Iran has long been known as an exporter of terrorism beyond its borders. This month their primary arm for sowing discord abroad, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, was designated a terrorist group by the Trump administration. Although the world is distracted by the insurgencies and destabilization caused by Iran, very little attention has been paid to problems that exist within that country. Even at a glance, it’s clear that Iran consists of many fractured pieces that are only loosely held together.
The most substantial of Iran’s domestic battles lies with the militant arm of the Baluch ethnic minority. The Baluch population is best known in modern times as the smuggling arm of the Taliban that facilitated the flow of supplies and narcotics vital to the Taliban’s mission. Subordinate to no one and utilizing nomadic skill sets, they were able to traverse the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan with ease. The Baluch population’s base is spread over three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Roughly two million Baluch live within Iran’s borders.
This strand of resistance to Iran began in 2003 with the creation of the Jundullah group in Baluchistan, whose initial mission was to gain equality for Sunnis in Iran. Jundullah’s first act of violence was the ambush of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s motorcade, followed by a series of bombings, shootings, and kidnappings targeting government officials and citizens alike. After the group’s leader was killed in 2010, members shifted focus toward waging jihad in order to restore an Islamic caliphate.
The most recent outburst of serious Baluch violence occurred in mid-February, when insurgents killed 27 IRGC members in southeast Iran. Iranian officials stated the attackers were based in Pakistan. The Sunni group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), which states that it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for the ethnic Baloch minority, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The establishment of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and its rival Indian/Iranian trade route will deliver an influx of foreign investment into lands claimed by the Baluch. Delegations from the governments of Iran and Pakistan have stated that they will work more closely with one another to defeat Baluch insurgents in this area.
The runner-up position to the Baluch insurgency can be awarded to the various Kurdish groups that oppose Iran from within. Most recently known for their alliance with the West to defeat Daesh, the Kurds exist as a diverse ethnic group spread between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Seldom gaining serious diplomatic traction and often hindered by infighting, the Kurds have been persecuted in all of their homelands, especially the six million Kurds that live within Iran’s borders.
The Kurdish armed opposition to the Iranian regime is headed by the Kurdistan Free Life Party or PJAK. Although modern Kurdish opposition dates back to World War Two, the PJAK was founded in 2004 following assistance from the Kurdish PKK. Their stated aim is the overthrow of Iran’s theocracy in order to replace it with democracy. Their tactics have included ambushes using small arms and grenades, often using enclaves within Iraqi Kurdistan as a launching point. From 2004 to 2011, the group delivered consistent insurgent attacks, often against the IRGC. Events culminated in 2011 with Iraqi Kurdistan brokering a form of peace after clashes escalated during that year. Their most recent surge attacks occurred in 2016 when the PJAK attacked Iranian Revolutionary Guard headquarters in the villages of Hamran, Myouni, and Sartaja. This led the Iranian forces to deliver additional military reinforcements to the region in a bid to counter the unexpectedly fierce offensive.
Historically, the group’s overly complex system of allegiances has held it back. Traditionally, the commitment of its supporters has fluctuated dependent on other priorities. The PKK, although involved in the group’s founding, has at times prioritized cooperation with the Iranian government over the PJAK. Similarly, The Iraqi Kurdish parties have had to distance themselves from the PJAK in order to resolve regional issues with Iran. While Israel has maintained continuous support for the PJAK, U.S. support wavered in 2009 when the Obama administration, one month after the president took office, designated the PJAK a terrorist organization as part of the Obama-led initiative to ease tensions with Iran. Regional experts have noted the correlation between the 2011 ceasefire under the Obama administration and renewed resistance to the Iranian state in 2016 during the tenure of President Trump, hinting at the possibility of renewed U.S. support.
Further opposition to Iran is found within the ethnic Arab groups that reside within Iran’s Shiite regions. The most competent group among these is the Baathist-flavored Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz. This group’s grievance with the Iranian regime is Iran reaping the rewards from the sale of fossil fuels extracted from their homeland, Khuzestan, without trickling the profits down to the resident Arabs. As a result, they carry out attacks upon oil production facilities within Khuzestan. The insurgency is minor in comparison to others, with most activity centered around attacks on facilities and Iranian reprisal attacks on leaders in exile, most recently in the Netherlands in 2017 and a failed attempt in Denmark in 2018.
Iran leverages its stable appearance in order to discredit U.S.-led efforts against them. It therefore guards the badly divided nature of its society closely. After the 2017 Daesh attacks in Tehran, President Trump stated that the U.S. would “grieve and pray” for the victims, but added, “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”