Iran’s insurgencies swell amid continuing proxy wars with Saudis
Beirut - One of the first things that Iran’s new armed forces chief, Major-General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, pledged when he was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was to reassure his countrymen that simmering insurgencies on the Islamic Republic’s periphery were “under complete control”.
However, he stressed that these “anti-revolutionary groups” are increasingly operating from “the soil of neighbouring countries” — a clear swipe at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival as the paramount power in the Middle East and a hint that Tehran’s patience is wearing thin as the confrontation between these two titans of the Muslim world veers towards open conflict.
The power struggle between these two states — one a Sunni Islamic monarchy and the other a Shia republic — is being fought by proxy in Syria.
But, as Riyadh throws its traditionally cautious policymaking to the winds and pursues a more aggressive strategy in the turbulent region, the prospect of Saudi support for Tehran’s internal opponents — the ever-restive Kurds in the west, the Arabs in the south-west and the Sunni Baluchis in the south-east — seems likely to intensify.
On July 9th, the former director of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency, Prince Turki al- Faisal, called for “the downfall of the Iranian regime”. The plea was made at a Paris conference of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an opposition group that helped Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini secure his Islamic revolution in 1979 and then turned against him.
The prince’s call to arms was offensive enough for Tehran but to do so at a gathering of the clerical regime’s sworn enemies, however past their prime they may be, incensed the Iranian leadership. Mohsen Rezaie, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander and currently secretary of the powerful Expediency Council, said this proved Riyadh was actively supporting terrorism in Iran, primarily through its consulate in Erbil, capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave.
Rezaie claimed that the Saudis had infiltrated “two terror cells” into Iranian Kurdistan, a long-time flashpoint, all of whom had been killed by Iranian security forces.
He was apparently referring to a mid-June clash with fighters of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), one of several insurgencies Tehran is having to contend with throughout its borderlands.
The threat is likely to grow as Kurdish groups in Iraq, Turkey and Syria are empowered by the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). That seems to be spreading to Iran’s long-restive Kurdish minority as well. Those are potential allies for Riyadh to pressure the Islamic Republic in the increasingly toxic regional power struggle.
“The fight against a common enemy has begun to unite Iran’s disparate Kurdish groups, though various factions will inevitably jostle for dominance,” observed the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor in a July 29th analysis.
“Meanwhile, as the Kurds have gained prominence on the battlefield, external powers have taken a greater interest in them. Combined, these factors help to explain the revival of Kurdish insurgencies in Iran.”
Internal security threats in Iran tend to be under-reported because of regime restrictions but that engagement was only one of many skirmishes in recent months between non-Shia Iranian insurgent groups and the IRGC.
On June 29th, the semi-official Fars news agency reported the IRGC killed 11 Kurdish “counter-revolutionary bandits” and lost three of its own men in the Sarvabad region of Iranian Kurdistan. The IRGC said it killed 17 insurgents in earlier fights in West Azerbaijan province, which, like Kurdistan, borders Iraq, where IRGC-controlled militias are battling the ISIS, Iran’s other key enemy.
The left-wing PDKI claims it killed 20 IRGC personnel. The group, which waged a deadly insurgency in 1989-96, resumed its fight for autonomy from the Shia regime in the autumn of 2015.
Another faction, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), announced in April that it, too, was going back on the warpath. On July 12th, PAK’s deputy chief, Hossein Yazdanpanah, appealed to Riyadh for help.
It is not clear, despite Tehran’s accusations, to what extent Saudi Arabia is helping these insurgent groups but, given Riyadh’s increasingly toxic relations with Tehran, Saudi support is likely to grow.
Iran’s highly effective security apparatus is likely to contain these forces, for now at least.
The Saudis may well be supporting insurgents in Iran’s overwhelmingly Sunni Sisten-Baluchistan province who recently escalated their long rebellion that, only a couple of years ago, looked like it had been all but extinguished in a ruthless IRGC campaign. Four Iranian border guards were killed July 6th in the region that borders Pakistan.
There is trouble too in south-eastern Khuzestan province, an Arab-majority region that borders Iraq and is of vital strategic importance to Tehran since it produces 80-90% of Iran’s oil. The Arab insurgency there also would be open to Saudi interference.
The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, the region that has been the invasion corridor for Persians to invade the Arab world since time immemorial, claimed on June 13th to have sabotaged an oil pipeline.
If the Saudis seek to intervene in such a sensitive region, they would, of course, invite retaliation from the Iranians. Riyadh is vulnerable in that regard because, just as Arab Khuzestan contains Iran’s strategic energy supplies, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, where the minority Shias are dominant, holds most of the kingdom’s oil.
Khamenei’s appointment of Bagheri, one of Iran’s youngest generals with a background in the murky world of intelligence and an advocate of special operations beyond the Islamic Republic’s borders, suggests that this clandestine struggle is likely to escalate.
Bagheri, 51, “enjoys close relations with the IRGC’s al-Quds Force, the elite branch responsible for extraterritorial operations, and he reportedly planned and helped execute missions deep inside Iraq in the 1990s, targeting Kurdish groups based there,” observed Farzin Nadimi, a Washington-based specialist in Iranian security and defence affairs.
“He is expected to put more strategic emphasis on tailored special operations and the intelligence collection aspects of the Quds Force and other special branches,” Nadimi wrote for the Washington Institute think-tank.
“His appointment could therefore mean more military operations in northern Iraq and perhaps even in Pakistan’s portion of Baluchistan, targeting Iranian Kurdish and Baluchi insurgent hideouts and training camps.”