Should the West Use Covert Warfare Against Iran?
In the shadowy world of covert proxy wars, Iran is taking center stage — both as a target and as a player.
In the latest signal of escalating proxy wars, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corp (IRGC) announced that it had “dismantled a terrorist team” that was “affiliated with global arrogance,” a reference to the US and its allies, in the Islamic Republic’s northwestern province of East Azerbaijan.
The announcement came weeks after Iran said that it had eliminated an armed group in a frontier area of the province of West Azerbaijan, which borders on Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. It also followed Iran’s assertion two months ago that the Islamic Republic had disbanded some 100 “terrorist groups” in the south, southeast and west of the country.
To be sure, intermittent political violence in Iran cannot be reduced exclusively to potential foreign exploitation of minority ethnic and religious grievances in a bid to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Nor can foreign exploitation be established beyond doubt — despite multiple indications that this is a policy option under discussion in the US and Saudi Arabia.
There is, moreover, little doubt that Iran’s detractors had no connection to a June 7 attack on the Iranian parliament and the grave of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran. Those attacks killed 12 people and wereclaimed by ISIS, despite Iran’s claims that Saudi Arabia was responsible.
Nor can revived agitation by Kurds, Balochs and Azeris be simply written off as foreign creations rather than expressions of longstanding and deep-seated grievances against Tehran — even if the revival of such violence may in part have been inspired by secessionist trends among Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, as well as developments in Catalonia.
There is, however, also no reason to exclude the possibility that the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, are seeking to exploit those grievances.
Iran is by no means a country wracked by political violence. Still, violence is gradually mounting there. The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) announced in January that it was resuming its armed struggle against Iran not “just for the Kurds in Iran’s Kurdistan, but [as] a struggle against the Islamic Republic for all of Iran.” PDKI militants, operating from Iraqi Kurdistan, have since repeatedly clashed with Iranian forces.
Pakistani militants in the province of Baluchistan have reported a massive flow of Saudi funds in the last few years to Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative groups, while a Saudi think tank believed to be supported by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman published a blueprint for support of the Balochs, and called for “immediate counter measures” against Iran.
Without a doubt, US and Saudi moves to counter Iran go beyond potential exploitation of ethnic and religious grievances. Supported by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia recently forged close ties to the predominantly Shiite Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — despite Al-Abadi’s rejection of demands that he roll back the power of Iranian-backed Shiites who played a key role in the fight against IS.
Similarly, US President Donald Trump appears to be goading Iran into walking away from the 2015 nuclear agreement. Trump recently refused to certify to Congress that Iran was in compliance with the accord. The US has also sought to limit the benefits that Iran will garner from the accord.
The Trump administration, in its latest move, blocked Iranian participation in ITER, a multibillion-dollar fusion experiment in France. Increased scientific cooperation was part of the nuclear agreement’s bid to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.
Included in the recent release of 470,000 documents captured during the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, in which he was killed, was the Al Qaeda’s leader’s personal diary. The diary and other documents provide evidence of Iran’s complex relationship with Al Qaeda, and strengthens the Trump administration’s tougher approach towards Iran.
Iran has not restricted its opportunistic, albeit calibrated, support for militants and terrorists to Al Qaeda. Instead, Tehran has played both sides of the divide in Afghanistan. In an indication that ties to the Taliban could strengthen because of US pressure on Pakistan to halt its support for militants, some Taliban fighters are looking to Iran as an alternative safe haven. “Many Taliban want to leave Pakistan for Iran. They don’t trust Pakistan anymore,” an Afghan fighter told The Guardian.
In a bid to counter Saudi influence in Afghanistan — and in the wake of the US ousting of the Taliban — Iran played a key role in the Bonn conference that united disparate Afghan factions behind the government of Hamid Karzai. Iran has since allowed the Taliban to open a regional office in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. Late last year, Iran also hosted several senior Taliban figures at an Islamic Unity conference.
The record of past Western efforts to engineer regime change in Iran through covert wars is mixed at best and dismal on balance. There is little reason to assume that a potential new round will fare any better. If anything, these attempts persuaded Iran to keep its lines open to Sunni Muslim jihadists, who are hardly natural allies for a Shiite Muslim regime.
At the same time, the two-year-old experience with implementation of the nuclear agreement, as well as Iranian support for not only the Taliban but also the government in Kabul, suggests grey areas in which reduction rather than escalation of conflict may be possible.
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.