Trying to Exploit Iran’s Diverse Ethnic Population to Advance a War Agenda 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at the 2019 UANI conference (State Department via Wikimedia Commons)

by Muhammad Sahimi

On September 25, during the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI)—a pro-Israel, anti-Iran lobby group—held a “summit” in New York that was attended by, among others, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, and Sigal Mandelker, the outgoing Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, as well as diplomats from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. As usual, tough rhetoric was uttered by all the speakers, and threats were made.

The day before the summit, another meeting was held that had allegedly been organized by Mark Wallace, the CEO of UANI, although it is widely believed that UANI was behind the meeting. The participants in the meeting were supposedly representatives of various Iranian opposition groups in exile, as well as ethnic secessionist groups. The meeting was, however, dominated by the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a group that until 2011 was listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization and is despised by all Iranians due to its alliance with the regime of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and other acts viewed by virtually all Iranians as treason. Also present were the National Council of Resistance of Iran, MEK’s political arm, and the Organization of Iranian American Communities, another MEK front group. A fourth group, the U.S. Foundation for Liberty and Human Rights, appears to be linked with MEK, as the content of its website uses the same rhetoric as the MEK. Representatives of six ethnic groups also attended the meeting, none of which has any significant support inside Iran as best one can tell.

One of the groups participating in the gathering was the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). Ahwaz, or Ahvaz, is the provincial capital of Khuzestan, the oil-rich province in southwestern Iran near the border with Iraq. ASMLA claims to represent the minority Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan who are supposedly suppressed by Tehran. The group, founded in 1999, has carried out several terrorist attacks in Iran over the past fifteen years, including in January 2006, in May 2015, in June 2016, in January 2017, and in October 2018. 

“This is the first time in history, since the Iranian revolution in 1978 and 1979, that such a broad cross-section of the leaders and delegates from Iranian dissident … groups have gathered in a convention for Iran’s future.” Wallace boasted despite the fact that those same “leaders” are either little known or are virtually universally despised in Iran.

This is not the first time that the U.S. far right has tried to exploit Iran’s diverse ethnic population in order to stir trouble in the country and advance its anti-Iran agenda. In fact, this practice has a long history that goes back to practically the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis of 1979-1981. Since April 1980, when Washington cut diplomatic relations with Iran, successive U.S. administrations and the U.S. far right have seen exploiting ethnic grievances in Iran as a key route toward destabilizing the country. 

The Clinton administration imposed a package of sanctions against Iran in 1996 that the Bush administration renewed in 2001 and again, indefinitely, in 2006. After preventing the European trio of Britain, France, and Germany from reaching an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program in summer of 2005, the Bush administration launched its efforts to exploit Iran’s ethnic minorities and the dissident groups that supposedly represent them, in order to either break up Iran into multiple weak states, or, at the very least, to stir up trouble and destabilize the country.

That strategy has a long history in the Middle East. Washington, for example—acting at the behest of the Shah of Iran—backed a Kurdish insurgency in Iraq until 1975. It has been best exemplified in the ways in which Israel has applied it to some of its Arab neighbors. In February 1982, three months before Israel invaded Lebanon in support of the Christian Falange militia, the Likud strategist Oded Yinon published an article [in Hebrew, whose translation was published by Israel Shahak, the Israeli academic and civil-rights advocate] in which he called on Israel’s leadership to adopt a policy of fragmenting the Arab world into a mosaic of ethnic and confessional groupings. “Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation would prove to be advantageous to Israel,” he argued, urging that Israel must reconfigure its geo-political environment through the Balkanization of the surrounding Arab states into smaller and weaker states.

Building on Yinon’s analysis ten years later, neoconservative historian Bernard Lewis—who would become a key informal adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney in the run-up and immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—wrote in an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs:

Another possibility, which could even be precipitated by [Islamic] fundamentalism, is what as of late has become fashionable to call ‘Lebanonization.’ Most of the states of the Middle East – Egypt is an obvious exception – are of recent and artificial construction and are vulnerable to such a process. If the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common national identity or overriding allegiance to the nation-state. The state then disintegrates – as happened in Lebanon – into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties. If things go badly and central governments falter and collapse, the same could happen, not only in the countries of the existing Middle East, but also in the newly independent Soviet republics…

In their infamous “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the policy document written in 1996 for Benjamin Netanyahu, the then-newly elected Prime Minister of Israel, Richard Perle et al. suggested that Israel should “work closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll-back some of its most dangerous threats [meaning Iran and Iraq].” David Wurmser, one of the authors of the same report who served on Cheney’s national security staff from 2003 to 2007, went further, writing in a lengthier report that Syria and Iraq could easily fragment into separate ethno-sectarian segments, “a development that would enhance the security of Israel and the West.”

These ideas were clearly picked up by the Bush administration and later applied to Iran. “In the past six months, Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan [known as PJAK or PEJAK],” Seymour Hersh reported in November 2006. “The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran, I was told by a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership, as `part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran.’”

In February 2007, the Telegraph of London reported that:

CIA officials are understood to be helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran’s border regions. In the past year there has been a wave of unrest in ethnic minority border areas of Iran, with bombing and assassination campaigns against soldiers and government officials… Funding for their separatist causes comes directly from the CIA’s classified budget but is now ‘no great secret,’ according to one former high-ranking CIA official in Washington.

In the same month, Cheney himself traveled to Pakistan and met with its then-president, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistani government sources said at the time that the secret campaign against Iran by Jundullah was on the agenda when the two met. Jundallah was a Baluch terrorist group that for years staged terrorist attacks in Iran from its bases in Pakistan. In an interview later that month, Cheney referred to the Jundallah terrorists as “guerrillas” in an apparent effort to lend them legitimacy.

In April 2007, ABC News reported that, according to Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials, Jundallah had been secretly encouraged and advised by U.S. officials since 2005.

In an interview with National Public Radio in June 2008, Hersh explained how the Bush Administration’s policy of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” led it to support Jundallah and MEK. The next month, Hersh quoted Robert Baer, a former CIA clandestine officer who had worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, as saying, “The Baluchis [a small ethnic minority group residing in Iran’s and Pakistan’s provinces of Baluchistan] are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda. These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.” Baer repeated those assertions in the fall of 2008 at a symposium co-organized by this author on U.S.-Iran relations at the University of Southern California.

In the same article, Hersh also stated that the MEK received arms and intelligence, directly or indirectly, from the U.S., and that PJAK, “which has also been reported to be covertly supported by the United States,” operated against Iran from bases in northern Iraq for at least three years. PJAK used Iraqi Kurdistan as its base to carry out multiple raids into Iran that killed many civilians, as well as soldiers and policemen. At the time, the Bush administration denied helping PJAK, despite the fact that the group’s chief, Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, had traveled to Washington around the same time, reportedly to gain financial and military support for his militia. In 2009, the Obama administration declared PJAK a terrorist organization.

PJAK is still active in the border area between Iran, Turkey, and Iraq. When in December of 2017 there were scattered demonstrations in several Iranian cities against the terrible state of the Iranian economy, PJAK issued a statement asking people to rise up. It carried out terrorist attacks inside Iran on 27 July 2019 that killed and injured scores of people.

In December 2009, Selig Harrison reported in the New York Times that the Bush administration had provided support to Jundallah, as well some Kurdish groups operating in western Iran. According to his report, that assistance was sent through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, while the Kurdish groups received their support through Israel’s Mossad.

The Bush administration was not the only one that was trying to exploit the dissatisfaction of some of Iran’s ethnic groups to destabilize the country. Israel and Saudi Arabia were also participants. In January 2012, Mark Perry reported how Mossad agents, using U.S. passports and posing as CIA agents, tried to recruit members of Jundallah to fight their covert war against Iran.

Jundallah’s leader, Abdolmajid Rigi, was captured by Iran’s security forces and executed in June 2010. The Obama administration put Jundallah on the terrorist list in November 2010. The group then split into Pakistani and Iranian branches. The former attacks Shiites in Pakistan, while the Iranian branch, known as Jaish ul-Adl, continues to carry out terrorist attacks and kidnappings in Sistan and Baluchistan province in southeastern Iran, near the border with Pakistan. It is widely believed in Iran that Jaish ul-Adl is supported by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

The Kurds and Baluchis are not the only ethnic groups that the Bush administration and its allies tried to exploit. In a July 2008 article, Hersh also mentioned possible U.S. support for separatists in Khuzestan province. As already pointed out, over the past 15 years, Iranian-Arab separatists have carried out bombing and terrorist attacks in Khuzestan, the latest of which took place in October 2018, when they attacked during a military parade. An armed group, Ahvaziya, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Ahvaziya is part of the ASMLA group that participated in the Washington meeting of Iranian separatist groups.

Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of funding, arming and training the group. After the attacks, Abdulkhalegh Abdulla, a former adviser to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, wrote in a tweet that the attack was not terrorism because it was against Iran’s military, and that the attacks were part of what Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, had threatened in May 2017, namely, that Saudi Arabia is “not waiting until there becomes a battle in Saudi Arabia,” and so it “will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran.” His tweet created deep anger in Iran.

As the author recently reported, the Trump administration has decided to continue what the Bush administration began. Before he was appointed as Trump’s national security adviser, in his “manifesto” for getting the U.S. out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, John Bolton advocated U.S. support “for Kurdish national aspirations, including Kurds in Iran” and providing “assistance to Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others…” After his appointment, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Brian Hook—who is the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran and directs its “Iran Action Group”—met with some of the leaders of Iran’s Kurdish groups. Last June, Abdullah Mohtadi and Mustafa Hijri—who lead, respectively, the Iranian Communist Kurdish group Komala and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran [KDPI]—travelled to Washington, with Mohtadi reportedly meeting with Pompeo and Hijri meeting with State Department officials. Komala’s office in Washington has registered with the Justice Department as a lobbying group to “establish solid and durable relations” with the Trump administration.

Both groups have carried out terrorist attacks inside Iran, and, under the guise of calling for a federal system, both have separatist tendencies. The separatist nature of the KDPI became clear when, back in 2012, Hijri asked the U.S. to declare Iran’s Kurdistan province a “no-fly zone,” so that his forces could attack government forces freely and eventually secede from Iran. Hijri has also called for “regime change” in Iran, and has declared the Islamic Republic “a common enemy” of the Kurds and Israel, asking the Jewish state for support.

The attempt by UANI, a group that reportedly receives a lot of its funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to provoke ethnic strife in Iran may well lead to more bloodshed, but it will likely ultimately fail. Iranians of diverse backgrounds have lived together side-by-side and have preserved their nation for thousands of years. Iran’s true opposition inside the country—the reformists, religious-nationalists, secular leftists, labor groups, human rights activists, and others—and its supporters in the diaspora reject discrimination against minorities, ethnic tensions, economic sanctions, military threats, and foreign intervention. In the democratic Iran that the true opposition will eventually achieve, all Iranians, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or gender, will be equal.

Muhammad Sahimi is a Professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

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  1. Very interesting and thoroughly documented information. The question which strongly arises now is about the signification of the U.S. retreat in Syria. The realignment of forces around Russia / Iran / Syrian Kurds / Syrian Arab Republic / Shi’ite militias and eventually Hezbollah looks unstoppable compounded with Turkey isolation. Saudi Arabia cannot count on the strength of their Wahhabi / Salafi brethren and Israel is already weakened. Europe looks at least confused and fearful of more islamic ‘refugees’ coming en masse. Is it finally the sign of a real and desperate U.S. pivoting to Asia?

  2. Mr Sahimi’s interesting article loses its momentum right near the end where it should have posed a fundamental question:

    The fact that our ethnic minorities have often been manipulated by foreign powers is not something new. But why our enemies target our ethnic minorities’ grievances in order to threaten our territorial integrity? Is it not because there indeed exist unaddressed grievances!? And why have our national policies continued for decades to ignore this critical issue?

    If the author comes to Iran and visits the Kurdish region as well as the Baluchistan and Ahvaz he might find the answer by observing the extent of negligence and poverty!

    No child would speak ill of his parents or would be tempted to betray them if he is truly loved, cared for and respected by them – the same applies to ethnic minorities and the authorities.

    Mr Sahimi, it is not enough to just ‘reject discrimination against minorities’ if our written ‘Constitution’ endorses them. It is not enough to reject ‘ethnic tension’ while our dominant unelected untouchable Conservatives and their Parliament and their Judicial System encourage and indeed sanction a set of well-funded antagonising practices that ruthlessly demonise not just certain minorities but millions of non-conservative Iranians in order to divide and rule and hence to continue to hold on to their power and by so doing they continue to betray the very principles based on which our Revolution had gained its legitimacy.


    “Grievances” you say?

    The Baluch, who are, for the most part Deobandi Muslim who hold the Shia to be heretics; why are they living in this Shia country? Why do not they go to Pakistan to live pure unadulterated Deobandi lives? I mean, after all, whenever they feel like murdering a Shia they could do so with impunity in Pakistan – or in Afghanistan. Why are they in Iran?

    And the Kurds, the perennial dissidents – why do they not go to live among fellow Kurds in KRG of Iraq? Or to Diyarbakr – where no one speaks any Kurdish? In Iran, their livelihoods, just like the Baluch, are subsidized through the public coffers – they would have starved to death otherwise.

    And do not tell me about the supposed Kurdish culture – a peasant culture without much of finer things in life. And the god-damn-pan-Kurdish intellectuals in Iran owe everything that they know to the Persian language and education made possible by it.

    And Azeris Turks – there are 7 Turkic countries in the world – all of them secular and none of them a theocracy. Why do not they go to any of those countries and leave us alone? Let those 7 countries first reunify into a Great Magnificent Beautiful Turkic Empire – why don’t they go and help their Turkic brethren?

    The only people who were truly oppressed under the Shah were the Arabs – they actually had a case but I believe their situation has improved substantially since the Shah’s cronies decamped from Iran.

    Do not fall for the tripe of all these fools – they are enemies of Iran or too stupid to understand the emotional basis of their own positions.

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