LONDON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - The rise of the Jundollah militant group, blamed for Sunday's suicide attack in Iran, coincided with an explosion in drug smuggling from which it earns much of its funding, a leading Western expert said.
Iran says Jundollah, which it blamed for Sunday's attack that killed 15 Revolutionary Guards and 27 others in Sistan-Baluchestan province, has bases in neighbouring Pakistan.
It also accused Britain and the United States of involvement in the attack, charges they deny.
"The emergence and rise of Jundollah coincide with the explosion of smuggling throughout the eastern edge of Iran," said French historian Stephane Dudoignon, a leading Western expert on Sistan-Baluchestan.
The rise in smuggling after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 had particularly affected the impoverished region, he said in an e-mail interview.
Sistan-Baluchestan had also suffered an exceptionally long drought since 2001, and had seen the return of many Baluch fighters who had been affiliated to the Taliban.
"An organisation that is probably mostly independent, with a completely different discourse to that of al Qaeda and the Taliban, Jundollah very probably relies on revenue from smuggling and obtains its arms supplies from attacks on Iranian garrisons," he said.
The group is believed to operate along the porous borders between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, analysts say. The Afghan Taliban earn much of their funding from smuggling opium.
Jundollah, Dudoignon said, drew its religious ideology from Deobandi Islam, a traditionalist Sunni school of thought which emerged in British India in the 19th century and has since spread across Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Analysts say its use of suicide bombings suggest it is increasingly influenced by the sectarian anti-Shi'ite agenda of some militant groups in Pakistan which also follow a Deobandi tradition -- as do the Afghan Taliban. [ID:nLK487913].
AL QAEDA LINK: "THE GREAT UNKNOWN"
As a result, its agenda in Shi'ite Iran is quite different from the ethnic Baluch separatist goals on the Pakistan side of the border. The Deobandi tradition stresses religious over ethnic identity.
"This (Deobandi) ideology, strongly hostile to ethnic separatism, is oriented toward the promotion of full and complete citizenship for the Sunnis of Iran, especially the Baluch, by means of the proclamation of a federal state," Dudoignon said.
He said it was hard to assess Jundollah's links with other militant groups, beyond noting it had moved towards new forms of violence, including suicide bombings, "which make one think of practices more common, at least for the last few years, in Iraq or Pakistan."
Asked whether Jundollah had any links with al Qaeda, he said this "is the great unknown".
But the question had been raised many times before, he said, to which Jundollah leader Abdolmalik Rigi had always responded by arguing that he was a Baluch and Iranian patriot.
"So from an ideological point of view, this is far from the Islamic internationalism of al Qaeda," he said.
The future strength of Jundollah would depend on Iran's policy towards minority Sunnis living around the periphery of the country's Shi'ite Persian heartland.
The Sunni community, he said, "has structured itself strongly in the last 30 years of the Islamic Republic to the point where it constitutes a weighty challenge to the regime." (Writing by Myra MacDonald; editing by Janet McBride)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.