Is the Obama Administration Supporting Violent “Regime Change” in Iran?

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 Mujahedin-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.  When we wrote about Jundallah’s suicide bomb attack last October, we noted that

the attack will exacerbate Iranian threat perceptions about its regional neighbors and the United States at a delicate point in the diplomatic process launched at the October 1 Geneva meeting between senior Iranian officials and representatives of the P-5+1.

At the time, Iran’s Parliament speaker Ali Larijani said publicly that “the terrorist attack is the result of U.S. efforts and a sign of U.S. hostility toward Iran.”  Larijani contrasted this hostility to President Obama’s offer of an extended hand to Iran, noting that the Iranian people rightly doubt America’s intentions.

We return from Tehran persuaded that this analysis was even more correct than we appreciated when we wrote it and that Jundallah’s suicide bomb attack on October 18, 2009 — the day before technical discussions began in Vienna on the details of a “swap” arrangement to exchange Iranian low-enriched uranium (LEU) for new fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — has had a significant, negative impact on the course of multilateral diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program.

On October 1, the P-5+1 political directors and the European Union’s then-foreign policy chief Javier Solana came together for discussions on nuclear issues with an Iranian delegation headed by Saeed Jalili, the secretary-general of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council.  At this meeting, there was a “one-on-one” between Jalili and the head of the U.S. delegation, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.  Coming out of this meeting, Western diplomats said that Jalili had agreed “in principle” to a “swap” of Iranian LEU for new fuel for the TRR.  The details of such a “swap” were to be negotiated 2-3 weeks later, in technical discussions at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

At these discussions in Vienna — which convened on October 19, one day after Jundallah’s suicide bomb attack — the Iranian delegation was reluctant to accept several of the provisions of the “swap” as proposed by the United States and some of its partners.  In the end, the IAEA’s then-director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, pulled together a proposal that the Iranian delegation took back to Tehran.  It soon became clear that the Islamic Republic’s leadership was not prepared to accept the terms of ElBaradei’s proposal without modification; we and our colleague Ben Katcher have laid out some of the specific ways in which Iran has proposed modifying the ElBaradei proposal.1

It has become conventional wisdom in Western commentary that Iran “reneged” from its commitment to a “swap” arrangement for refueling the TRR and “rejected” the generous ElBaradei proposal because of internal political conflicts that have left the leadership too divided to take clear decisions about important foreign policy matters.  We have challenged this conventional wisdom, pointing out that, since the Vienna meeting in October, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has consistently stressed Iran’s “positive view regarding the essence and nature of the [ElBaradei] proposal,” but Iran wanted to negotiate specific details of the “swap,” regarding timing — in particular, when Iranian LEU would need to be turned over to the IAEA and when new fuel for the TRR would be delivered, where Iranian LEU would be held pending delivery of new fuel for the TRR, and how much LEU Iran would need to swap for a given amount of finished fuel.  More strategically, we have argued that Iran’s reaction to the ElBaradei proposal was inevitably conditioned by the ongoing insistence of the United States and its British and French partners on “zero enrichment” as the only acceptable long-term outcome from nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

Coming back from our visit to Tehran, we are even more convinced of the validity of these analyses.  But we also appreciate more acutely the extremely negative impact that the October 18, 2009 Jundallah attack had on the climate for negotiations over refueling the TRR.  More generally, our discussions and observations in Tehran have deepened our awareness of the profound damage that can be done to the prospects for putting U.S.-Iranian relations on a more positive and productive trajectory by Washington’s ongoing attachments to elements of what is, simply put, a “regime change” strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic — whether or not the Obama Administration wants to acknowledge it as such.  It is worth recalling that, when Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President of the United States in January 1969, one of the first things he did to demonstrate his seriousness about realigning U.S.-China relations to the Chinese leadership in Beijing was to order the CIA to stand down from covert operations in Tibet.  Chinese leaders noticed this, and it helped prepare the way for a diplomatic opening between Washington and Beijing.  When will the Obama Administration show a similar measure of strategic seriousness toward the Islamic Republic of Iran?


1  For more detailed discussions, see “Baradei’s Proposal And Iranian Calculations”; “Misconceptions on Iran”; “Flynt Leverett Counsels Patience”; “Interpreting Iran’s Response”; “Has Iran Rejected the TRR Proposal?  Not According to Its Foreign Minister”; “Understanding Iranian Perspectives on the TRR Proposal”; “Gareth Porter Explains Iran’s Negotiating Stance”; “When Will the Obama Administration Try Actually Engaging Iran?”; “Give the Uranium Swap A Chance”; and “Iran Agrees In Principle to Uranium Swap in Turkey.”

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published by The Race for Iran on 4 March 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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