Is the Obama Administration Supporting Violent "Regime Change" in Iran?
by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
"We were in Tehran on February 24 -- the day when Iranian authorities announced the capture of Abdol Malik Rigi, the head of Jundallah. Jundallah (the name in Arabic for "soldiers of God"; the group is also known as the People's Resistance Movement of Iran) is a Sunni Islamist group that claims to be fighting for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. Its activities are focused on Sistan-Baluchistan, which is the Islamic Republic's only Sunni-majority province. In recent years, the group has carried out a number of high-profile terrorist attacks in Iran. These include a 2005 attack on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's motorcade in Sistan-Baluchistan (one of Ahmadinejad's bodyguards was killed); a 2006 attack on a bus in Sistan-Baluchistan that killed 18 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); the abduction and execution of 16 Iranian policemen in 2007; a car bomb attack on a security installation in Sistan-Baluchistan in 2008 that killed at least four people; a 2009 ambush in Sistan-Baluchistan that killed 12 Iranian policeman; and a 2009 bomb attack on a mosque in Sistan-Baluchistan that killed 25 people and injured 125.
Most recently, on October 18, 2009, Jundallah carried out a suicide bomb attack in Sistan-Baluchistan that killed 42 people, including several senior IRGC officers. We wrote on this attack at the time, as did Ben Katcher; we also published a guest post on the incident by Jasim Husain Ali.
Two days after his capture was announced, Rigi appeared on Iranian television, where he said, among other things, that Jundallah receives financial and military support from the United States; U.S. Government officials have denied such support on the record (though they have not denied any relationship with Jundallah). Some media reports claim that U.S. support for Jundallah is "indirect," in that the support is channeled through Pakistan and Gulf Arab states allied to the United States. Iranian officials have charged for several years that Jundallah receives support from the United States, as well as from Pakistan and Sunni Arab states allied to Washington.
Our impression in Tehran last week was that the idea the United States has some sort of ties to Jundallah and other groups considered "terrorists" by most Iranians seems to be widely accepted in Tehran as a "social fact," at least. We observed a genuine, deep, and strongly positive popular reaction to the news of Rigi's arrest that seemed to cut across class and political divides in Iranian society. When news of Rigi's capture broke, it was around midday in Tehran. We were at the University of Tehran's Faculty of World Studies, meeting with graduate students in a conference room that was equipped with a large-screen television. We were interrupted by an incoming flow of students and faculty, who apologized for the intrusion but explained that there was an urgent news story which they wanted to see on television. The television was turned on, and we watched the nationally broadcast press conference at which the Islamic Republic's Intelligence Minister recounted Rigi's arrest. As we went through subsequent meetings and conversations over the course of the afternoon, it seemed clear that the news of Rigi's arrest was a source of considerable popular satisfaction. That evening, in some residential neighborhoods, there were impromptu parties, with individuals distributing cake to their neighbors and other similar gestures of celebration. We were told that one of the senior IRGC officers killed in the Jundallah attack last October was a widely known and admired hero of the Iran-Iraq war.
Iranian officials are not the only sources claiming that U.S. intelligence is linked to groups carrying out terrorist operations inside the Islamic Republic. Some Western media reports -- citing former CIA case officers -- say that there are links between Jundallah and U.S. intelligence; for example, see this widely noted story published by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker in July 2008. Some of these reports say that Jundallah is one of a number of ethnic separatist groups (including Arab, Azeri, Baluch, and Kurdish groups) receiving covert support from the United States, as part of a covert campaign authorized during the George W. Bush Administration to press Tehran over the nuclear issue and destabilize the Islamic Republic. (For a recent discussion of the issue by a retired CIA officer, see here.) As we ourselves have written, there is considerable evidence that President Obama inherited from his predecessor a number of overt programs for "democracy promotion" in Iran, as well as covert initiatives directed against Iranian interests.
Obama has done nothing to scale back or stop these programs -- a posture that has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. We understand that, last year, the Obama Administration reviewed whether Jundallah should be designated a foreign terrorist organization, but decided not to do so. Why was that? And, even though the Muhahedin-e Khalq (MEK) retains its designation as a foreign terrorist organization, the Obama Administration continues to push the Iraqi government not to consider a longstanding Iranian request that MEK cadres in Iraq -- who were granted special protective status by the George W. Bush Administration -- be deported to Iran. Why is the Obama Administration trying to protect members of a U.S. government-designated terrorist group?Could it be that at least some elements of the Obama Administration believe that U.S. connections to groups like Jundallah and the MEK are potentially useful policy instruments vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic? Based on our conversations in Tehran, it seems clear that the perception of continuing U.S. involvement with and support for groups carrying out violent attacks inside Iran is having a corrosive effect on Iranian assessments of the Obama Administration's seriousness about strategic engagement with Iran and its ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic."
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