By Ed Blanche in Beirut
The Iranian regime is becoming increasingly concerned at what it sees as a ring of Sunni militancy on all its borders, with the Islamic State (IS) and its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, as the biggest threat, evoking as it does the historic triumphs of Sunni Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries.
But there is also a long-running anti-Shiite insurgency, reportedly funded by Saudi Arabia, in the Sunni majority southeastern province of Sistan-e-Baluchistan that is causing friction with Sunni-majority Pakistan.
Pakistani and Iranian forces exchanged mortar fire along the porous frontier in early October in a series of violent clashes recently.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is battling to crush a movement called Jaish al-Adl, or Army of Justice, an extremist Sunni group that evolved from one known as Jundallah which launched an insurgency against the Shia-dominated Tehran regime in 2003.
Jundallah, which Tehran claimed was backed by Pakistan and the US, waged a bitter and deadly battle with the IRGC until 2010, when its leader Abdolmalik Rigi was captured and executed. But the Sunnis radicals have not gone away.
The Army of Justice caused major palpitations in Tehran in February when it seized five Iranian border guards and demanded the release of Sunni rebel fighters held by the Syrian regime, a key Iranian ally.
That was the first time the Baluchi Sunnis, who have been taking an increasingly strident sectarian line of late, had linked their campaign to an external conflict in what Middle East analyst Alex Vatanka called a “clear attempt to internationalise its campaign against Tehran and draw outside Sunni sympathisers to their cause.”
Vatanka observed: “It remains to be seen whether this trend by Iran’s hardened Sunni militants to align, ideologically if not materially, with international jihadists will continue.
“Nonetheless, based on Tehran’s instinctive reaction to rumours about the Islamic State potentially gaining a foothold in Baluchistan, it is evident Iranian authorities judge such a development at the country’s vulnerable underbelly as highly threatening.”
In the west, there is Iraq’s Kurdistan, sitting on at least 45 billion barrels of oil, its 5.5 million overwhelmingly Sunni people are now eying independence from Baghdad, a step that would inflame Iran’s long troublesome Kurdish minority.
And in the southwest, there are rumblings in the predominantly Arab and strategically important province of Khuzestan, where 90% of the Islamic Republic’s oil industry is located. The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz is waging a low-intensity insurgency there, primarily targeting oil facilities.
Despite Tehran’s long-time neglect of the Iranian Arabs, which predated the 1979 revolution, and the poverty in which they are forced to live, Khuzestan’s estimated 4 million Arabs remained loyal to the Islamic Revolution in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, launched by Saddam Hussein to grab Iran’s oil.
They are mostly Shiite in their religious affiliation, but there are growing signs that many are converting to Sunni Islam in what US analyst Chris Zambelis of Washington’s security consultancy Helios Global, says “may represent an attempt to assert a new identity distinct from the Shia tradition represented by the Islamic Republic.”
In the north, there are growing strains between Iran and Israel-allied Azerbaijan, where the Iranian and Israeli intelligence services are waging a shadowy war that is fuelled by Tehran’s fears the Baku regime is plotting an uprising by Iran’s Azeri population.
It’s small wonder that the Iranians, also concerned at the prospect of losing their strategic Arab ally Syria to Sunni insurgents, are mounting a major military operation in Shiite-majority Iraq, an historic Sunni-ruled foe, which George W. Bush so blindly dropped into Tehran’s lap by crushing Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Iranian presence is becoming so pervasive and decisive as the Iraqi nation state teeters on the brink of disintegration, that it could eventually become overtly dominant, eschewing any pretence of shoring up an “independent” but compliant regime in Baghdad.
That process already seems to be in train, with Tehran in recent days casting its habitual addiction to clandestine operations to the wind and actually publicising the presence of the long elusive and shadowy Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, charismatic commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Al Quds Force, which conducts clandestine operations outside Iran.
Suleimani it is who is organising the military pushback against IS through large numbers of “advisers” and regenerated Iraqi Shiite militias, which the Iranians created to fight the Americans during their eight-year occupation after 2003.
It is instructive in this regard to note that Naame Shaam, a group of Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese activists and citizen-journalists, observed in a highly detailed November report examining Iran’s role in saving the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad from collapse, that Suleimani and his battle-hardened troops are now effectively an occupying force in those areas of the country where the regime’s writ still runs.
“The Syrian regime is little more than a puppet in the hands of Sepah Pasdaran,” the Farsi name for the IRGC, said Shiar Youssef, head of the group’s Research and Advocacy Team. “Qassem Suleimani is the de facto ruler of Iranian-occupied Syria.”
In Iraq especially, the Al Quds Force and its allies, including possibly 2,000-3,000 of those Iraqi militiamen, are battling the bloodthirsty forces of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once a mundane religious scholar who’s now more notorious than Osama bin Laden and heads a jihadist army more ruthless and extreme than Al Qaeda ever was.
Baghdadi – real name Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri – now controls a proto-state across vast swathes of the Iraqi and Syrian borderlands.
Gareth Smyth, a British journalist who has worked in Iran for more than a decade, observed in a November analysis that “there is growing concern in Tehran, reflected in parliament and in the media, over Sunni militancy. The nightmare is encirclement, with Baluchi unrest in eastern Iran growing just as IS gains strength in the west in Iraq and Syria …
“The Iranian public has been alarmed by the proximity of IS fighters, who are within striking distance of the border, especially in Iraq’s Diyala province … If IS continues to stir Kurdish separatism in Iraq and Syria, this could well encourage similar aspirations among Iran’s own restive 7-8 million Kurds,” he wrote in Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper.
For now, the Iranians’ main focus is containing, and then crushing, the IS jihadists in Iraq, where Suleimani has stepped out of the shadows in which he has lurked for so long – this exposure of one of their most important security assets is a measure of Tehran’s concern – to lead the fight.
But, Vatanka observes: “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.”