By Pier Francesco Zarcone*
The Jihadist (that is, Sunni) terrorist acts of June 7 in Tehran have provoked a degree of anxiety in those Western media which considered Iran a kind of impenetrable fortress for Sunni terrorism. This was an impenetrability that could only seem real because of the lack of attention paid in the West to news diffused in Iran, where the activities of ISIS precede that of the attacks
ISIS is a source of problems for Iran’s capacity to cope with unrest among the Sunni minorities existing in the country. Saudi Arabia could also take action in these matters, and in this regard, it is worth recalling that in May Saudi Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman had formulated explicit threats to Iran, warning: “We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia, but we will work so the battle is there in Iran.”
So, if the United States has been the great enemy of Iran since the Islamic Revolution, there are now two more in the field: ISIS and Riyadh.
Iran – Shiite heart and stronghold in the Muslim world – is not homogeneous from the ethnic or religious point of view. There are no official estimates, so we have to rely on data provided by the CIA (!): Persians are said to account for 61-65 percent of the population, followed by Azerbaijanis at 16 percent, Kurds at 10 percent, Lurs at 6 percent, Arabs, Baluchs and Turks at 2 percent, plus a remaining one percent divided among other minorities.
Two aspects should be mentioned about this composition: on the one hand, the level of integration among these ethnic groups is sufficiently high and, in fact, not all political and social leaders are Persians; on the other hand, there have been conflicts with independence movements in Khuzestan, Kurdistan and Baluchestan (regions with a strong Sunni presence), where fire smoulders under the ashes or is actually burning.
Integration affects religious differences less. The official religion in Iran is Twelver Shiism, accounting for about 90 percent of the population belong, 8 percent are Sunni (mostly Khuzestani, Kurds, Baluchs and Turkmens) and the remaining 2 percent are divided among non-Muslim minorities (Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Jews, Eastern Christians, Yazidis, Hinduists, etc.).
For Iran, the Sunni jihadist threat began to materialise with the taking of Mosul by ISIS, which the Iranians responded to with a sort of “blocking” of the border with Iraq.
At the beginning of summer of 2014, Tehran’s Interior Ministry spokesman announced that there were no “voids of security” at that frontier, and the commander of the army ground forces, General Kiumars Heidari, reaffirmed the concept and denied that terrorists operating in Iraq were a threat to Iran. In July of that year, Iran’s Police Chief, General Ismail Ahmadi Moqaddam, announced that no ISIS armed group had crossed the border.
However, in May 2016, Iran established a 40 km-wide “zone of deterrence” in Iraqi territory, next to the border between the two countries: any violation would have resulted in an Iranian military response. Between 2014 and 2015, ISIS came within 12 km of that band, and five Iranian army brigades were alerted. However, at that time, there was no massive violation of the security zone.
Nonetheless, ISIS groups subsequently penetrated into Iran, and local cells tried to carry out terrorist actions in Tehran.
In May 2015, the Iranian authorities announced the arrest of ISIS cells before they could act, but in the meantime their adherents had been able to kill several teachers in the south-east of the country. Intelligence Minister Seyed Mahmoud Alavi announced: “Not a single week goes by without an operation against internal security being discovered and neutralised.”
Before this episode, the security forces had eliminated Hesham Azizi, head of the Ansar al-Furqan group, along with several militants. In April, terrorist cells had been destroyed, again in the south-east, in Sistan and Baluchestan Province.
In November 2015, just before Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the country, other terrorists were arrested in the western Kermanshah region, some ISIS cells were dismantled in Sistan and Baluchestan – with the seizure of explosives – and a cell was discovered in Iranian Azerbaijan.
In close proximity to Iran’s parliamentary elections in February 2016, even a training centre for the manufacture and use of explosive devices was discovered, and on February 26 (the day of the elections), terrorists preparing for attacks in Tehran the following month were arrested.
Successes against Sunni terrorists led the Iranian authorities to diffuse tranquilising communiques; thus, in April 2016, General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan claimed that ISIS had numerically insufficient forces to pose a threat to Iran, and that there was “no reason to worry because intelligence has complete control over jihadist forces in the region.”
It is however a fact that, despite the continued reassurance of the authorities, in 2016 more than 20 terrorist groups were dismantled – with dozens of terrorists imprisoned.
At this point, the problem for an external observer is whether the Tehran government can do anything to counteract the jihadist virus among its Sunnis, besides resorting to prevention and repression.
The most plausible answer seems to be negative, especially as many in the Iranian leadership (at least until yesterday) appear convinced that the solution to the ISIS problem lies in its military defeat in Iraq and Syria. There is no self-criticism (and perhaps there can be none) about discriminatory policies towards Sunni minorities.
It takes just a glance at the map to understand immediately that sources of instability are located in the interior areas of Iran close to the borders. To the east, Iran borders with Afghanistan and hosts small Pashtun communities; to the south-east is Baluchestan; to the south-west is the province of Khuzestan, with a strong Arab minority that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq tried encourage to rise up during the war against Iran in the 1980s.
Khuzestan. This is the region of allocation of Iran’s Arab minority, positioned on the border with Iraq and overlooking the Persian Gulf. It is a territory rich in natural resources, but the Arab population is poor.
Here the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (Harakat al-Nezal al-Ahwazi) was formed, which – with the financial and logistical support of the Arab petromonarchies – has carried out attacks on local oil installations. In January 2017, in addition to the destruction of some major oil pipelines, the group attacked an important military base in the Ghizaniya region.
Iranian Kurdistan. An autonomous party, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan is active here. In January 1946, it had formed an ephemeral independent Kurdish Republic, which was stamped out in December of the same year by the Iranian army. Repressed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it now has its headquarters in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, whose government has committed itself to not carrying out armed actions in Iran.
The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) – an active combat group since 2004 – also operates here. It has bases in the mountains of northern Iraq for launching military action. Its goal is to establish an autonomous Kurdish entity in Iran – on the basis of the Iraqi model. It is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Fighting continues between this organisation (about 3,000 units of men and women) and the Tehran army.
A third group is the extreme-left Komala Party, which is also militarily very active..
Baluchestan. Here, a radical guerrilla group of the Sunni Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice”) – with bases in Pakistan – operates, and has intensified its operations against Iranian military and military installations since 2013, with a certain degree of effectiveness it must be admitted. This organisation has now become more radical Islamist than nationalist, opposing both Persian domination and the Shiism of Tehran.
A future full of difficulties
Such a situation is not at all reassuring; this does not mean that there are dangers capable of bringing down the Iranian regime, but they will affect the people in their daily lives.
The military defeat of ISIS will come sooner or later (in the meantime, Syrian troops have reached the border with Iraq), and among its architects – more than the “inconclusive” US-led coalition – there will be Hezbollah, Syrian and Iraqi Shiite militias and the Kurds. And this is exactly what will call the survivors of ISIS and sympathisers to revenge, especially if the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus-Baghdad axis manages to maintain Shiite hegemony over the region – or over much of it.
This means that the defeat of ISIS will lead to an increase in terrorism across the region, including Iran, and that – in parallel or in league with the political, economic and military initiatives of the Arab petromonarchies – the territories of action of the aforementioned separatist movements would become even more a hunting ground for jihadists.
Indeed, they are already a hunting ground: on June 9 came the news that, as a result of the confessions “obtained” from the terrorist captured in Tehran, some 48 people were arrested. The arrests took place in Tehran and in the provinces of Kermanshah, Kurdistan and Western Azerbaijan. They concerned almost all Sunni Kurds who had sworn allegiance to ISIS.
The future will be full of difficulties, but on the other hand, during the last thirty years Pandora’s box in the Middle East has been opened by the United States, and it will be a long and arduous task to destroy its content – which will continue to spread.
* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: la Quinta (The Fifth). This article originally appeared in Italian under the title ”Jihad” in Iran in Utopia Rossa. Translated by Phil Harris.
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