by Michael Ledeen
Among the many peoples who compose Iran, the Baloch are perhaps under the greatest threat, for their “homeland” occupies territory in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they have long since mastered the arts of both political maneuver and asymmetric warfare against more powerful enemies.
The Balochistan People’s Front of Iran, which has claimed credit for several recent attacks on the regime’s security forces in the area, has issued a fascinating and potentially important assessment of these activities. It’s a well written and well argued “lessons learned” from the point of view of an armed resistance group inside Iran.
Their conclusions are remarkably upbeat, which you would expect from an organization that is trying to inspire people to rise up against the mullahs, but their success does warrant attention. As the BPFI argues in this document, the ability of the regime to repress dissent, and even open confrontation, may be overestimated, both by the leaders of the Islamic Republic and by the world at large.
In the past few weeks there have been two widely reported attacks on units of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the regime’s prime instrument of domestic repression (as well as of foreign paramilitary and terrorist operations), in which more than twenty IRGC soldiers were killed, and many more injured. And there have been many other attacks as well, not widely reported, but well known to the opponents of the mullahcracy.
The BPFI describes its recent attacks as a realistic test of the regime’s power, and the regime failed the test. “These operations were carried out successfully without even one casualty in Zahedan, the center of Baluchistan, which is a militarized zone.” The regime has long been concerned about resistance movements in Baluchistan, for fear they will gain support from similar groups in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, and Khuzestan. All areas where “minority” groups (like the Kurds, the Azeris, and the Ahwazi Arabs) are subjected to particularly harsh treatment. There are credible reports that the regime intends to uproot some of these peoples (this seems imminent in Khuzestan, for example), and scatter them outside their homelands. It’s Stalinism with a Persian face.
Most analysts of contemporary Iran assume that the security forces, whether the IRGC or the fanatical Basij, have the situation well in hand, and while from time to time some demonstration or strike may take place, it will always be efficiently quashed. The Balochistan Peoples Front believes they have now shown that to be false. Indeed, they seemed surprised at the poor performance of the Iranian forces (“the Iranian soldiers are less skilled than has been claimed”). This leads them to two explosive conclusions:
First, that “the regime has less control on the Iranian population than has been advertised; second, that the security forces, on which the survival of the regime rests, are not willing to fight and die for the mullahs, although they are quite happy to get money from the state.
Indeed, it is even worse than that. For the regime expected the IRGC, the Basij, and the officials of the Intelligence Ministry to collect information about the opposition groups, the success of the recent attacks shows that they failed. And this failure is undoubtedly due to a lack of passionate support for the regime, both within the security forces, and among the population at large.
If the Balochi group is correct, the regime is much more vulnerable than most experts and policy makers have believed, and the chances for a successful uprising against the mullahs is much better than is generally thought. The Balochi Popular Front claims that their ranks are swelling; thousands of new members are said to have arrived. I can well believe it. The regime is known to be unpopular, and success in the streets breeds organizational success as well.
It follows from this that the regime’s vaunted control over the Iranian population is considerably weaker than the mullahs claim, and the regime is indeed vulnerable. The “minorities”-who consider themselves loyal Iranians and who call for democratic solutions to Iran’s innumerable problems-constitute half the population, but the other (Persian) half is equally restive. And if it becomes clear that, as the BPFI says, “the regime has more propaganda power than substance,” then the situation could become more explosive, especially as we are now in the final days of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s life, and a fierce succession struggle is under way within the elite.
The BPFI makes a thinly-veiled appeal for outside support. “The Baluch fighters are using their own limited resources and if they have substantial support from a reliable source they can form a very strong force that can carry out huge operations, civil campaigns, marches, protests and strikes in different parts of the country.”
Indeed. And so can the many other pro-democracy groups in Iran. I entirely agree with the BPFI document that the regime continues to lose popularity, that the Khomeinist ideology has lost traction with the Iranian people, and that, paradoxically, the outside world is far more vulnerable to the mullahs’ propaganda than the Iranian people are.
All of which of course adds up to the great imperative of American foreign policy: