Why supporting the terrorists who are trying to take down the Revolutionary Guard will only come back to haunt us.
- By Jamsheed K. ChoksyJamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed here are his own.
On Oct. 18, a suicide bomber in southeastern Iran killed at least 42 people and wounded scores of others in a lethal attack on senior commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The Shiite IRGC doesn’t make an especially sympathetic victim — it has quashed dissent in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and is now helping spearhead an autocracy there. The group taking credit for the attack, Jundallah (God’s Soldiers), also known as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran, is a Sunni organization. It seeks full rights for Baluch tribesfolk specifically and Sunni Muslims generally either within a majority Shiite Iran or as a separate state. Hence it battles the Shiite clerics, secular autocrats, military, and paramilitary forces who rule Iran with an iron fist, styling itself a coalition of freedom fighters.
But that does not make Iran’s Sunni insurgents the good guys, not by a long shot. Their tactics are reminiscent of Hezbollah, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, al Qaeda, and the Taliban plus its local allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, they derive inspiration and knowledge from that wider network of terrorist organizations.
Jundallah emerged in 2003, spawned by the Baluchi Autonomist Movement of the 1980s and 1990s. The movement’s militants attempted to assassinate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 at Zabol along Iran’s eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three months later, the group killed civilians at nearby Tasuki just before the Iranian New Year. The group took responsibility for fatal car bomb attacks on the IRGC at Zahedan and Saravan in 2007, 2008, and earlier this year. The Jundallah also has attacked Shiite mosques and kidnapped civilians. The Iranian government has retaliated by executing captured militants.
Pishin, the area of the latest attack, like Zabol, Zahedan, Saravan, and other hot spots of Sunni rebellion in Iran, lies along the poorly defined borderland that is a stronghold of armed Baluch tribes — many with ethnic and ideological links to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Those tribes have traditionally been hostile to all three states and desirous of their own territory. Pakistan’s military has confronted rebellious Baluch tribesmen since that country’s independence in 1947. A deadly mix of narcotics, weapons, petroleum, and luxury goods flows through the region. Income from that illicit trade has funded separatist militants, religious fundamentalists, and international terrorists for the past three decades.
The Iranian government has charged that the United States, Britain, and even Pakistan are linked to Sunni militant activities within its borders as part of ongoing attempts at regime change. Although accepting Pakistan’s official condemnation of Jundallah-planned attacks, Iran’s leadership claims the group’s leaders enjoy safe haven in Pakistan and insists that Pakistan cooperate in arresting and extraditing them to Iran for trial.
The Iranian charges are not made up from whole cloth, but they are probably still not true. There has long been talk of funding coming to the rebels from the Saudis — with U.S. knowledge — as part of tensions between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Iranians stretching as far back as the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century to more recent competition for dominance in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Sources of those claims allegedly include Jundallah’s top leadership. Moreover, public and private reports indicate that officials in the George W. Bush administration at the very least strongly considered the idea themselves. Both Iranian and Pakistani officials and citizens think that Saudi funding for Baluch rebels in Iran had tacit U.S. consent at that time. Hard-liners against Iran in Washington still raise the option as a means of destabilizing Iran’s antagonistic regime.
Indeed, the Barack Obama administration might be tempted to use direct or indirect funding as a means of surrogate warfare to further pressure Iran’s government. Violent anti-Iranian Sunni groups like Jundallah have not been placed on the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list. And the Obama administration might feel that it’s already being punished for the perception that it’s funding the rebels and may as well try to reap some of the rewards.
But this would be shortsighted. The basic problem with any strategy to destabilize Iran via Sunni tribal rebellions is that Baluch nationalism spans three countries — not just Iran, but also Afghanistan and Pakistan. Supporting a pan-Baluchistan movement would only worsen societal instability and national fragmentation in West Asia and South Asia.
Militant groups, especially ones linked to ethnic and religious notions, have brought little but trouble to the world. It is important to recall the obvious: The United States and its partners once supported the Taliban materially because they were battling the Soviets and Russians. The United States shouldn’t repeat the mistake, fooling itself that Sunni Baluch nationalists will be better disposed toward the West just because they are now fighting a common foe in the Iranian government.
Yes, there might be the temptation to exert pressure, via internal strife, on Ahmadinejad’s autocratic regime for eliciting nuclear and international compromises. But Iran’s Sunni insurgency isn’t just bad news for the IRCG — it’s also bad news for the Middle East, Asia, and the United States. Ultimately, therefore, whether or not the Iranian regime’s charges of foreign interference are accurate, no country should welcome or aid an insurgency in eastern Iran. NGOs for terrorism really are harder to subdue than nation-states supporting such activities.