The Obama administration considers three Iranian rebel groups to be “terrorists.” Are they?
On November 3, the State Department branded the Iranian Baluchi militant group Jundullah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. At the same time, the State Department is in a legal fight to keep an opposition group called the Mujahideen-e-Khalq on the list. This follows an earlier decision by the Treasury Department to designate the Free Life Party of Kurdistan a terrorist group. The Obama Administration apparently feels it is worth blacklisting Iranian opposition groups that have used violence in order to increase the chances of a successful “engagement” with the regime.
One of the first decisions the Obama Administration made upon coming into office was to name the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) as a terrorist group. The Obama Administration argued that PJAK was connected to another Kurdish terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). However, PJAK is a separate entity and though both participated in a Kurdish Congress, there is no public proof of links between the two such as shared leadership or training camps.
Kenneth Timmerman, President of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, visited PJAK in Iraq and found that they are stationed in a different part of the Qandil mountain ranges than the PKK. He writes that although some members used to be with PKK until its military branch dissolved and admiration is expressed for Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, they remain separate groups. PJAK’s objective is not an independent Kurdistan, but a democratic Iran that does not oppress any minorities. The group has also not carried out terrorist attacks, using violence only against elements of the Iranian regime, especially its security forces like the Revolutionary Guards.
On November 3, the State Department added Jundullah, a Baluchi militant group to the list. The group, like PJAK, frequently has armed clashes with the regime’s security forces and is a major concern for the government. As one confidential cable from June 2009 released by WikiLeaks revealed, Iranian sources have told the U.S. that Baluchi violence has grown so much that “the Iranian security forces may be losing effective control over growing areas in the countryside.”
The State Department justifies Jundullah’s designation because the group “uses a variety of terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, ambushes, kidnappings and targeted assassinations.” The State Department then lists three major attacks carried out by the Jundullah, such as on mosques, without mentioning that they targeted groups of Revolutionary Guards personnel including high-level officials. Though Jundullah’s attacks do cause civilian casualties, they are targeted at regime elements and are not aimed at massacring innocents like a terrorist group would.
Recently, the group also kidnapped an Iranian nuclear scientist who confessed to having worked for three years at a secret uranium enrichment site with the explicit purpose of making a nuclear bomb. On December 15, Jundullah suicide bombed a Shiite mosque killing 41 people. The regime and virtually every single news media report described it as a deliberate massacre of civilians, although Jundullah said it was aimed at the Revolutionary Guards.
The U.S. officially condemned the attack, but Michael Ledeen reports that “the terrorist attack was not aimed against ‘women and children,’ but against the symbols and enforcers of the Shi’ite regime: Revolutionary Guards, Basij, and Quds Force fighters. More than sixty were killed, and a large number wounded.”
The Iranian government reacts to Jundullah’s attacks by characterizing them as being linked to Al-Qaeda. This is then followed by an accusation that the U.S. is covertly supporting Jundullah and therefore, the U.S. is also supporting Al-Qaeda. The Long War Journal states that there are two groups under the name of Jundullah, and the regime “deliberately conflates the two groups and accuses the U.S. of backing the al-Qaeda-allied group.”
The intelligence analysis group STRATFOR called the listing “a major gesture toward Iran.” The Iranian regime has consistently accused the U.S. of supporting Jundullah, especially in the wake of a 2007 ABC News report alleging such. A “senior U.S. government official” explained that financial aid to Jundullah was part of an arrangement for the group to help track Al-Qaeda. This does not necessarily mean Jundullah is pro-American, though, as the group reacted to its designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by saying, “The United States has always supported criminals and murderers, like Sharon and Zionists, and supports also criminals (in the Iranian regime) to advance its interests.”
At the same time, the State Department is in a legal battle with a third opposition group called the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which began under the Bush Administration. Recently, the European Union parliament passed a resolution officially asking the United States to remove the MEK from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organization. The MEK was removed from the United Kingdom’s own list in 2008 and the European Union’s list last year after a protracted but successful legal fight.
On July 16, the MEK scored a victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when the judge ruled that the State Department had to review the group’s designation and offer it a chance to see the evidence against it and defend itself. It was decided that the MEK’s due process had been violated. The State Department said that classified intelligence bolstered its accusations against the MEK, but the court noted that “Some of the reports included in the Secretary’s analysis on their face express reservations about the accuracy of the information contained therein.”
The MEK’s battle may become part of the 2012 presidential race. Potential candidate John Bolton has called for their de-listing and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has publicly agreed.
“I have studied terrorism for over 35 years. I have investigated terrorism and I have seen first hand, in my city, the devastation that terrorism can bring about. This is not a terrorist organization,” Giuliani said. He called on the rest of Congress to support a House resolution supporting the MEK’s de-listing that already had the support of 83 bi-partisan members of Congress.
The credibility of the MEK as an opposition group is hotly debated among proponents of regime change in Iran, with some arguing that it has popular support and others saying that supporting the group would cause a backlash amongst Iranians. Whatever the case may be, the MEK’s past legal battles have resulted in verdicts that do not fit the definition of a terrorist group.
The blacklisting of PJAK and Jundullah and the resistance to delisting the MEK are overtures to the Iranian regime by the Obama Administration but it also sends a message to Iranians: Anyone that reacts to the Iranian regime’s violence with violence of their own will be branded a terrorist.