U.S. Labels Iranian rebel group ‘terrorists’ ahead of talks

In a move on Wednesday that some analysts consider a concession to Iran ahead of the upcoming negotiations on its nuclear program, the U.S. State Department labeled the Iranian Sunni militant group, Jundullah, a “Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

The catch? For years the United States has been accused of lending support to Jundullah as a way of fomenting instability in Iran’s ethnic Baluchi southeast.

From State’s press release:

On November 3, 2010 the Secretary of State announced the designation of Jundallah, a violent extremist organization that operates primarily in the province of Sistan va Balochistan of Iran, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) […]

Since its inception in 2003, Jundallah has engaged in numerous attacks resulting in the death and maiming of scores of Iranian civilians and government officials, primarily in Iran’s Sistan va Balochistan province. Jundallah uses a variety of terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, ambushes, kidnappings and targeted assassinations.

Iran responded late last month to an invitation to the November P5+1 talks on its nuclear program. Whether the latest move by the U.S. is a concession or a confidence building measure, it’s worth noting the State Department recently seems to be taking aim at Iranian national pride, such as referring to the “Persian Gulf” as the “Arabian Gulf” (see here and here).

Nonetheless, the statement on Jundullah was welcomed in Tehran, even as it bashed U.S. covert support for anti-regime groups there. According to the Iran’s semi-official news service, ISNA:

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called the US designation of Rigi group as terrorist a “right measure.”

“Fighting terrorism is a general responsibility of all nations and the Islamic Republic of Iran regards the US measure in blacklisting Rigi terrorist group as a right measure,” he added.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will evaluate change in the US policy on supporting terrorist groups of Jundullah (Soldiers of God), PJAK and Tondar in practice.”

Politico foreign policy blogger Laura Rozen suggests that the designation of Jundallah as a terror group could be “signal” to Iran ahead of negotiations. She quoted an unnamed Washington Iran expert who said the move is clearly aimed at engaging Iran:

The designation of Jundullah shows “one bureaucratic fight in favor of engagement was won,” one Washington Iran expert said on condition of anonymity. “But whether it’s sufficient or not and how it is followed up remains to be seen.”

U.S. geo-strategists Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, writing on their blog, called the move a “notable turn-around” and “long overdue.” They lay out some little known history that early-on the Obama administration had considered designating Jundullah, but didn’t do so in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 election. The Leveretts point out:

Since then, the perception that the United States continues to have ties to Jundallah and other groups considered terrorists by most Iranians has had a deeply corrosive effect on Iranian assessments of the Obama Administration’s seriousness about strategic engagement with Iran and its ultimate intentions towards the Islamic Republic.

As the Leveretts report, Obama inherited the wide-ranging covert program against Iran from George W. Bush, whose administration had greatly increased funding for regime change activities and subversion on Iran’s nuclear program.

In July 2008 New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote about the expansion of Bush’s program (with my emphasis):

One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. “This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists,” [Council on Foreign Relations scholar Vali] Nasr told me. “They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also thought to be tied to the drug culture.” […] According to [former CIA agent Bob] Baer and to press reports, the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefitting from U.S. support.

A blog post on the Wall Street Journal website sums up much of the (thin) evidence for U.S. support of Jundullah, and quotes an earlier unequivocal denial to the blog from the State Department that such support had ever occurred:

“We have repeatedly stated, and reiterate again that the United States has not provided support to Jundallah,” a [State] spokesman emailed. “The United States does not sponsor any form of terrorism.  We will continue to work with the international community to curtail support for terrorist organizations and prevent violence against innocent civilians. We have also encouraged other governments to take comparable actions against Jundallah.”

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.