Iran: The Threat Within

5 MINS READJun 16, 2016 | 01:40 GMT
Iran: The Threat Within
IRGC forces clashed with Iranian Kurds in Kurdish-concentrated northwest Iran on Wednesday. With so much militant activity throughout the broader Kurdish region, it was only a matter of time before Iranian Kurdish rebels started making noise.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran is producing more oil more quickly than anyone had anticipated. The country has surpassed 3.8 million barrels per day, according to Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, bringing production levels close to where they were before sanctions were imposed in early 2012. The rebound has aggrieved the rest of the world's producers, which are trying to cope with an enduring supply glut, as well as Iran's political adversaries in the Gulf, who are concerned about the covert activities additional oil revenue could portend. And rightly so; Iran is already heavily invested in Syria and Iraq, and it is trying to extend its reach into sensitive areas of the Gulf, including Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. But as Iran tries to enhance its covert affairs beyond its borders, it will also be forced to heed its security vulnerabilities within.

Attacks in Iran tend to go underreported, but still, the country saw its fair share of militant activity this week. In the Kurdish-concentrated northwest, Iranian Kurds clashed with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the city of Shno on Wednesday. The incident followed a confrontation Monday in the Sardasht region between the IRGC and rebels belonging to the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, an Iranian Kurdish group linked to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party. Elsewhere on Monday, Iranian forces clashed with Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl in southeastern Sistan-Balochistan province. Then on Tuesday, a separatist group in Iran's oil-rich southwestern Khuzestan province called the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz claimed it "crippled the flow of oil from Ahvaz to Tehran" through a pipeline attack.

From Kurdish rebels in the northwest to Sunni rebels in the southeast to Arab rebels in the southwest, Iran is taking hits from minority groups throughout its borderlands. The good news for Iran is that its security forces will be able to manage them, at least for now. The question is if Iran will be able to keep those lids on in the longer term.

In Sistan-Balochistan, Iran has in recent years weakened an Islamist Baloch rebellion and has tried to prevent militants from passing through its porous border with Pakistan. Since the 2010 capture and arrest of Abdolmalek Rigi, the founder of Jaish al-Adl's predecessor, Jundallah, attacks in the area have declined as the group's members tried to regroup. For Iran to effectively contain Baloch rebels, it needs the cooperation of Pakistan, which has its own problems with Baloch separatists. Despite the common threat, Iranian-Pakistani cooperation does not always come easy. Iran remains distrustful of Pakistan's ties with the Taliban and has accused Islamabad in the past of cooperating with Iran's adversaries to facilitate Baloch attacks inside Iran. As Saudi Arabia attempts to draw Pakistan into a tighter Sunni regional alliance to counter Iran, Tehran will remain wary of any Saudi-Pakistani collaboration that could end up benefiting Jaish al-Adl.

An uptick in Kurdish rebel attacks could prove more difficult to manage. Syrian Kurds are trying to exploit the fight against the Islamic State and Turkey's refusal to create a Kurdish statelet in Syria, but the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey is once again at war with Ankara, and a competition between Iran and Turkey is tearing Iraqi Kurdistan at its seams. With so much militant activity throughout the broader Kurdish region, it was only a matter of time before Iranian Kurdish rebels started making noise. And just as Iran is using its ties with Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria to push back against Turkey, Turkey can be expected to use the Kurds against Iran.

Iran's Khuzestan province, which borders Iraq, is another point of vulnerability. The region accounts for some 80-90 percent of Iran's oil, and it is expected to receive a substantial amount of investment for energy upgrades. But it is also where an Arab minority known as the Ahvazi has been using sporadic, low-level attacks on security forces and energy infrastructure to undermine the Iranian government. Last spring, demonstrations broke out in Khuzestan following the self-immolation of a street vendor who was protesting the confiscation of his fruit stand, a callback to a similar event that triggered the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011. Anecdotes of self-immolations and suicide as a form of protest over severe economic conditions in the province have been slowly picking up, and the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz has been lobbying Gulf Cooperation Council countries to declare Ahvaz an Arab state. From the point of view of the Ahvaz activists, the Khuzestan region has been the eastern gateway for Persians to invade the Arab world throughout history; if the Gulf states want to secure their own future against the Iranian threat, then they need to put more resources into backing Ahvazi separatists. In late December 2015 and early January this year, lawmakers in Bahrain and Kuwait tabled proposals to recognize Ahvaz as an occupied Arab state, but those proposals have not gone beyond rhetorical support for the Ahvazi Arabs.

Whether the Gulf states back up their support with action, whether Turkey can fan the flames in Iranian Kurdistan and whether Pakistan can be co-opted by Gulf allies to facilitate a resurgence in Baloch militancy all remains to be seen. Iran still has a good handle on this spread of separatist activity, but regional competition is intensifying, and Iran has plenty of adversaries that may want to give it a taste of its own medicine.

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