Iran’s porous periphery faces armed challenge

Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchestan are under an unofficial and undeclared state of emergency.
Sunday 05/08/2018
An Iranian Kurdish man arrives at the Iran-Iraq border crossing of Haji Omran, last January. (AFP)
Fraught with risks. An Iranian Kurdish man arrives at the Iran-Iraq border crossing of Haji Omran, last January. (AFP)

Even as Iran tries to expand its sphere of influence in the Middle East, its peripheral regions and borders are increasingly challenged by armed groups. These groups generally target Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) border outposts. Sometimes, they try to assassinate Iranian central government representatives and their local allies.

The predominantly Sunni, economically disadvantaged provinces of Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchestan have experienced the largest number of attacks.

The IRGC usually responds by accusing “foreign intelligence services” of “encouraging” or even “masterminding” the attacks. It also pledges revenge. There is no attempt made to address local grievances, such as unemployment, poverty and limited access to education, health care and, in some cases, to drinking water. This risks eroding local support for the central government.

Recent attacks in Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchestan and the regime’s response illustrate the dynamics in Iran’s periphery.

On July 21, the public relations bureau of the IRGC’s Hamzeh Seyed al-Shohada base issued a statement condemning a “terrorist attack” that targeted an IRGC border outpost in Dari village in Iranian Kurdistan.

IRGC spokesman Brigadier-General Ramezan Sharif said the dead included two IRGC members, eight men of the local Basij militia and one enlistee killed in an explosion at the arms cache. In a separate interview, Reza Mirzaei, director-general of Kurdistan security and law enforcement, said the fatalities were local residents from Marivan and Qorveh. Mirzaei said eight servicemen were wounded in the attack.

Sharif and IRGC chief commander in Iranian Kurdistan Brigadier-General Mohammad Hossein Rajabi blamed “foreign intelligence services” for the attack. They pledged “harsh revenge” and urged foreign forces to “stop supporting and encouraging criminal terrorist groups or else face the iron fist of the security forces.” Mirzaei specifically accused the militant leftist Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) of perpetrating the attack.

What Iranian security authorities failed to mention was the motive for the attack. The PJAK, which took formal responsibility for the incident, said the attack was in retaliation for “assassination of four cadres of the party, including Eqbal Moradi,” a reference to a political activist killed July 19 in Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah governorate. Moradi’s son Zanyar is in prison in Iran, awaiting execution for murder though he denies the charge and says he’s being punished for his father’s activism.

The attack in Iranian Kurdistan was preceded by a series of assassination attempts in Sistan-Baluchestan. On June 29, there was an attempt on the life of Esmaeil Saeedinasab, director-general of the governorate’s Culture and Islamic Propagation.

On July 5, Molavi Abd al-Shakour Kord, a pro-government Sunni Islamic scholar, was assassinated in Khash. On July 18, two Basij members were killed in a fight against “armed bandits” and, on July 28, a border guard was shot dead in Jakigur, close to the Iran-Pakistan border. The IRGC attributes most of the incidents in Sistan-Baluchestan to Jaish ul-Adl, an offshoot of the defunct Jundullah group, smugglers and narcotics traffickers in the region.

Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchestan are under an unofficial and undeclared state of emergency, with heavy IRGC presence on the streets of towns and villages. It’s unclear if this will reduce the number of attacks but the Tehran regime would probably achieve improved security by providing people in its peripheral regions with something as simple as safe drinking water.