Baluchi, Khuzestani Unrest at Iran’s Back Door and the Kurdish reach for the Mediterranean
The Iranians seem to be spending all their time staving off any Western bids to diminish their nuclear capabilities. But that is only their public face. Their real preoccupations center on troubles closer to home. So the relaxed posture of the senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi at the opening of another round of diplomacy with the six powers Tuesday, Feb. 18, revealed nothing on the three vexed security issues giving the ayatollahs in Tehran sleepless nights.
Araqchi could afford to sound self-assured about Tehran’s international front: His bosses have concluded that the military option brandished by the US and Israel against their nuclear program is no longer valid, and President Barack Obama will let the nuclear issue cool off until it is passed on to his successor in the White House in 2016.
Iran has moreover picked the winning side in the Syrian war and its Lebanese surrogate Hizballah is obeying instructions to pour troops into battle alongside Bashar Assad’s army. All in all, the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut grouping is doing well.
This is in stark contrast to the perilous situation building up internally and on Iran’s own back doors, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report.
One threat comes from Pakistani Balochistan which borders Iran; another from the restive oil province of Khuzestan in the south; and a third from the Kurdish movement’s envisioning of an independent republic reaching from Iran to the Mediterranean.
Iran threatens to send army into Pakistan to stop terrorists
A border incident this week illustrated the rising tension between Iran and Pakistan.
Monday, Feb. 17 Tehran threatened to send troops into Pakistan to free five border guards whom it accused terrorists of kidnapping – unless Islamabad secures their release.
The extremists allegedly crossed into the Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan on Feb. 6, seized the guards and carried them across the border into Pakistan. A Sunni insurgent Iranian group calling itself Jaish Al Adl (Army of Justice) claimed responsibility.
Iran’s Interior Minister Abdul Reza Rahmani-Razil declared furiously: “If Pakistan doesn’t take the necessary steps to fight the terrorist groups, we will send our forces into Pakistani soil. We are not waiting.”
Last October, the same Iranian insurgent group killed 14 Iranian border guards and captured three more in the same area. At the time, Tehran voiced the suspicion that the Israeli Mossad and American CIA were behind that attack and backing other militant groups with secret cells in Iranian Balochistan.
Now their suspicions encompass Saudi Arabia.
Ever since Nawaz Sharif, who has close ties to the Saudi royal family, came to power in Islamabad (See separate items in this issue and in the last DEBKA Weekly on Pakistan’s nuclear transactions with the oil kingdom), Tehran has been concerned that Saudi intelligence director Prince Bandar bin Sultan may be working hand in glove with the head of Pakistani military Inter-Services-Intelligence agency (ISI), Gen. Zahir Ul-Islam, to foment terrorist activity on its eastern border and inside Iran.
Syrian Kurds envision march to the Mediterranean
These events came together in the week that Saudi Crown Prince. Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, signed a nuclear military cooperation pact with Pakistan on Feb. 17 in Islamabad.
For Iranian strategists, the talks in Vienna are quite separate from the troubles besetting their national security.
The Kurds are another rogue card in the Iranian pack.
Their concerns focus on the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Afrin (pop: 0,000), which has come up with the vision of a separatist drive to extend Kurdish territorial sway up to the Mediterranean, only 400 km away, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report. Bashar Assad does not have enough military strength to contain Afrin without running short on other active fronts
Fearing that the vision of the sea could sweep up Iraqi and Iranian Kurds into an irresistible ethnic movement, Tehran is leaning hard on Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, to apply the brakes on Syria’s PYD Democratic Union Party and its military wing, PYG. This group alone, among the various Kurdish factions and forces operating in the vast area between the Iraqi and Iranian borders and Afrin, is capable of spearheading military action in pursuit of its dream.
The imminent expiry of Tehran’s ceasefire with Iran’s own Kurdish separatists adds to this peril.
Afrin’s success would provide the impetus for Kurdish military and political unification under Barzani’s leadership, to commandi territorial contiguity along a broad area running from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Obama backs up Tehran’s move to contain Kurdish advance
Tehran views this prospect as a major strategic threat to the alliance it leads with Damascus and Beirut, especially given the potential for the Kurdish entity to fall under US or Israeli influence.
Iran has meanwhile ferreted out intelligence indicating that Barzani has assembled a Kurdish force, mainly Syrians, on their common border to await a signal to cross into northern Syria and swell the PYG’s push to the sea.
In Washington, the Obama administration is anxious for the Kurdish question not to spiral into major clashes, lest pressures from the imperiled home front draw Tehran away from the nuclear talks.
US agents are secretly in touch with ethnic Kurdish Turkish parliamentarian Leyla Zana for the use of her services as liaison between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Barzani in Irbil and the Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in a Turkish prison, asking them to channel advice to the various Kurdish militia chiefs to hold their horses on the push to the Mediterranean.
Washington’s request provided back-up for Tehran’s message to the Kurds.
Saudis, Kuwait step up aid to Khuzestani Arab resistance
However, Barzani has a large bone to pick with President Obama and is reported to have refused to meet him until Iraq’s two leading factions – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – are removed for the US blacklist where they were placed in 2001. He failed to make a scheduled visit to Washington on Jan. 27, apparently over this spat.
In some ways, the chronic restiveness of the two-million strong mostly Arab population of the southwestern Khuzestan province is of greatest concern for Tehran – both as an internal ethnic challenge and because it affects one of Iran’s main oil regions.
Information has reached Tehran in recent weeks that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have substantially stepped up the funds they are pumping into the region.
In the last week of January, Iran intensified its crackdown on Khuzestan dissidents with the execution of Hashem Shaabani, a vocal critic of the persecution of ethnic Arabs in the region. He had been in jail for nearly three years and reportedly undergone torture.
Undeterred, Khuzestani activists were ready to accept Saudi and other aid for arming and training their resistance movement to fight the regime in Tehran.