70 million. The largest number is ethnic Kurds, about 4 million, followed by the Baluch, some 2 million, and the Turkoman, who number 1.8 million in the northeast. Sunnis also are in a majority in Talesh, on the Caspian Sea, and in parts of the coastline on the Persian Gulf. The capital, Tehran, is home to some 2 million Sunnis, who are, nevertheless, denied the right to have a mosque of their own.
The mullahs have rewritten all textbooks to reflect only the Khomeinist brand of Shiite Islamic theology, history and rituals. The registrar of birth does not allow newborn babies to be given typically Sunni names.
Under President Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, repression against Sunnis intensified. The only Sunni mosque in Mashad, the Iranian main " holy" city, was burned to the ground. Efforts to rebuild it have been blocked by the government since 2000. The Khatami presidency also witnessed the assassination of dozens of Sunni clerics in mysterious circumstances.
Since 1979, Iran has witnessed countless Sunni revolts, often crushed by force. But the Khomeinist regime has fomented sectarianism in Islam for more than a quarter of a century by inciting Shiite minorities against Sunni regimes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, among others. It is using Hezbollah to provoke a sectarian war in Lebanon. In Iraq, the Khomeinist regime is arming Shiite militias to attack the U.S.-led multinational force and undermine the new democratic regime.
The dramatic attack in Zahedan has shown that sectarianism is a game that others, too, can play.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe