In a notable turn-around, the U.S. Department of State today designated Jundallah as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). In early 2009, shortly after President Obama came into office, the United States considered designating Jundallah as an FTO, as a conciliatory message to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In March 2009, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly warned the Obama Administration that Iran had intercepted communications between U.S. officials and Jundallah militants. “Bandits, terrorists, and murderers are in touch with American officers in a neighboring country,” he said. “[The Americans] say, ‘Let’s negotiate. Let’s start relations.’ They have the slogan of change. But where is the change? . . . Change has to be real. You change, and we shall change as well.”
Nevertheless, we were told that the Obama Administration decided against such a “conciliatory” move in the wake of the Islamic Republic’s contested June 2009 presidential election — even though nothing had changed about Jundallah‘s track record or its plans to carry out future lethal attacks inside Iran. Since then, the perception that the United States continues to have ties to Jundallah and other groups considered terrorists by most Iranians has had a deeply corrosive effect on Iranian assessments of the Obama Administration’s seriousness about strategic engagement with Iran and its ultimate intentions towards the Islamic Republic.
As we wrote in March 2010, following a visit to Tehran:
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. . . . 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. . . .
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 . . . [but] 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 — which 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?
. . . [O]ur 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?
Against this backdrop, today’s designation of Jundallah as an FTO is certainly long overdue. Only time will tell whether today’s action is, from an Iranian perspective, too little, too late.
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. She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 3 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.