Terrorism: Iran Reaps the WhirlwindOctober 22, 2009
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Sunday’s bombing in the Sistan-Baluchestan province in Iran contains within it a certain unavoidable irony. The 43 people who died in the attack included six senior officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, among them the deputy commander of the IRGC ground forces, Gen. Nur-Ali Shustari. Through its Quds force, the Revolutionary Guard is the chief practitioner of Iran’s widespread policy of war by proxy throughout the region. Sunday’s bombing, however, indicates Iran’s own vulnerability to this form of warfare. On a broader level, the bombing also shows the built-in anomalies of Shi’ite Iran’s current regional alliance with various Sunni militant organizations.
The distance between rhetoric and reality in Iran is wide. The regime claims to represent a united Muslim identity. In reality, it presides over an ethnically and religiously diverse country.
Sunday’s bombing was claimed by the Jundallah (Soldier of Allah) organization, also known as the Peoples’ Resistance Movement in Iran. This group claims to act on behalf of Iran’s Sunni minority. Sistan-Baluchestan, Iran’s only Sunni majority province, is the main focus of its activity. The Sunni Baluchis, with a population of 1.2 million, are the smallest of Iran’s main ethnic minority groups (the others are the Azeris, Kurds and Arabs).
The Iranian regime’s usual practice when faced with acts of protest and subversion from among its own minority communities is to blame foreign interference, and the latest bombing was no exception. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani claimed that the attack was the “result of US efforts and a sign of US hostility towards Iran.”
Most serious observers of modern Western diplomacy would discount the very possibility of US or Western involvement in acts of this kind. For better or worse, it is generally concluded that such acts of subversion are no longer in the “tool box” of Western states.
However, the list of non-Western and regional countries which might more plausibly be imagined to wish to respond to Iranian and IRGC hostile action is long indeed. The Iranian regime regards itself as a revolutionary project. In the manner of other such entities, it has long treated the restriction of state borders with contempt.
Iranian outreach is not restricted to support for Hizbullah and for Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas and others. The IRGC’s Quds Force has busied itself with offering backing to Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq and to the Taliban in Afghanistan. It engages in efforts at destabilization in the Gulf states, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. Information declassified this year also pointed to a clandestine relationship with al-Qaida.
Iranian proxy warfare is an obviously useful diplomatic tool in enabling the regime to wield influence across the region. It also fits with Iran’s idea of itself as the emerging “sunrise” power in the Middle East. However, the Quds Force of the IRGC is not the only element in the Middle East with a long track record of utilizing local grievances and proxy forces as a tool of policy.
THE JUNDALLAH group operates from Pakistani Baluchestan. It is reputed to be the recipient of assistance from Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence. Jundallah has been involved in cross border raids against Iranian targets since 2003. The ISI, many of whose officers are themselves of Sunni Islamist persuasion, backs a number of client groups on Pakistan’s borders. It is known to support insurgents in Kashmir, as well as in Afghanistan.
Some observers have also pointed to financial support for Jundallah from the Persian Gulf states.
Pakistan has indignantly denied Iranian claims that it was responsible for the bombing this week. The precise nature of the ISI and Pakistan’s relations with Jundallah (and the extent to which elements in ISI might be acting independently of their government) are hard to gauge. However, the unfamiliar sight of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as victims rather than backers of terrorism offers a number of lessons which should be borne in mind.
Firstly, in recent years, Israel has tended to identify Islamist Iran as the sole or primary backer of the radical Islamic forces currently proliferating in the region and beyond it. This picture is simplistic. In their different ways, both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan could compete for this crown with equal plausibility.
Secondly, it is a mistake to buy into Iranian propaganda and view the Islamic Republic as a monolithic, unified Islamist force. Iran is a divided society, and as such vulnerable to the exploitation of its fault lines by enemies.
Thirdly, the success of Iranian outreach, and of the Iranian project of regional hegemony crucially depends on its ability to transcend the Shi’ite-Sunni divide. Iran’s closest relations are with fellow Shi’ite forces. But to achieve the regional standing it aspires to, Iran must find a way to offer itself as the natural address for Sunni radical forces too.
The country has had some success with this. Teheran’s promotion of its “resistance” model of asymmetric war against Israel plays a crucial role here. Analysts note the Second Lebanon War as a watershed moment. Hizbullah’s perceived success in this war led to a turning of Muslim Brotherhood associated groups across the region to support Iran.
But there is an inherent tension in Shi’ite Iran’s relations with Sunni Islamist groups. This tension offers an opening to be exploited. Iran’s attempt to expand its power is of deep concern to its neighbors, who have a natural motive to push back against it. And Iran is certainly not the only regional force, as the bombing in Sistan-Baluchestan shows, which is willing to exploit internal divisions in the most ruthless and direct way. Iran has by any measure sowed the wind. It may now be beginning to reap the whirlwind.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel