Armed opposition groups emerging from the Kurdish, Baloch and Ahvazi Arab minorities have stepped-up attacks on regime assets in Iran. Tehran is responding by acting against these opponents, in Pakistan and Iraq and further afield. But these insurgencies are not capable by themselves of calling the regime’s viability into question, because of their relatively narrow bases of support.
In recent years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran has emerged as perhaps the leading practitioner in the Middle East of proxy and irregular warfare. First in Lebanon, and later in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories, the IRGC and its expeditionary Qods Force have demonstrated peerless abilities in the field of the founding, organizing, training, financing and deployment of proxy militias, mostly but not exclusively Shi’a, in neighboring countries for the advancement of Iranian goals.
It is interesting, however, to note that the Iranian organs of state are today not the only instigators and aggressors in the field of irregular and paramilitary warfare. Rather, Iran is also the target of several domestic Iranian organizations which seek to foment insurgency against the revolutionary Islamic regime in Tehran. Most, but not all, of these organizations are based among Iran’s ethno-religious minorities.
This article profiles the most significant of these groups and concludes with an assessment of the extent and seriousness of armed opposition to the Iranian regime. The third part analyzes the Iranian response to the challenge of the armed opposition groups.
The article looks at armed opposition movements emerging from the Akhwazi Arab, Kurdish and Baluch minorities in Iran. It begins with a profile of the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MEK) organization, a non-sectarian leftist-Islamic group dedicated to insurgency against the regime.
MEK: The Peoples’ Mojahedin Organization of Iran
The best known and most veteran grouping engaged in armed activities against the Tehran regime is the MEK. A gathering of the movement in France was targeted by the Iranian regime in June 2018. The MEK was founded in 1965 and took an active part in the 1979 revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, after which it was forcibly suppressed by the IRGC. MEK members helped guard the US embassy in Tehran during the period of the hostage crisis. The movement decamped en-masse to Iraq, where it supported the Saddam Hussein regime during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The MEK is alleged to have helped the Saddam regime in its suppression of Shia and Kurdish uprisings.
Today, the MEK is widely regarded as Iran’s largest and most active external opposition group. It has continued a sporadic armed campaign which has included many acts of terrorism and assassinations. In the period 1999-2002 the MEK increased its paramilitary activities against the regime. In Operation ‘Bahman’ in 2000 the movement succeeded in carrying out a mortar attack in Tehran on the compound where the office of the Supreme Leader is located. At this time, the movement also carried out frequent attacks from across the Iraqi border.
This period of increased military activity came to an end, however, with the US invasion of Iraq. MEK ordered its members not to resist coalition forces during the invasion of 2003, officially renounced violence and subsequently surrendered its weapons to the Coalition. It was subsequently removed from the US list of terror organizations.
Following this, 3000 MEK members were permitted to live at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad. They were resident there under the provisions of the United Nations. The MEK ceded its heavy weapons as part of this arrangement. The MEK was removed by the Iraqi authorities from Camp Ashraf in 2012. This move was seen as part of the growing closeness between the government of Iraq and the Iranian regime. Camp Ashraf later became a base for the Badr Corps – a pro-Iranian Shia militia. Subsequent to their removal from Camp Ashraf, the MEK shifted its main headquarters to Albania, where it remains today. MEK was able to go to Albania following a request from the Obama Administration that Albania accept the group.
MEK was instrumental in the earliest revelations concerning the Iranian nuclear program, which the group revealed in 2002. Specifically, they are credited with making public the existence of the Natanz enrichment facility. It has in the current period turned toward a greater emphasis on public political activity. MEK is active on social media, where its members seek to engage with regime supporters. The Iranian regime allege the existence of a ‘troll farm’ maintained by MEK in Albania, from where coordinated campaigns are launched on social media to discredit Iranian regime messages, harass officials etc.
MEK developed a syncretic ideology including elements of both Shia Islam and Marxism, influenced by the writings of the Iranian political theorist Ali Shariati – a revolutionary Islamist who rejected the concept of Vilayet Faqih, obedience to the religious leader, which is central to the present regime. The movement now claims – in open courtship of U.S. support – to have moved beyond this early outlook and to have abandoned revolutionary politics in favor of liberal democracy, human rights protection and Middle East peace. Many analysts identify an opportunistic and ‘mix and match’ element to the MEK’s current outlook. Some refer to the movement as a ‘cult’ because of the absence of democratic internal structures, and the adulation with which its members regard MEK founding leaders Masoud and Maryam Rajavi.
MEK is reckoned according to a US Department of Defense estimate to have somewhere between 5000-13,000 members. The membership consists almost entirely of Iranian emigres, and the movement has offices throughout Europe and north America.
The Iranian regime accuses MEK of being the recipient of assistance from the US and Israel, though both countries deny this. Iranian regime propaganda further claims that MEK has been involved in what it claims are Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists over the past decade. In September 2012, the US removed the MEK from its list of designated terrorist organizations. Prominent US figures, including current National Security Advisor John Bolton and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have appeared at MEK events.
According to most estimates, MEK lacks significant support within Iran. Among other reasons, this is because of its support for Iraq during the traumatic and long Iran-Iraq War, and the Shia Islamist nature of its core ideology. Nevertheless, the movement retains a powerful (and wealthy) external infrastructure. While it is currently favoring political over paramilitary activity, it also, according to many reports, has a sophisticated network for intelligence gathering within Iran.
Regarding the sourcing of the MEK’s funds, little concrete information is available. It appears that the movement was supported by the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq prior to 2003. It also clearly maintains a number of charities and NGOs in the west which enable it to raise money legally, and testimony of former supporters indicate that members are heavily taxed as a requirement of membership. A 2012 article in the International Business Times mentioned the Iranian American Community of North Texas and the Iranian American Cultural Association of Missouri as two examples of community groupings associated with the MEK.
The less clear aspect is the issue of foreign government support for the MEK. The Iranian regime and its mouthpieces allege that the MEK receives support from Israel and Saudi Arabia. Specifically, pro-regime voices claim that Israel has made use of MEK militants and networks inside Iran in order to carry out the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Such claims can of course by their very nature be neither refuted nor confirmed.
Kurds number around 10% of the Iranian population, or roughly 8 million people. The majority of Iranian Kurds are resident within the area of northwestern Iran which includes Kordestan, Kermanshah and western Azerbaijan provinces. Notably, a significant minority of Iran’s Kurds are Shia Muslims. The population is economically deprived and subject to discrimination at the hands of the authorities. Iran, of course, presents itself as a state ruling in the name of Islam, and hence indifferent to the question of the ethnic identities of its citizens. Also, Kurds and their language are closely related to Persian. As a result, Iran has never made the crude attempts to forcibly and completely suppress Kurdish identity, language and culture in the way that both Kemalist Turkey and Baathist Arab states have.
Nevertheless, the regime is deeply suspicious of any hint of ethnic separatism, and responds to it with force and severe repression. For a short time, there was a Kurdish (Mahabad) Republic during WW2, alongside an Azeri entity, when all of northern Iran was conquered by the Soviet Union; but American pressure in 1946 forced Stalin to abandon it. The memory still feeds Iranian suspicions of both Kurdish and Azeri nationalism.
There are today two main Iranian Kurdish movements engaged in activity against the Iranian regime – namely PJAK (which is a franchise of the PKK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which is itself split into two factions – the PDKI and a splinter group, the KDP-I.
The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) is one of the most veteran of the militarized political parties which characterize Kurdish political life. Founded in 1945, it was active against the Pahlvi dynasty in Iran, and cooperated with the leftist Tudeh party. As a result, it was the target of repression and attempts at disruption at the hands of the SAVAK security service.
The party took part in the 1979 revolution alongside Islamist and leftist elements, and was subsequently suppressed by the new regime, which rejected Kurdish separatist demands. The PDKI was supported and assisted by the Iraqi regime in the early 1980s and sought to establish an autonomous area around the towns of Nowdesheh and Qasr-e Shirin. This attempt was crushed by the Iranian regime.
The PDKI external leadership has been targeted in subsequent years by the Iranian authorities on a number of notable occasions. In July 1989, party leader Abd’el Rahman Ghassemlou and a number of his associates were assassinated by the IRGC in Vienna after being lured there to take part in talks with Iranian government representatives. In 1992, Ghassemlou’s successor, Sadek Sharafkandi was killed by the regime along with two other prominent PDKI figures, Fattah Abdoli, Homayoun Ardalan, and their translator Nouri Dehkordi in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. A German court subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, accusing him of ordering the murders, with the knowledge of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The killings led to a long period of semi-paralysis by the PDKI. Having located itself in northern Iraq in the KRG-controlled area, it was prevented both by its own weakness, and by the opposition of the Kurdish authorities from carrying out attacks against Iran from this area. From 1996 until 2016, a formal ceasefire prevailed between Iran and the PDKI.
This long period of inactivity came to an end with the launching of the ‘Rasan’, the PDKI’s current campaign, that started in early 2016. The Rasan is not, however, an attempt to launch a general insurgency of the Kurds against the Iranian regime. Rather, it consists in the main of organizational, educational and propaganda activity carried out by PDKI cadres operating from across the border in northern Iraq, making regular forays into the Kurdish towns of western Iran. These cadres are armed. They defend themselves if facing capture at the hands of the IRGC, but they do not at this stage seek confrontation. Rather, they are seeking to recruit members, create networks of support and educate Kurdish young people toward support for Kurdish nationalism. The intention is to carry out the groundwork and create the frameworks for a future Kurdish insurgency against the regime.
The KDP (I) which split from the PDKI in 2006, also maintains its headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan. The split took place because of a dispute over the leadership succession in the party.
The PDKI has since 2016 been engaged in an attempt to lay the foundations for an insurgency among the Kurdish population of Iran, as detailed above On September 8, 2018 the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) launched a missile attack using Fateh 100 SRBMs on the facilities of the two Iranian Kurdish Organizations – the PDKI and KDP-I at Koya (KRG). Drones flown over Koya prior to the missile attack were launched from Kirkuk in Iraq, which is 40km from Koya, and where there is a presence of Shia militia forces associated with Iran.
The September 2018 attacks indicate that Tehran takes Iranian Kurdish insurgent activities seriously and is keen to deal a lethal blow to any putative Kurdish uprising. Tehran is presumably concerned about the possible knock-on effects of the growth of such a campaign. It remains to be seen if the PDKI can acquire the skill level and support which alone could turn its ‘Rasan’ campaign into more than an irritant for the Iranian regime.
Today, the PDKI has around 2000 fighters, based within Iran in the border area between Iraqi Kurdistan and south western Iran.
PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party) is a franchise of the PKK organization. Founded in 2004, it has waged an intermittent armed struggle against the Iranian regime in subsequent years. Like the PDKI, PJAK operates within Iran, from the mountainous border area between Iraq and Iran. In the period 2004-11, the organization waged a determined insurgency against the Iranian authorities in Kordestan and Kermanshah provinces. Representative actions from this period included an attack on a police station in Kermanshah on April 9, 2009 in which 8 PJAK members and 18 policemen were killed, according to an official Iranian report.
On July 16, 2011, the Iranian armed forces launched a major counterattack against PJAK into the mountainous region of northern Iraq. After three months of fighting which saw around 180 PJAK fighters killed, PJAK retreated a kilometer from the border and a ceasefire was declared. Some Kurdish sources maintain that the ceasefire was agreed to by the Kurds as a quid pro quo for the Iranians permitting the establishment of the autonomous Kurdish area in Syria. While this cannot be verified with absolute certainty, it is plausible. Since this time, PJAK has remained on ceasefire. The organization has around 3000 fighters, however, and continues to maintain its bases in the Qandil area, presumably benefitting from the large infrastructure of support available to PKK-associated forces in that area.
PJAK’s ceasefire has come close to fraying on several occasions, and similarly to the PDKI, the group continues to conduct political and educational activities inside Iran, and to respond when attacked by Iranian state forces. This leads to casualties on both sides. For example, 10 IRGC members were killed by PJAK fighters in a clash in the Mariwan area in July ,2018. PJAK said it launched the attack in retaliation for the assassination of one of its members, the political activist Iqbal Muradi, in the Sulaimaniya province of the KRG.
A number of smaller Kurdish groups, including the PAK and Komala, maintain small armed capabilities against the Iranian regime. As is the case elsewhere in their region, the Iranian Kurds are handicapped by their factionalism and inability to unify. The factionalism is the product of old organizational loyalties and personal differences between leaders rather than major ideological disputes in the case of the various iterations of the PDKI and Komala. The ideological differences between PDKI and PJAK are substantive, however, in terms of strategy and goals. Both PJAK and PDKI are well organized groups with a considerable number of committed cadres.
The situation of the Kurdish organizations in the border area is further complicated by the fact that the eastern part of the KRG is dominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which itself has a close if ambiguous relationship with the Iranian regime.
The Baloch are a small minority in Iran, constituting around 3% of the population. Sistan-Balochestan Province, adjoining the Iranian border with Pakistan, in the south east of the country is one of the country’s poorest provinces. In an interview published on Iranian state news agency, Aftab News, the representative of Zahedan in the Iranian Parliament, Alim Yar Mohammadi said: “More than 75% of the people in Sistan and Baluchestan do not have access to sufficient food. People live in circumstances of dire poverty, similar to that witnessed in parts of Africa.” Eighteen years have passed since a major drought hit the province. Its effects are still keenly felt.
Ali Asghar Mirshekari, the deputy security chief of Sistan-Baluchestan province confirmed recently that the unemployment rate in the province is about 40 percent. Sistan and Baluchestan is the youngest province in the country. 35 percent of its inhabitants are people under the age of 16. There are around two million ethnic Baloch in the province. They are Sunnis, in contrast to Shiite Persian affiliation. The combination of the province’s poverty, and the ethnic and religious discrimination faced by the Baloch by the state that is predominantly Shiite and Persian has led to widespread support for oppositional groups. The Baloch speak the Balochi language, which is related to both Persian and Kurdish. However, neither education nor administrative functions are permitted to take place in this language.
While a number of secular nationalist organizations exist, the armed Baloch opposition to Iran has taken Islamist and jihadi form. The Jundallah movement led by Abdelmalek Rigi was the first ethnic Baloch movement to launch armed attacks against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Formed in 2002, the organization began its campaign in 2005. Rigi was captured and executed by the Iranian authorities in 2010. Since his death, the movement, now commanded by Mohammed Dhahir Baluch, has sought to continue its attacks but the tempo has sharply declined. Jundallah is Sunni Islamist in nature. On a number of occasions Rigi denied that it had separatist goals, stressing instead that his fight was for the rights of Sunni Muslims inside Iran. Iran accuses the Pakistani state authorities, and the U.S., of direct involvement in Baluch terror attacks.
A number of other movements have emerged over the last decade. The most important of these is the Jaish al-Adl movement, which may be seen as the main Baloch insurgent group today. Iran claims that it is supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Founded in 2012, the group’s leader is Abdolmalek Mollazadeh (Salah al-Din al-Faruqi), a former member of Jundallah. The group has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the eastern Sistan-Balochistan province.
Jaish al Adl has three military branches, based on three regions in southeastern Iran. The organization operates close to the Iranian-Pakistani borderline to escape to Pakistan immediately after operations.
The military group Abdolmalek Mollazadeh, operates in the city of Sarbaz and Rask, the Sheikh Zia’i military group in the Saravan area and the Maulvi Nematollah Towhidi group in the area of Miriwa and Zahedan. In its first operations, Nematullah’s group lost one of its main members, Zubair Ismaili.
The Abdolmalek and Sheikh Zia’i groups conduct the main operations of Jaish Al Adl. The organization has also set up an intelligence branch named after Zubair Ismaili, whose major mission is to identify Baluch Sunnis that are collaborating with the Iranian regime. The list of recent actions carried out in the province by Jaish l-Adl includes, according to the pro-regime, IRGC-associated Habilian website: the killing of 9 IRGC members by long range weapons fired from inside Pakistan, and the taking of 14 IRGC men as hostages on October 16, 2018. In addition to Jaish al-Adl, a group called Ansar al-Furqan was founded in December 2013, from a merger between two other groups – Hizb al-Furqan and Harakat al-Ansar. They are thought to have links to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, which is the franchise of the al-Qaeda network in that country.
Ahvazi Arab groups
Constituting around 2% of the Iranian population, the Ahvazi Arabs are mostly resident in Khuzestan province in south west Iran along the Gulf, an area rich in natural resources. The majority of the Ahwazis are Shia Muslims similar to the Arabs in South Iraq. The area has a long history of separatist activity, dating back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution., demanding an autonomous status. A variety of nationalist and separatist organizations were formed in the pre-1979 period, including the “Arabistan Liberation Front” and the “Al Ahwaz Liberation Front”. An uprising took place in Khuzestan following the Islamic Revolution which was bloodily suppressed by the new regime. The Iranian embassy siege in London in 1980 was carried out by an Ahvazi Arab group demanding autonomy for Khuzestan.
After a period of quiet, Ahvazi activity against the Iranian regime recommenced in the late 1990s. In 1999, a new insurgent movement named the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan (ASMLA) was established in Khuzestan. Its goal is the independence of Khuzestan. Against a background of increased civil unrest, ASMLA began a military campaign in 2005, taking responsibility for the detonation of four bombs on June 12, 2005, in which 8 people were killed. Additional major bombings took place on January 24, 2006, at the Saman bank and the Environment Ministry offices in Ahwaz city. The armed wing of ASMLA which carried out the attacks is known as the Mohiuddin al Nasser Martyrs Brigade.
The bombing campaign of the ASMLA has continued sporadically over the past decade, and has included attacks on oil pipelines in the Khuzestan area. Broader unrest among the Arab population of Khuzestan has also been notable over the past decade. In 2005, and then again against the background of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, riots and demonstrations in Ahvaz and the surrounding area, followed by harsh government crackdown, arrests and executions have taken place. There are today two separate structures claiming to speak for ASMLA.
On September 22, 2018, a shooting attack was carried out on a parade of the IRGC in Ahvaz City. 25 people were killed, including both IRGC members and civilian bystanders. A group calling itself the Ahvaz National Resistance and claiming to be a wing of ASMLA claimed responsibility. ISIS also issued a separate claim of responsibility. Yaghub Hur Totsari, spokesman for one of the two groups that identify themselves as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, said the Ahvaz National Resistance, an umbrella organization of all armed movements, claimed responsibility for the attack, but did not specify which group carried out the operation. A wave of arrests followed the attack, with over 600 Ahvazi Arabs detained. The location of many of these people remains unknown. According to a report by a human rights group, a number of those arrested have been executed. As of now, it appears likely that Ahvazi Arab actions against the Iranian state will continue, probably with some support coming in from anti-Iranian regimes in the Gulf and to some extent from Western intelligence services.
International Support for Iranian Armed Opposition Movements
Official Iranian new sites often include allegations of foreign support for armed movements engaged against the Iranian regime. Specifically, Israel and the US are accused of support for or involvement with the MEK and Kurdish groups. Pakistan is accused of support for Jaish al Adl among the Baloch, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are accused of support for ASMLA among the Ahwazi Arabs. Is there any truth to these allegations? In all cases, what is alleged is not open political alliance or support at a strategic level. Rather, the allegations concern the activities of the intelligence services of the said countries, and the field of clandestine warfare. This is an arena about which by its very nature little is known. The Iranians have yet to produce conclusive evidence on any of these files. As such, little can be said with certainty in this regard.
On a clearer level, European countries are clearly deeply concerned at the recent evidence of renewed activity by the Iranian authorities against the organizations noted here, on European soil. The attempted assassinations in Denmark and the Netherlands led to new targeted EU sanctions against Iran in January 2019. These included the freezing of funds and assets of individuals associated with the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. There is no evidence, however, of European support for Iranian opposition movements beyond the granting of asylum and refugee status to some individuals associated with some of the movements profiled here.
The Iranian Response
In the first years of the regime, as noted above, Iran conducted a global struggle against those organized against it. This included assassinations on foreign soil and widespread harassment of Iranian opposition activists in exile. There is evidence that Teheran has now resumed activity of this type, and that the tempo of it is increasing. This in turn is a response to the increase in the volume of armed attacks against the regime from a variety of forces detailed above. Iran has done little to address the grievances of its ethnic and religious minority populations. These communities are not completely estranged from the regime.
In the presidential elections of 2013, Hassan Rouhani promised economic and social reforms and increased language rights, and as a result received 73% of the vote in the Sistan Baluchistan region and 70% in Kurdistan. Little of practical import, however, has come of these promises in subsequent years. The Islamic Republic is officially a non-sectarian, Islamic state. In practice, Persian is the language of education and administration. There is, however, no active desire for minorities to disappear, and no systematic effort to eradicate minority languages or identities, because of the notion of a common Islamic identity.
Recent attacks by Iran against militant opposition groups include: a plot to kill Adel Jubeir, then Saudi ambassador to Iran, using explosives in 2011, and a (thwarted) plan to attack a rally organized by the MEK in Paris in June 2018. More recently, the government of the Netherlands has accused Iran of carrying out two assassinations of Iranian oppositionists on Dutch soil: Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi of the MEK was shot dead in 2015, and Ahmed Molla Nissi, an Ahvazi Arab activist, was killed in a similar way in 2017. Also, the government of Denmark has accused Iran of a plot to kill three ASMLA activists resident in Ringsted, south of Copenhagen, in September 2018. In September 2018, Iran fired seven short-range ballistic missiles at the headquarters of the PDKI and a related party in Koya, in the Kurdish controlled part of northern Iraq. At least 15 people were killed and 42 others injured.
There is growing Iranian concern about the activity of armed opposition groups against it. This study suggests that the challenges the Iranians face in this arena are manifold. At the same time, because of the narrow ethnic nature of the armed groups (or, in the case of MEK, the only non-ethnic party engaged in armed against Iran, because of its limited popularity within Iran), the current uptick in armed activities against the regime should not be taken as an indication of an imminent general breakdown of order in the country.
What is more likely in the period ahead is a steady continued increase in armed activities, alongside continued low-level non-violent unrest. Meanwhile, the Iranian state will continue to disregard international norms and borders in its pursuit of its enemies. It is likely to act across the borders into Iraq and Pakistan and to seek out its enemies further afield, as it has done recently in Denmark, France and the Netherlands.
photo: Kurdishstruggle [CC BY 2.0]