The execution of 13 men in Iran on July 14 highlights a central theme of the regime’s response to the protests that followed the disputed result of the June 12 election. Those executed were not street protesters, but instead were accused by authorities in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan of being members of Jundallah — a Sunni Muslim terrorist group, which may have links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The group, composed mainly of Iranians of ethnic Baluchi origin and based in the Baluchistan province of neighboring Pakistan, has been charged with a string of attacks across Iran. It also claimed responsibility for the bombing of a mosque in May that killed 25 people.
Iranian authorities claim that those executed were responsible for killing civilians and policemen in several different attacks, and made no specific link between their crimes and the current postelection political crisis. But because Iran sees Jundallah as having U.S. backing, the timing of the execution reinforces Tehran’s narrative that foreigners are to blame for the postelection unrest. The executions are also a message to Iran’s restive minority groups to stay out of the confrontation between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his opponents.
Although Persians are Iran’s largest ethnic group, almost half of the population comprises Azeris, Kurds, Lors, Arabs, Turkomans, Baluchis and other minorities with longstanding grievances against the central government. During Ahmadinejad’s first term, there has been an unusual upsurge of rioting, protests and bombings by minority groups targeting government officials and institutions, including an ambush on the President himself by Baluchis. While the minority groups blame government repression for the unrest, the government blames foreign agitators.
That charge cannot be entirely dismissed as a conspiracy theory, for allegations of a U.S. covert program to destabilize Iran are hardly confined to paranoid mullahs. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former National Security Council officials in the Bush Administration, wrote in May that “the Obama Administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.”
In 2007, ABC News alleged that Jundullah had secretly received advice and encouragement from U.S. intelligence officials on their efforts to destabilize the Iranian regime. That same year, the U.S. government–funded Voice of America radio network broadcast an interview with Jundallah’s leader Abdul Malik Rigi, identifying him as “the leader of a popular Iranian resistance movement” — rather than as a militant extremist. The U.S. government denies sponsoring terrorism in Iran, and was reported in May to be considering adding Jundullah to its list of international terrorist organizations.
Jundullah isn’t the only case cited by those who accuse the U.S. of backing Iranian extremist groups. After the U.S. occupied Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military ostensibly disarmed the Saddam-backed Iranian militant group the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — then, as now, on the State Department’s terror list — allowing it to remain in its base in Iraq, but deployed American soldiers to protect the base. The group claimed that it helped the U.S. government gather intelligence from inside Iran. Washington hawks such as House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Representative Bob Filner (D.-Calif.) continue to call for the U.S. to support the MEK and other “resistance” groups fighting the Tehran regime. And former House Speaker and GOP heavyweight Newt Gingrich on July 12 called for the U.S. to “sabotage” Iran’s oil and gas industry “to create a gasoline-led crisis to try and replace the regime.”
Iran’s ethnic tensions were an issue during the presidential election campaign, not least because two of the key challengers to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi (a Lor) and Mir-Hossein Mousavi (an Azeri) are from minority communities. The two campaigned in minority areas to an unprecedented degree, and their strong support at campaign events outside Tehran belies the government claim that opposition demonstrators represent an urban élite out of touch with the pro-Ahmadinejad countryside. But since the election, little has been heard from the provinces, besides reports of clashes in Iranian Kurdistan. The Western press has been restricted to minimal coverage from Tehran, and the Iranian government is keeping a lid on news from other cities.
The primary impact of the activities of foreign-based insurgent groups inside Iran, of course, and whatever backing they receive from abroad, has been to render the legitimate reform movement more vulnerable to being attacked as part of a security threat to the Islamic Republic. After all, it would be a lot harder to paint a crackdown as directed against an “external threat” if there was no external threat.