03 January 2010

Meddling in Iran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the hard-line conservative clerics around him assert that the troubles on the streets of Tehran have been fomented by the United States and the United Kingdom.

That is palpable nonsense. Whilst one can never rule out the possibility that some misguided spook who wants to make a name for himself is meddling in something somewhere, the fact is that the current protests by the well educated youth of Iran’s cities need no hypothesis of external intervention to explain them – the reform movement is entirely internally generated, and most of the protesters would see themselves as people who are trying to realign the Islamic Revolution with the values of 1979 that saw a broad spectrum of Iranian society and opinion campaigning against the Shah in the name of liberal reform.

Does that mean that our highly esteemed allies are not intervening in Iran? Not at all. Veteran United States journalist Selig Harrison (now director of the Asia program at the Centre for International Policy) has an op-ed piece in the 27 December edition of The New York Times which outlines the extent of foreign intervention in Iran (see Tehran’s Biggest Fear). He begins:

The biggest threat to the ruling ayatollahs and generals in multi-ethnic Iran does not come from the embattled democratic opposition movement struggling to reform the Islamic Republic. It comes from increasingly aggressive separatist groups in Kurdish, Baluch, Azeri and Arab ethnic minority regions that collectively make up some 44 percent of Persian-dominated Iran’s population.

Later in the article he comments on the approach adopted by the Bush Administration:

During the Bush administration, a debate raged between White House advocates of “regime change” in Tehran, who favored large-scale covert action to break up the country, and State Department moderates who argued that all-out support of the minorities would complicate negotiations on a nuclear deal with the dominant Persians.

The result was a compromise: limited covert action carried out by proxy, in the case of the Baluch, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate or, I.S.I., and in the case of the Kurds by the C.I.A. in cooperation with Israel’s Mossad. My knowledge of the I.S.I.’s role is based on first-hand Pakistani sources, including Baluch leaders. Evidence of the C.I.A. role in providing weapons aid and training to Pejak, the principal Kurdish rebel group in Iran, has been spelled out by three U.S. journalists, Jon Lee Anderson and Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker and Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, who have interviewed a variety of Pejak leaders.

There is nothing surprising in any of that. The really worrying part is the assertion by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking in the Kurdish city of Bijar on 12 May 2009, that the Obama Administration has not reversed the Bush policy.

Early in 2009 President Obama stated that he wanted to engage with the Iranian regime, stating that he was extending a hand, but that to take it Iran would have to unclench its fist.

If there is any truth in the assertion of Ayatollah Khamenei that the United States and others continue to get up to mischief with the ethnic separatists (and who could doubt it?), then to the Iranians the American hand would itself look pretty “clenched”. As Selig Harrison concludes:

For the present, the Obama administration should tread with the utmost care in dealing with this sensitive issue, guided by a recognition that support for separatism and engagement with the present regime are completely incompatible.

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