Iran and the caliphate: Perils on the periphery
Beirut - Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are deeply alarmed at Iran’s expanding reach in the Middle East, an anxiety acutely heightened by the nuclear agreement between Tehran and US-led global powers, which the Arabs believe gives the Islamic Republic the green light to become the region’s paramount power.
In particular, the Saudis, who see themselves as the champions of Islam’s mainstream Sunni sect, are dismayed at the recent growth of Iranian-backed Shia militias operating in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen into a “foreign legion” to spearhead Iran’s geopolitical ambitions.
Regional analyst Chris Zambelis of Washington-based security consultancy Helios Global warned that the July 14th nuclear agreement, which he said “represents a watershed in Middle East diplomacy, could affect “Iran’s precarious ethnic and sectarian minority dynamics”.
The recent dramatic shift in Riyadh’s foreign policy from cautious diplomacy to aggressive military intervention — initiated in large part by the nuclear deal — indicates that the Sunnis may seek to play Iran at its own game, destabilising the Islamic Republic from within.
This on its own is unlikely to bring down the clerical Shia regime in Tehran but it would escalate the deepening confrontation between the Gulf monarchies and Iran. Iraq on its western border has a Shia majority but the people are Arab, not Persian, and the Sunnis are up in arms.
It is here that the Islamic State (ISIS), with its upstart caliphate, poses the biggest threat to Shia power, evoking as it does the historic triumphs of Sunni Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries.
And there’s Iraqi Kurdistan, sitting on 45 billion barrels of oil. Its 5.5 million overwhelmingly Sunni people are eyeing independence from Baghdad. There is growing concern in Tehran over Sunni militancy. Iran’s nightmare is encirclement, with Baluchi unrest in south-eastern Iran growing while ISIS fighters are within striking distance of the border in Iraq’s Diyala province.
The fear is these developments will revive separatist aspirations among Iran’s restive Kurds, who number 7 million to 8 million. Indeed, in Iran’s Kurdish regions along the western border with Iraq, militants of the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) have intensified operations against the state since May, effectively ending a tenuous 2011 ceasefire.
On August 6th, the group claimed it killed 20 Iranian soldiers outside the town of Mariwan. A week later, PJAK said it killed Revolutionary Guards near Sanandaj, the Kurdish region’s capital. On September 1st, Revolutionary Guards in Kermanshah province said they killed a dozen PJAK fighters.
PJAK is the Iranian wing of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, which has been fighting a separatist insurgency since the mid-1980s in which about 35,000 people have died. PJAK launched its insurgency in 2004 and thousands have perished in a ruthless crackdown by Tehran.
In south-western Iran, the armed wing of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) are attacking Iranian security forces and other targets in Khuzestan province.
It is unlikely Tehran will ever grant autonomy to the province, where up to 4 million ethnic Arabs live, because it contains 90% of Iran’s oil reserves.
Despite Tehran’s long-time neglect of Iranian Arabs, which predated the 1979 revolution, and the poverty in which they are forced to live, Khuzestanis remained loyal to the Islamic Revolution in the 1980- 88 war with Iraq.
But now, Zambelis noted: “Many Ahwazis believe their predicament is the product of a calculated effort to emphasise the Islamic Republic’s Persian character at their expense.”
They are mostly Shia but many are reportedly converting to Sunni Islam. ASMLA is supported by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, although whether that includes financing and arming the insurgents is not clear.
In Iran’s south-east, there has been a long-running insurgency, widely believed to have been funded by the Saudis, in the Sunni-majority province of Sistan-e-Baluchistan. Iran is battling to crush a movement called the Army of Justice, an extremist Sunni group that evolved from one known as Jundallah, which began fighting the Tehran regime in 2003.
Jundallah, which Tehran claimed was backed by Pakistan and the United States, waged a deadly battle with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) until 2010, when its leader Abdolmalek Rigi was captured and executed. But the Sunni radicals have not gone away.
In February, they seized five Iranian border guards and demanded the release of Sunni rebel fighters held by the Syrian regime, Iran’s ally.
That was the first time the Baluchis had linked their campaign to an external conflict in what analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute called a “clear attempt to internationalise the campaign against Tehran and draw outside Sunni sympathisers to their cause”.
Vatanka noted while Iran’s main focus is crushing ISIS in Iraq, “the larger, long-term challenge for Tehran… is to address grievances found among Iran’s Sunni minority and deprive the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni movements of finding a foothold inside Iran’s borders.”