Destabilising Iran

revolutionary guards

Alarm bells went off in September in Washington’s corridors of power when John Bolton’s National Security Council (NSC) asked the Pentagon for options for military strikes against Iran.[1]

The council was responding to three missiles fired by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia that landed in an empty lot close to the United States embassy in Baghdad and the launching of rockets by unidentified militants close to the US consulate in the port city of Basra.

“We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor,” Mr Bolton, the US National Security Adviser, said at the time.[2]

The request was one more notch in a mounting campaign by Mr Bolton, other proponents of covert, if not overt, confrontation with Iran within the Trump administration, and people close to President Donald Trump as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The campaign achieved a new milestone with the US designation in April of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation.

The designation was the first time that the United States has labelled a branch of a foreign government as a terrorist entity, particularly one that affects millions of nationals who get conscripted into the military.

It potentially opened the road towards a self-propelling and escalating conflict with few, if any, options to reverse the trend.

Destabilisation in the making

Commenting on the NSC request for military options, a former US official noted that “people were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran”.[3]

Then US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, like Mr Bolton an Iran hawk, worried that military strikes would embroil the United States in a larger conflagration with Iran.[4] The Pentagon was six months later similarly wary of the decision to designate the IRGC.[5]

The request last September called into question Mr Trump’s promise to America’s European allies that he would rein in Mr Bolton, who has a long track record of advocating military action against Iran.[6]

Months before being appointed the National Security Adviser in 2018, Mr Bolton drafted, at the request of Mr Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan to destabilise Iran.[7]

The plan called for US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition”, “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, as well as the Baloch, who populate the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Baluchistan provinces.

Frustrated by the Trump administration’s failure to respond to his suggestions, Mr Bolton published the memo in August 2017.

The memo followed an article he wrote in The New York Times in 2015, headlined “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”, at the time that President Barack Obama was negotiating the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme.[8]

He argued in the op-ed that diplomacy would never prevent the Islamic republic from acquiring nuclear weapons. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed,” Mr Bolton wrote.

Fears that Mr Bolton and officials and others close to the President, as well as Saudis and Israelis, were pushing Mr Trump towards an even more confrontational policy towards Iran than the one he had already adopted with his withdrawal in May 2018 from the nuclear agreement have been reinforced by the US’ action against the IRGC.[9]

The designation significantly raised the stakes in the Middle East.

It solidified suspicion that the US’ intent was to change or collapse the regime in Tehran, rather than its officially stated goal of forcing it to curb its ballistic missile programme and support for militias in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen.

The suspicion feeds long-standing Iranian perceptions of Western interference dating back to the US- and United Kingdom-backed toppling of nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, which paved the way for the return of the Shah.

“Today’s unprecedented move to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation demonstrates our commitment to maximise pressure on the Iranian regime until it ceases using terrorism as tool of statecraft,” Mr Bolton said on Twitter.[10]

The notion that the designation closed down options of a negotiated resolution to disputes with Iran was reinforced by the fact that it was likely to complicate, if not block, Mr Trump’s successor from possibly returning to the nuclear accord, and changed the rules of engagement in theatres like Syria, where US and Iranian forces operate in close proximity to one another.

The designation also raised serious issues for countries in the Middle East like Lebanon, where Hezbollah is part of the government, and Iraq, who have to deal with the IRGC and its proxies.

“This step… will…put countries such as Iraq and Lebanon in even more difficult situations as they have no alternative but to deal with the IRGC. It will strengthen calls by pro-Iran groups in Iraq to expel US troops,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at Washington’s Atlantic Council think tank.[11]

The designation was likely to embolden advocates in Washington, Saudi Arabia and Israel of a more aggressive covert war against Iran that would seek to stoke unrest among the Islamic Republic’s ethnic minorities.

It dashed any Iranian hopes that if it stuck to the nuclear agreement, Mr Trump, already mired in multiple domestic controversies, could lose the 2020 election, and that a leader more amenable to conflict resolution would take office.

“Through this (designation), some US allies are seeking to ensure a US-Iran war or to, at a minimum, trap them in a permanent state of enmity,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, referring to Saudi Arabia and Israel.[12]

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel were quick to applaud the US move. Mr Netanyahu, on the eve of a hard-fought election, claimed credit for the suggestion to designate the IRGC.[13] The official Saudi news agency asserted that the decision validates the Kingdom’s repeated demands to the international community of the need to confront terrorism supported by Iran.[14]

Mushrooming risks

The US’ toughening approach towards Iran appeared to multiply the risks of igniting a flashpoint in the Middle East.

The designation of the IRGC, coupled with Iran’s response that it would regard the US military in the greater Middle East as a terrorist entity[15], heightened the risk of an accident or unplanned incident spiralling out of control and leading to military confrontation.

The moves put in harm’s way US military personnel in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region, as well as US and dual Iranian-American nationals travelling to Iran or already incarcerated there.

Iran could return to harassment of US naval vessels in the Gulf that largely ended in 2017. In today’s charged political environment, it would be hard to imagine that a crisis like the seizure by Iran of two US patrol vessels and the capture of 14 American sailors who in 2016 strayed close to a major naval base would be resolved in a matter of days and as a result of phone calls between the US Secretary of State and his Iranian counterpart.[16]

The risks are enhanced by the fact that the IRGC designation rules out tacit cooperation in arenas where Iran and the US have a common interest and the two countries’ forces operate in close proximity to one another.

Like the 2016 naval crisis, the designation makes impossible a repetition of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, in which there was tacit US-IRGC cooperation[17]on the ground, or in Afghanistan, where Iran was helpful in confronting the Taliban and installing Hamid Karzai as president in the wake of the 2001 invasion.[18]

The IRGC designation has also reduced Iranian incentives to remain committed to the 2015 nuclear accord.


Labelling the designation a “mistake”, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that continued US pressure could persuade his country to return to the production of advanced centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium.[19]

Saudi Prince Mohammed warned more than a year ago that the Kingdom would develop nuclear weapons if Iran revived military aspects of its nuclear programme.[20] Satellite imagery reportedly revealing a Saudi ballistic missile facility[21], coupled with Saudi insistence that it be allowed to enrich uranium in any massive deal for the construction of nuclear reactors in the Kingdom, have fuelled fears that it is putting in place the building blocks for a potential military programme of its own.[22]

Striking at the heart of the regime

The IRGC goes to the heart of the Iranian regime. The Corps was formed to protect the regime immediately after the 1979 revolution, at a time when Iran’s new rulers had reason to distrust the military of the toppled Shah. In some ways, it paralleled the Saudi Arabia National Guard, which was created to protect the ruling Al Sauds, prior to the concentration of power under King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed.

To be sure, the Saudi unit lacked the IRGC’s revolutionary zeal and never acquired the Iranian guards’ economic and political clout, nor has it been mired in the kind of corruption allegations and controversy that engulf the elite Iranian unit. But the underlying distrust between rulers and military that explains the existence of forces in the Kingdom and Iran specifically designated to protect the regime fits a pattern of civilian-military relations that is virtually universal in the Middle East and North Africa, with the exception of Israel.[23]

The distrust between the Shah’s military and the revolutionaries was palpable in the weeks preceding his ouster and the return from exile of spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini later. Some of the Shah’s top military and security commanders, as well his close associates, including Nematollah Nassiri, head of the feared SAVAK secret service, General Manouchehr Khosrodad, chief of the army’s air wing, and Tehran martial law governor Mehdi Rahimi, discussed crushing the revolution at a dinner on New Year’s Eve in 1978, some six weeks before the regime fell.

Gen Khosrodad’s helicopter gunships hovered in the skies above Tehran, ready to smother the revolution on the weekend in February 1979, when the Khomeini-inspired masses defied a curfew by the millions and sealed the end of the regime. From the roof of Tehran’s Intercontinental Hotel, renamed the Tehran Laleh Intercontinental Hotel after the revolution, it was evident that a decisive moment had arrived.

But the helicopter pilots waited in vain for the go-ahead from the Shah, who had already left the country. It was his refusal to endorse their plan that prevented a bloodbath. He feared that large-scale bloodshed would dim the chances of his exiled son ever returning to Iran as leader.

The decision set the stage for the rise of the IRGC, founded in April 1979 as a wing of the military and tasked with protecting the revolutionary regime rather than the country’s borders. The Guards took their orders from Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than from the military command.

Tension between the IRGC and the military was evident at the first post-revolutionary meeting of the Iranian military command days, after which Mr Nassiri, Gen Khosrodad and Mr Rahimi were among the first of the Shah’s officials to be executed. It was also on display 18 months later on the battlefields of Khuzestan, where IRGC commanders, rather than senior military officers, had the upper hand in efforts to counter the Gulf-backed Iraqi invasion in September 1980.

The IRGC has since developed into a key pillar of Iran’s defence strategy based on ballistic missile defence, asymmetric warfare – which seeks to counter perceived threats by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel by supporting proxies and disenfranchised Shiite Muslim communities across the Middle East – and countering virulently anti-Shi’ite jihadists like the Islamic State.[24]

It is a strategy that has proven both effective and costly. Iran’s willingness to take the fight beyond its borders and failure to convince the West and the Gulf states that the strategy is not an effort to export its revolution and topple the region’s conservative regimes, particularly in the Gulf, has cost the Islamic Republic dearly.

To be sure, the Iranian Revolution has been an intrinsic threat to autocratic rulers. It was a popular revolt, akin to those more than 30 years later in the Arab world that provoked a vicious counter-revolution. The Iranian revolt, however, toppled not only an icon of US power in the Middle East and a monarch, but also created an alternative, albeit flawed, form of Islamic governance that included a degree of popular sovereignty.

It unleashed a vicious cycle that saw Gulf states fund the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, in which up to one million people died[25]; a four-decade-long US$100 billion campaign to globally propagate ultra-conservative, anti-Shi’ite, anti-Iranian strands of Islam waged by Saudi Arabia[26]; repeated attempts to stoke ethnic tensions among Iran’s disgruntled minorities[27]; and Iranian counter-measures, including support for proxies across the Middle East and violent attacks against Americans, Israelis, Jews and regime opponents in various parts of the world.

The attacks included an attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to Washington;[28] a failed attempt to kill an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi[29] and target Israeli personnel in Bangkok;[30] the killing of five American military personnel by an Iranian-supported Iraqi militia in a 2007 attack in Iraq;[31] the 1996 bombing of a US military facility in the Saudi city of Khobar by a Saudi Shiite with links to the IRGC;[32] and the bombings in the 1990s of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community centre in Argentina.[33]

The IRGC is also believed to have trained Iraqis in the building of roadside bombs that successfully targeted US troops in the aftermath of the American toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.[34]

Stepping up the heat

Two years after the publication of the Bolton memo and two months before the 40thanniversary of the Iranian revolution, Mr Bolton asserted in a policy speech in Cairo that the US had “joined the Iranian people in calling for freedom and accountability…America’s economic sanctions against the (Iranian) regime are the strongest in history, and will keep getting tougher until Iran starts behaving like a normal country”.[35]

In an interview with CBS Evening News on the sidelines of a US-sponsored conference in Warsaw in February that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that the Trump administration was hoping that the impact of the sanctions on ordinary Iranians, despite exemptions for humanitarian trade, would spark mass protests that would ultimately lead to regime change.

´”Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behaviour of the regime,” he said.[36]Nine months earlier, Mr Pompeo, in a barely disguised call for regime change, spelled out 12 unconditional demands that Tehran would have to meet before the US would consider re-joining the nuclear deal.[37] It was an approach that appeared to rob the US of its diplomatic flexibility and leave it with regime change or collapse as the only options.

Mr Pompeo, like Mr Bolton, has a history of advocating military action against Iran. In 2014, as a member of the House of Representatives, he suggested launching “2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity”.[38]

The notion that regime change or collapse is the real goal of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as also the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, was bolstered by remarks at the Warsaw conference by various officials.[39] Mr Bolton concluded an outline of Washington’s long list of grievances and accusations levelled at Iranian leaders by addressing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly via the White House’s official Twitter account, sasying in a video: “I don’t think you’ll have too many more anniversaries.”[40]

If Mr Pompeo’s remark appeared to nudge the US closer to an overt policy of regime change or collapse, so did the Trump administration’s apparently evolving attitude towards the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian exile opposition group that is reviled in Iran as a treasonous cult, but which has garnered significant support among current and former Western officials and leaders. While Mr Pompeo and Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner addressed the delegates in the Warsaw conference room, Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani spoke to a Mujahedeen rally outside the building. Iranian leaders are “assassins, they are murderers and they should be out of power”, Mr Giuliani told the protesters.[41]

At about the same time, the State Department in Washington ever so subtly moved the goalposts by dropping its exclusion of the Mujahedeen as a potential alternative to Iran’s current rulers. “We support the Iranian people. We have had many opportunities to engage the large and vibrant Iranian diaspora to hear many diverse views about the future of Iran. As President Trump has clearly stated, the United States wants to see a free and prosperous future for the people of Iran. We do not back any specific Iranian opposition group; rather we back the Iranian people as they struggle to secure the freedoms and dignity they deserve,” a spokesperson said.[42] The statement contrasted starkly with its assertion six months earlier that the Mujahedeen had no role to play in Iran’s future.[43]

Founded as an urban guerrilla group opposed to the Shah, the Mujahedeen initially supported the Iranian Revolution. It was designated a terrorist group by the United States for killing six Americans in the 1970s, but removed from the list in 2012 with the support of a wide array of serving and former officials.[44] The group turned on Iran’s religious leaders almost immediately after the Revolution, launching a bombing campaign that killed scores, including a president, prime minister and chief justice.[45] Forced into exile, the group aligned itself with Saddam Hussain and fought alongside Iraqi forces during the 1980s war.

It is the Mujahedeen’s alliance with Iraq that made the group attractive to current and former US officials despite its chequered history, argues Shireen Hunter, an Iran scholar and former Iranian diplomat. “The MEK was willing to support Saddam Hussein and cede Iran’s (oil-rich) Khuzestan province to Iraq. There is no reason to think that it won’t similarly follow US bidding,” Professor Hunter said.[46]

The embrace of the Mujahedeen by men like Mr Bolton, Mr Giuliani and former Speaker Newt Gingrich became possible once the group was removed in 2012 from the State Department’s terrorism list.

The Mujahedeen has seen its financial fortunes boosted since the rise of Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia. He signalled his support for it by allowing former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Britain and the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, to twice address a Mujahedeen gathering in Paris. “I, too, want the fall of the regime,” Prince Turki told the exiles.[47]

In the absence of a smoking gun, circumstantial evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia may be the source of the Mujahedeen’s newly-found wealth. The group, starting in July 2017, just as Mr Trump began re-imposing sanctions on Iran, has been able to buy hundreds of thousands of square metres of land in a rural area of western Albania.

Albanian investigative journalist Gjergi Thanasi said the group paid US$13 million to purchase the first 200,000 square metres, and has since bought another 140,000 square metres, on which it built a sprawling compound. Mr Thanasi said the acquisitions were made in cash, leaving no bank trail. “They love not leaving a footprint. They pay for everything with huge wads of cash, sometimes piles of local currency that they purchase through street vendors rather than banks or exchange shops, but also with crisp hundred-dollar bills,” he said.[48]

Hassan Heyrani, a former member of the group’s political committee who defected in 2018, said he had no evidence of current Saudi support for the group other than conversations with members of its political leadership. “I said, ‘What a big camp, with so many buildings,’” Mr Heyrani recalls. He said, “finally, Faisal laid the golden egg’.”[49]

Massoud Khodabandeh, a Mujahedeen security chief who in 1995 left the movement after 17 years, described how Saudi Arabia, in the years before his departure, used a smugglers’ and black market network to fund the group with tonnes of gold transported on trucks, suitcases stuffed with Rolex watches and a US$5 million Islamic artefact. The funding occurred when Prince Turki headed Saudi intelligence. The Mujahedeen “changed from a terrorist military organisation to an intelligence-based propaganda machine” under Prince Turki’s patronage, Mr Khodabandeh said.[50]

The Mujahedeen’s deep state

Mr Bolton wrote his December 2017 memo at about the same time that he told a gathering of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq that “the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran” and that “before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran”.[51]

His ties to the Mujahedeen and groups linked to it go beyond public appearances. In the 2.5 years preceding his appointment as Mr Trump’s advisor, Mr Bolton was paid US$165,000 in consulting fees by the Counter-Extremism Project (CEP), a group with overlapping staffers, board members, and finances with United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI), both of which have close ties to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, as well as neo-conservatives and pro-Israeli groups in the United States.[52] Emails from the hacked email account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington, suggest that UANI and CEP enjoy financial backing by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.[53]

Mr Bolton was an advisory board member of UNAI that is headed by former Senator Joe Lieberman, alongside, among others, former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, former German intelligence chief August Hanning, former head of Britain’s MI6 Richard Dearlove, former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, and Gary Samore, an arms control advisor in the Obama administration.[54] Mr Bolton was the headline speaker at an Iran summit in New York in September 2018 during the United Nations General Assembly attended by proponents of military action against the Islamic Republic that also featured as speakers Mr Pompeo, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, and Mossad Director Yossi Cohen.[55]

Unlike US officials, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from embracing the Mujahedeen, presumably in a bid not to open the group to accusations that it is supported by the “Zionist enemy”. Similarly, Israel’s Government Press Office sought to change the optics of Mr Netanyahu’s initial unusually frank assertion on Twitter during the Warsaw conference that Israel and Gulf states had agreed to “wage war” on Iran. Within an hour, it was replaced with another one saying that Israel and the Arab states would “combat Iran” rather than “wage war” against it.[56] The backpedalling softened Mr Netanyahu’s language, but did little to alter its intent.

His remarks were backed up by statements by Arab participants in the conference. “Every nation has the right to defend itself, when it’s challenged by another nation, yes,” said UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan when asked about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Sheikh Al Nahyan’s Bahraini counterpart, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, suggested that the threat emanating from Iran was “a bigger challenge…a more toxic one” than that stemming from the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long viewed as the core of the Middle East’s problems. Sheikh Al Khalifa asserted that the Iranian threat stymied resolution of the Palestinian issue as well as the resolution of problems in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. “This is the challenge we have to face in order to deal with other challenges,” he said.

Adding his bit, the Saudis’  Mr Adel al-Jubeir that “wherever we go, we find Iran’s evil behaviour”. As an example, he cited Iranian support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a militant organisation operating from Gaza.[57] A split in 2007 between Hamas and the Palestine Authority, which governs the West Bank, has paralysed the Palestinians and undermined their ability to effectively negotiate an end to the conflict with Israel.

Mr Bolton’s destabilisation plan hews to the thinking of other conservative Republicans with close ties to Mr Trump. In a letter to the Justice Department in September 2018, Mr Gingrich solicited advice on whether he should register as a foreign agent amid deepening involvement with groups seeking regime change in Iran. He wrote the letter after an unidentified person had asked him to urge a foreign ambassador in Washington to seek funding from that ambassador’s country to “promote democracy” in Iran. Mr Gingrich did not identify the groups he would represent, but they were believed to include the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its controversial mother organisation, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.[58]

Like Mr Bolton and Mr Giuliani, Mr Gingrich has attended the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq’s annual gatherings in Paris. Other US supporters included Mr Trump’s Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; former Bush administration Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend,  former Attorney-General Michael Mukasey, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton, former Obama National Security Advisor General Jim Jones, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and Robert Torricelli, who was a member of the Europe and Middle East Affairs Sub-committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who also serves as the group’s lawyer.[59]

Saudis weigh destabilisation option

Saudi thinking about the possibility of attempting to destabilise Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities was made public in a December 2016 study by the International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, a Saudi government-backed think tank.[60]

Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, a Washington-based lawyer and Iranian political researcher of Baloch descent, the study, published in the first edition of the Institute’s Journal of Iranian Studies, argued that the Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar posed a threat to Saudi interests.

Dr Husseinbor said that the port, a mere 70 kilometres up the coast of the Arabian Sea from the Chinese- and Saudi-backed port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s troubled province of Balochistan, would enable Iran to garner greater market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic Republic, increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

He suggested Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran could serve as a countermeasure. “Saudis could persuade Pakistan to soften its opposition to any potential Saudi support for the Iranian Baluch…the Arab-Baluch alliance is deeply rooted in the history of the Gulf region and their opposition to Persian domination,” he said.

Noting the vast expanse of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province that borders Balochistan, he  went on to say that “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure Chabahar in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers”.

Pakistani militants claimed at about the time Dr Husseinbor’s study was published that Saudi Arabia had stepped up funding of militant madrasahs, or religious seminaries, in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite fighters.[61]

“A majority of Baloch schoolchildren go to madrasahs. They are in better condition than other schools in Balochistan. Most are operated by Deobandis and Ahl-i-Hadith,” said one of the founders of Sipah-i-Sahaba, a banned anti-Shi’ite group whose successors are believed to enjoy Saudi and Pakistani support.[62]

Although officially renamed Ahle Sunnah Wa Al Jamaat after the Sipah ban, the group is still often referred to by its original name. The co-founder, who has since left but maintains close ties to it, was referring to the Deobandi sect of Islam, a Saudi backed ultra-conservative, anti-Shi’ite movement originally established in India in the 19th century to counter British colonial rule, and Ahl-i-Hadith, the religious-political group in Pakistan with the longest ties to the kingdom. The co-founder said the mosques funnelled Saudi funds to the militants.

He said the leaders in Balochistan of Sipah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Sipah offshoot, Maulana Ramzan Mengal and Maulana Wali Farooqi, enjoyed government and military protection because their anti-Shi’ite sentiments made them targets for Iran. He said the two men, who maintained close ties to Saudi Arabia, travelled in Balochistan in convoys of up to 10 vehicles that included Pakistan military guards. Policemen stand guard outside Mengal’s madrasah, the co-founder said. A candidate in the July 2018 election, Mengal failed to win a seat in parliament.

“Ramzan gets whatever he needs from the Saudis,” the co-founder said. Close relations between Sipah offshoots and LeJ and pro-government tribesmen in Balochistan complicate irregular government efforts to reign in the militants. So does the militants’ involvement in drugs smuggling, which gives them an independent source of funding.

Iran has charged that numerous incidents along the Pakistan-Iran and Iraq-Iran border, as well as in Khuzestan, Iran’s oil-rich province that is home to the country’s Arab minority, were instigated by Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel.

Two years after the publication of Dr Husseinbor’s study, the first suicide bombing in Chabahar occurred. The attack in December targeted the city’s Guards headquarters, killing two people and wounding 40 others.[63] Saudi and Iranian media reported Ansar al-Furqan, a shadowy Iranian Sunni jihadi group that Iran claims is supported by the Kingdom as well as the US and Israel, had claimed responsibility, saying a fighter identified as Abdullah Aziz had used a booby-trapped vehicle for the attack.[64]

Saudi pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat asserted that the attack “reflects the anger harboured by the (city’s Baloch) minority against the government”. The paper said the Iranian government had expelled thousands of Baloch families from Chabahar and replaced them with Persians in a bid to change its demography. It asserted that Iran was granting nationality to Afghan Shi’ites who had fought in Syria and Iraq and was moving them to Chabahar. It added that “anti-regime Baloch movements have recently intensified their operations against Tehran in an attempt to deter it from carrying out its plan to expel and marginalise the Baloch from their ancestral regions.”[65]

Years of covert war

Iranian allegations that the US, Saudi Arabia and/or Israel are fighting a covert war are not wholly unfounded.

Two failed Iranian attempts in early 2019 to launch satellites as well as a review of its space efforts suggested that a secret, more than a decade-old US effort to sabotage the programme may be producing results. Sixty-seven per cent of Iranian orbital launches in the past 11 years have failed, an astonishingly high number compared to a 5 per cent failure rate worldwide for similar space launches.[66]

Serving and former US officials noted that the sabotage effort was initiated by President George W. Bush’s administration. It aimed to disrupt launches in the belief that this would stop Iran from embarking on the mass production of missiles and satellites. The officials said the effort involved efforts to slip faulty parts and materials into Iran’s aerospace supply chains. They said the disruption effort often required little more than a small design change in a critical valve, a modest alteration in an engine part or guidance system, or a contaminated alloy for making launcher fins, crucial for aerodynamic stability. The US effort was facilitated by the fact that it was relatively easy for American intelligence to penetrate the operations of companies and shadowy middlemen active on the black market. United Nations sanctions forced Iran to rely on black market operators for the equipment, technologies and parts it needed.[67]

US officials have asserted that Iran’s space programme is a cover for attempts to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads across continents. Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo highlighted the US focus on Iranian missiles and satellites after a failed launch in January. Mr Trump warned that had the launch been successful, Iran would have garnered “critical information” that it could have used “to pursue intercontinental ballistic missile capability, and a capability, actually, of reaching the United States. We’re not going to have that happen…our strategy is grounded in one overriding objective: To detect and destroy every type of missile attack against any American target, whether before or after launch,” Mr Trump said.[68] Mr Pompeo, a graduate of West Point with a background in aeronautics, charged that the satellite Iran had wanted to launch hosted technologies that were “virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles”.[69]

Iranian officials have effectively acknowledged the US sabotage effort. Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the country’s missile programme, accused the US and its allies in 2016 of expanding their campaign of “infiltration and sabotage” of the country’s nuclear programme to its development of missiles. “They want to repeat their nuclear sabotage in the missile area,” Gen Hajizadeh said.[70]

Iran’s hunt for powerful missiles is rooted in Iraqi missile attacks on Iranian cities during the 1980s war, which killed hundreds of civilians.[71] It based its missile and satellite development programme on North Korean No Dong missiles that it acquired in the 1990s, renaming them Shahab-3.[72] The missiles had a range of 1,500 km, enough to target Israel or Saudi Arabia. Iran used its 2.1-metre-long engine to develop its first-stage unit for the launching of long-range missiles and satellites. It has nonetheless insisted that it was voluntarily limiting the range of its ballistic missiles to 2,000 km[73], even though Israel and Saudi Arabia possess missiles with more than double that range.[74] Iran could abandon that self-imposed restriction in response to the US designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation.

Fake news fuels war of words

While the Trump administration has largely explained its hard line towards Iran as an effort to halt the country’s missile development, roll back its regional influence and ensure that the Islamic Republic will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon, Mr Bolton has suggested that it was also driven by alleged Iranian non-compliance with the nuclear accord.

The risk of a covert war turning into a live-fire confrontation as a result of the designation of the Revolutionary Guards comes on the back of continued US assertions of Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement despite the Islamic Republic’s adherence to it.

“Report: Iran’s secret nuclear archive ‘provides substantial evidence that Iran’s declarations to IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency) are incomplete & deliberately false’. The President was right to end horrible Iran deal. Pressure on Iran to abandon nuclear ambitions will increase,” Mr Bolton tweeted in January, endorsing a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.[75]

Based on Iranian documents obtained by Israel, the report identified an allegedly undeclared Iranian nuclear site. “Documentation seized in January 2018 by Israel from the Iranian ‘Nuclear Archive’ revealed key elements of Iran’s past nuclear weaponisation program and the Amad programme more broadly, aimed at development and production of nuclear weapons. The material extracted from the archives shows that the Amad programme had the intention to build five nuclear warhead systems for missile delivery,” the report said.[76]

Mr Netanyahu was quick to second Mr Bolton’s tweet. “Bolton is right. The President’s position is spot-on”, he tweeted[77] ,days after the National Security Advisor, on a visit to Jerusalem, told the Israeli leader that “we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons. The United States and Israel are strategically committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.”[78]

Mr Bolton’s assertion failed to note that the documents referred to Iranian activity prior to the conclusion of the nuclear agreement.[79] It also contrasted starkly with then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ assessment in his 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that “we do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons”.[80] It also contradicted the text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the nuclear accord. The JCPOA stipulates in its preamble that “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”.[81]Iran’s commitment in the agreement is underwritten by the fact that the accord adopts the most intrusive international nuclear monitoring and inspection regime any state has every voluntarily imposed on itself.

Days after his tweet, Mr Bolton unsuccessfully tried to convince 70 ambassadors accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna (IAEA), the body charged with verifying the nuclear deal, to re-open a special investigation into the military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear work and initiate aggressive inspections. He justified his demands by detailing what he described as “substantial evidence” that Iran had lied to IAEA inspectors.

The “evidence” consisted of new data from the cache of documents obtained by Israel that Mr Bolton said proved the existence of a previously-unknown Iranian nuclear facility, as well as gaps in IAEA reporting. Documents distributed during the Vienna meeting said the evidence required the IAEA to “reinvigorate its investigation of Iran’s past, and possibly on-going, nuclear weapons programme”. Countering Mr Bolton, some attendees argued that, if anything, the data demonstrated the importance of the nuclear accord that allows the IAEA to conduct inspections.[82]

The assertions, according to former US government and intelligence officials, are tailored to create justifications for potential military action. “It is easy to see how the pieces of misrepresentation now fit together. Iran is portrayed as ‘strategically committed’ to acquire nuclear weapons, which after just a few years the JCPOA gives it the ‘legal right’ to do, but which the Trump administration is ardently working to ‘counter.’ All that is needed is some triggering incident – perhaps an accidental naval encounter in the Persian Gulf or a Shia militia somewhere firing ordnance at a US facility – to make this mélange of nuclear misperception the core of a public case for launching a new war,” said Paul Pillar, a former intelligence officer, whose managerial responsibilities include the Middle East and South Asia, as well as counterterrorism.[83]

Weeks after Mr Bolton’s tweet, the US sought to rattle the sabres by dispatching the John C. Stennis carrier group for a month-long stint in the Gulf. The deployment was designed to send a deterrent message to Iran in response to its test-firing of a ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads. “We are accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to restore deterrence,” Mr Pompeo said.[84] With the Stennis in the Gulf, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran had developed submarines capable of launching cruise missiles against naval targets. The sub-launched missiles were tested in a series of war games in the Gulf.[85]

The conservative Washington Times, in a further ratcheting up of the rhetoric, warned at the time that an alleged “Iran-Al Qaeda alliance may provide legal rationale for US military strikes”. Quoting Trump administration officials, the report said Iran was “providing high-level Al Qaeda operatives with a clandestine sanctuary to funnel fighters, money and weapons across the Middle East”. The officials warned that “the long-elusive, complex relationship between two avowed enemies of America has evolved into an unacceptable global security threat.” The article suggested that Mr Bolton and other hardline Trump associates were looking at whether the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in the days after the 9/11 attacks would provide a legal rationale for striking Iranian territory or proxies should Mr Trump decide that Tehran poses a looming threat to the US or Israel and that economic sanctions are not strong enough to neutralise the threat.[86]

Months later, Mr Trump zeroed in on Iran’s fast boats – small gunboats armed with machine guns and rocket launchers – in the Gulf. “So these boats, they get in, they come in really fast, they come in really close … and they might have explosives on them, and we don’t even know. Can you believe this? And we don’t do anything?” Mr Trump reportedly asked. His question to Gen Mattis was: “Why don’t we sink them?”[87] His sudden obsession with the fast boats came at a moment that Iranian gunboat harassment of US naval vessels in the Gulf, which at times had become so testy that the Americans fired warning shots, had substantially diminished.

An exchange of tweets between Mr Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was emblematic of how regime change or collapse implicitly figured into whatever communication existed between their two countries. To mark the 40thanniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Mr Trump tweeted in English and Farsi: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”[88] Mr Zarif was quick to respond: “#40YearsofFailure to accept that Iranians will never return to submission. #40YearsofFailure to adjust US policy to reality. #40YearsofFailure to destabilise Iran through blood & treasure.”[89]

Bolton’s victory lap

Mr Bolton sees Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement as one of his greatest achievements. He commemorates it with a framed Wall Street Journal cartoon on his office wall that was given to him by Ivanka Trump. It depicts Mr Trump, with Mr Bolton standing behind him, squaring off across a chessboard against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Scrawled on the bottom is a note from the President, “John, Great Job”. The Executive Order to withdraw from the agreement that was drafted by Mr Bolton adorns an adjacent wall, along with the pen Mr Trump used to sign it.[90]

Mr Bolton appeared to be fortifying what amounted to the most hard-line approach towards Iran in an administration that was already determined to bring Iran to its knees by elevating Charles M. Kupperman, a long-time associate and former Reagan administration official, to the role of Deputy National Security Advisor.[91]

Mr Kupperman, a former Boeing and Lockheed Martin executive, previously served on the board for the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank advocating for a hawkish Iran policy which was founded by  Frank Gaffney, a former US government official who is widely viewed as an Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist.[92]

Similarly, Mr Trump, reportedly on Mr Bolton’s advice, hired Richard Goldberg as the NSC director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction.

As a staffer for former Senator Mark Kirk, Mr Goldberg helped write legislation that served as the basis for the Obama administration’s sanctions regime on Tehran prior to the nuclear deal. He went on to work for the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates a hard line towards Iran.[93]

Earlier, Mr Bolton hired Matthew C. Freedman, who in March 2018, together with Mr Kupperman and Mr Bolton, registered the Institute for a Secure America as a non-profit organisation on the day that Mr Trump announced Mr Bolton’s appointment as National Security Advisor.[94]

A long-standing Bolton associate and one-time member of MR Trump’s transition team, MR Freedman worked in the 1980s and 1990s as a foreign lobbyist with Paul Manafort, who managed Mr Trump’s election campaign for several months and was convicted as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the campaign and Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.[95]

Messrs Bolton, Kupperman and Freedman also established in 2015 the Foundation for American Security and Freedom to campaign against the Iran nuclear deal.[96]

David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who wrote a definitive history of the National Security Council, described Mr Bolton as a man “who has never crossed a bridge he hasn’t burned behind him and who is surrounding himself with what appears to be a second-tier group of advisers who have spent a disproportionate amount of time on the swamp side of things — as consultants or working on his extreme political projects”.[97]

Said journalist and political commentator Mehdi Hasan: “You underestimate John Bolton at your peril…in 2003, Mr Bolton got the war he wanted with Iraq. As an influential, high-profile, hawkish member of the Bush administration, he put pressure on intelligence analysts, threatened international officials, and told barefaced lies about weapons of mass destruction. He has never regretted his support for the illegal and catastrophic invasion of Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Now, he wants a war with Iran.”[98]

Mr Bolton’s hardline position within the Trump administration was strengthened by the conclusion in January of a preliminary internal assessment that its Iran “maximum pressure” policy was not working. The International Crisis Group, in an analysis of the state of affairs on the third anniversary of the nuclear agreement, quoted a senior Trump administration official as saying that the assessment had noted that US policy had, nine months after the country withdrew from the accord, “yet to curb Iran’s behaviour or entice Tehran back to the negotiating table.”[99]

The assessment suggested that Iran may be able to withstand US pressure. “The Iranian economy is in dire straits, but not a downward spiral,” said Ali Vaez, the director of the Crisis Group’s Iran Project and co-author of its analysis. The administration’s sense of urgency is driven by the fact that the United Nations Security Council is scheduled, in accordance with the nuclear agreement, to lift its arms embargo on Iran in 2020 – election year in the US.

“If that happens, Iran will be able to bolster its defensive capabilities through purchasing Russian and Chinese conventional weapons. And at that stage, it would be much harder to go after their nuclear programme. So that adds time pressure. But there is no way to stop the UN Security Council from lifting the embargo unless the JCPOA is dead,” Mr Vaez said.[100]

Mr Bolton’s hard line could be further bolstered if Iran were to decide that upholding the nuclear agreement no longer served its interest. Anti-agreement momentum in Iran has been fuelled by the European Union’s seeming inability or unwillingness to create a financial system that would evade US sanctions and facilitate trade with Europe.[101]

An Iranian abrogation of the nuclear agreement would likely lead to a reshuffle of its Cabinet and the appointment of hardliners that would in turn strengthen Mr Bolton’s argument that the Iran issue has to be resolved before the US can truly disengage militarily from the Middle East and South Asia.

Be careful what you wish for

Hardliners like Mr Bolton may have one more development going for them: Disillusionment in Iran with the government of President Rouhani is mounting.

The disappointment is being fuelled not only by the failure of the nuclear accord to drive economic growth and the government’s mis-management of the economy and inability to take on nepotism, vested interests such as the Revolutionary Guards and the growing income gap accentuated by the elite’s public display of ostentatious wealth, but also the fact that Mr Rouhani appears to have lost interest in reform and implementing change.[102]

“Unfortunately, Mr Rouhani´s second term has been extremely ignorant (about the demands) of the 24 million people who make up Iranian civil society. Most of the reformists believe that he no longer wants to interact (with the reform movement). All that concerns him is to emerge from the remaining two years (of his second term) undamaged, and thus maintain his privileged spot in the pyramid of power,” said Abdullah Naseri, a prominent reformist and adviser to the former president Mohammad Khatami. He was referring to the 24 million people who voted for Mr Rouhani.[103]

A reformist himself, Mr Khatami warned that “if the nezam (establishment) insists on its mistakes…(and) reform fails, the society will move towards overthrowing the system.”[104]

Mr Coats, the US Director of National Intelligence, warned in early 2019 that American policy, coupled with mounting Iranian disillusionment with moderates, would reinforce hardliners rather than lead to a change of government. “Regime hardliners will be more emboldened to challenge rival centrists by undermining their domestic reform efforts and pushing a more confrontational posture toward the United States and its allies,” Mr Coats said.[105]

Some Iranian analysts added that stepped up US pressure, including potential strikes against military and/or nuclear facilities as well as a possible destabilisation campaign, would allow the regime in Tehran to crack down even harder on its opponents and dissenters. They argued that neither strikes nor destabilisation would pose an existential threat to Iran’s rulers.

Babak Taghvaee, an independent researcher, went a step further, asserting that Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the United States, prefers weakening of the government rather than regime change. “The Saudis think…that the Iranians are weak and the groups they support see opportunity. They fear the rise of a secular government…that would encourage the same thing in Saudi Arabia,” Mr Taghvaee said in an interview.[106] In a separate tweet, he argued that “whenever there is possibility of #IranRegimeChange & establishment of a secular & democratic government in #Iran, #SaudiArabia uses its terrorist groups…to destabilise #Iran. #Saudis are scared of seeing #Iran as #US’s main ally in the region again”.[107]

In a similar vein, Jerusalem Post commentator Vugar Bakhshalizada implicitly argued that a destabilisation strategy focused on Iran’s minorities could work, but cautioned that its proponents should be careful what they wish for.[108]

“Historical records show that when the central government weakens in Iran, then the periphery of the country tries to gain more autonomy and sometimes seeks independence, creating more bloodshed and destabilisation in the country” which could lead to “a pure Hobbesian state of anarchy”, he said.

He also warned that anarchy and civil war would spark a wave of millions of refugees seeking refuge in a Europe, which is still reeling from the political impact of masses of Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and African asylum seekers. Many would make their way through Turkey, which is already experiencing political fallout from hosting the world’s largest Syrian exile community.

The roots of the thinking of proponents of a covert or overt confrontation with Iran lie in a policy paper entitled “US Defense Planning Guidance” that has been in place since 1992. The paper stipulates that US policy is designed “to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources under consolidated control be sufficient to generate global power”.[109]

The paper goes a long way towards explaining why the US and Saudi Arabia would potentially be interested in destabilising Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.

The occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 cemented anti-Americanism as a cornerstone of the revolution’s response to American support for the Shah. In many ways, the occupation turned Iran into an America bete noir, a prism that went a long way to shape US policy towards the Middle East for decades to come. It bolstered US military support of the autocratic Gulf states and became a driver of American efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alongside concern for the security of the Jewish state. The US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and subsequent targeting of Iran threatens to put to rest any hope among Iranian moderates that bygones will be bygones, a hope nurtured by President Obama’s overtures.

This fundamental hostility towards Iran is what drives senior Trump administration officials, including Messrs Bolton, Pompeo and Giuliani, and the Saudis and Israelis. It explains their support for the Mujahedeen e-Khalq, even if its domestic credibility and support base is in question. It also clarifies the apparent US, Saudi and Israeli determination to quash Iran’s ambition of being a regional and global player – something Mr Obama, to the chagrin of US hardliners, Saudis and Israelis, was willing to entertain.

An analysis of Iran’s budgeted defence spending for the fiscal year 2019/2020 suggests that it expects a potential confrontation to play out in theatres of espionage, intelligence wars, asymmetric deterrence, and aerial defence, rather than on a classic battlefield.[110] Iran’s military saw its budget reduced as the result of an overall 16 per cent cut in defence spending in response to the US sanctions, but funds available to the overseas directorates of the intelligence ministry increased.[111] The increase reflected Iranian expectations that the United States and/or Saudi Arabia and Israel would step up their infiltration efforts and support for insurgent, rebel and opposition groups.

In anticipation of support for ethnic and other groups, Iran’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, warned that Iranian opposition forces and dissidents were trying to achieve “convergence and synergism” and “unify their ranks against the Islamic Republic”. Mr Alavi noted that “during the past couple of years, various ethnic and anti-revolutionary groups have held at least 64 conventions and gatherings to accomplish a single unified line”.[112]

A history of destabilisation

Mr Bolton’s past advocacy of support for irredentist ethnic groups in Iran, and Saudi support as well as Iranian allegations of a covert war instigated by foreign powers hark back to the days of US Vice-President Dick Cheney, who while in office in the first decade of the 21st century advocated aiding militants to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear programme. They also go back almost two decades to the days of Jundallah (Soldiers of God), an offshoot in Balochistan of Sipah-e-Sahaba, the militant Pakistani- and Saudi-backed anti-Shiite group.

Jundallah, founded by Abdolmalek Rigi, a charismatic member of a powerful Baloch tribe and alleged drug smuggler, was one of several anti-Iranian groups that enjoyed US and Saudi support.[113] Many of the group’s cadres hailed from often Saudi-funded religious seminaries.

Perhaps Jundullah’s most dramatic attack was an unsuccessful ambush of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s motorcade when he visited Baluchistan in 2005. Rigi’s boyish, grinning face became as a result of the ambush the defining image of Baluch jihad in Iran.[114]

In subsequent years, the group targeted Iranian border posts, Revolutionary Guards, police officers, convoys and Shiite mosques.[115] In one incident in 2009, Jundullah killed 42 Iranian military commanders, including Brigadier-General Nourali Shoushtari, the deputy commander of the IRGC’s ground forces, and tribal leaders.[116]

The group enjoyed a degree of popular support among 1.5 million impoverished, primarily Sunni Muslim Iranians of Baloch descent who felt that their ethnic and religious identity was under attack.[117]

Jundullah died a silent death with Rigi’s capture when a flight he took from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to Dubai was diverted at Iran’s request to Sharjah in 2010. He was executed in Iran. Pakistani forces cooperated with Iran in also detaining his brother, Abdolhamid.[118]

The degree and mechanics of US involvement with Jundullah have been shrouded in mystery.

“American intelligence has…had contact with Jundallah. But that contact…was confined to intelligence-gathering on the country, a relationship with Jundallah was never formalised, and contact was sporadic. I’ve been told that the Bush Administration at one point considered Jundallah as a piece in a covert action campaign against Iran, but the idea was quickly dropped because Jundallah was judged uncontrollable and too close to Al Qaeda. There was no way to be certain that Jundallah would not throw the bombs we paid for back at us,” said former CIA operative Robert Baer.[119]

Jundullah’s US contact point in the early 2000s was reported to be Thomas McHale, a 56-year-old hard-charging, brusque and opinionated Port Authority of New York and New Jersey detective and former ironworker, who had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of his work for a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark. Known for his disdain for bureaucratic restrictions, Mr McHale maintained contact with Jundallah and members of the Rigi tribe in an off-the-books operation.[120] A survivor of the 1993 attack on New York’s World Trade Center, Mr McHale made a name for himself by rescuing survivors of the 9/11 attack on the city.

US intelligence reports said that while American operatives were barred from having contact with Jundullah, Israeli agents posing as CIA officials brazenly met the group in London under the noses of the American intelligence agency, but without any coordination. Israeli contacts with Jundullah predated a series of attacks in 2010, 2011 and 2012 on Iranian nuclear facilities and killings of scientists that were believed to have been instigated by the Jewish state.

While in Iranian captivity, Jundullah leader Rigi said that Israeli or US agents had given him, at a meeting in Morocco, a list of addresses and photos of people in Tehran to assassinate. He said the operatives had tried to persuade him to shift Jundullah operations from Sistan and Balochistan to the Iranian capital. ”We thought that this was very strange,” Rigi said. It was not clear whether he was speaking voluntarily or under duress.[121]

CIA reporting on the Iranian operations that continued as the attacks occurred prompted concern in the George W. Bush White House that the Israeli activity could put US lives at risk. While Mr Bush ultimately did not attempt to curb the Israelis, Mr Obama drastically scaled back joint US-Israel intelligence programmes targeting Iran as he tried to woo the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table. [122]

Contradicting CIA denials of any involvement with his group, Rigi said the US had promised to support the creation of a Jundullah base in Afghanistan. He said he was captured as he was on his way to a meeting with a “high-ranking person” at the Manas US military base in Kyrgyzstan. He said the US had initially contacted him in the Baloch capital of Quetta. “The Americans said… that we don’t have a problem with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but the problem is Iran and we don’t have a military programme against Iran…they promised to help us and they said that they would co-operate with us, free our prisoners and would give us military equipment, bombs, machine-guns, and they would give us a base,” he claimed.[123]

US intelligence sources suggested that support for Jundullah in the second half of the 2000s was funnelled through the Pakistani intelligence service as well as through Iranian exiles associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. The sources said support for Jundullah and other groups was discussed during a visit to Pakistan in 2007 by Mr Cheney,[124] who effectively oversaw US policy towards Pakistan during much of George W. Bush’s administration.

Mr Baer, the former CIA agent, put forward a similar version. “Whatever Iran says about Jundallah…it’s an indigenous movement. The body of its financing comes from Baluch expatriates, many in the Gulf, and Islamic charities. Its weapons and explosives are readily available in the mountains that span the border between Iran and Pakistan,” he said.[125]

The US designated Jundallah as a terrorist organisation in 2010, but that did not stop Sunni Muslim militant anti-Iranian operations.[126] In what analysts see as an indication of Saudi influence, Jaish al-Adel, a group that has since picked up the Jundullah banner, often issues its statements in Arabic rather than Baluchi or Farsi.

In response to attacks that persist, including the kidnapping of 14 Iranian border guards in October last year,[127] Iran has repeatedly attacked the militants and raided villages in Pakistani Balochistan. Arif Saleem, a 42-year-old villager, recalls being woken in the wee hours of one morning in November 2013 by bombs dropped just outside the mud walls that surround his family compound in Kulauhi, 67 km from the Pakistani border with Iran.

Located in a district that is an epicentre of a low-level proxy war with Iran, Kulauhi’s residents survive on subsistence farming and smuggling. “Some buildings collapsed. Luckily, none of the kids were inside those. The blast was so strong, we thought the world was ending,” said Mr Saleem, convinced that Iranian planes from an airbase on the Iranian side of the border carried out the bombing.[128]

Battling on multiple fronts

Balochistan is but one of multiple potential fronts in efforts to destabilise Iran, a country with six neighbours – Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – besides Pakistan. It is also but one flashpoint in what amounts to a low-intensity covert war that could see tit-for-tat incidents, with Iran stepping up its targeting of regime opponents that resumed in 2015 after a decades-long halt.

State-run television warned last summer in a primetime broadcast at a time of anti-government demonstrations in Iran that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger over the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

The fragility of ethnic communal relationships in Iran and the potential for stoking tensions was on full display during a visit to Iran in early 2019 by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Emotions flared when a protester unveiled a sign asserting that “Karabakh is Armenia” during a meeting between Mr Pashinyan and Iranians of Armenian descent. The sign referred to the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. “Who hired Armenian Diaspora of Iran to stir things up?” asked Azerbaijan’s Trend news agency.[129]

Iranian of Azeri origin, one of Iran’s largest ethnic and most influential ethnic minorities, which has long complained of discrimination and witnessed increased expressions of nationalist sentiment in recent years, were quick to respond.  Thousands of soccer fans waved the Azerbaijani flag in a stadium in the Iranian province of Eastern Azerbaijan as they burnt an Armenian one, shouting “Karabakh is ours” during a match played by Traktor Sazi Tabriz FC.[130]

Traktor Sazi is increasingly seen by Iranian Azeris as a symbol of their ethnic if not national identity. The club’s stadium has been the scene of environmental protests that turned nationalistic with demands for greater autonomy, if not independence, of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan. Video clips of its supporters chanting “Death to the Dictator” in Tehran’s Azadi stadium during a match against Esteghlal FC went viral on social media last summer after a live broadcast on state television was muted to drown the protest out. A sports commentator blamed the loss of sound on a network disruption.[131]

Of all Iran’s borders, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region has proven to be the most troublesome after Balochistan. In response, the IRGC has been increasingly aggressive and daring in its effort to counter allegedly Saudi and US-backed opposition groups operating from Iraq, including the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). The Guards have deployed thousands of troops to difficult mountain ranges in western Iran that have served as safe havens for insurgents.[132]

In a bid to gain full and unfettered control of the mountains for the first time since the 1979 revolution and demonstrate its capabilities, the Guards launched an ongoing operation involving special forces, helicopter gunships, heavy artillery and drones in Iran’s mountainous Kurdish region in 2017.

Broadcast live on television, a commander shouts into a microphone: “This is a real theatre. Today we carry out a drill, but also we will clear these areas completely.” Added another: “The counter-revolutionaries had a permanent presence here…and there was no possibility of … deploying ([troops) to these heights.”[133]

Iranian suspicion of US backing for the Kurds were reinforced when Steven Fagin, the head of the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, met in Washington in June with Mustafa Hijri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), before assuming his new post as counsel-general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.[134]

The KDPI has stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan, killing nine people weeks before Mr Hijri’s meeting with Mr Fagin.[135] Other Kurdish groups have reported similar attacks. Several Iranian Kurdish groups are discussing ways to coordinate efforts to confront the Iranian regime.

The Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, an originally communist group whose flag features a red star and arching Persian script with Soviet-style typography, has registered as a lobby group with the US Department of Justice in a bid influence policy and opinion and garner US support as part of the Trump administration campaign against Iran.[136]

Iranian efforts to counter Kurdish aspirations and US-Saudi support of the insurgents with a combination of military force and repression threatens to aid efforts to stir unrest among the country’s ethnic minorities.[137]

The European Union’s sanctions on Iran’s intelligence ministry, meanwhile, focused attention on tensions in Khuzestan and its Iranian Arab population. The sanctions were imposed after Danish authorities discovered a plot to kill citizens associated with the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), an Iranian Arab group that strives for independence in Khuzestan.

The alleged Danish plot led authorities to close bridges into Copenhagen and suspend train operations last September.[138] Danish intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen said that Norway has since extradited to Denmark a Norwegian national of Iranian descent who was seen taking pictures of the Danish home of a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) group.[139]

Two other groups, the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance, claimed responsibility in September for an attack on a Revolutionary Guards parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz in which 29 people were killed and 70 others wounded.[140] Iran at the time summoned the ambassadors of the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain to protest against the three countries’ hosting of Iranian ethnic rights militants.[141]

A month earlier, Iranian Arab fans clashed with security forces in a stadium in Ahwaz during a football match between local team Foolad Khuzestan FC and Tehran’s Persepolis FC. The fans reportedly shouted slogans reaffirming their Arab identity.[142]

The Danish plot followed the killing by unidentified gunmen in the Netherlands in November 2017 of Ahmad Mola Nissi, another ASMLA leader.[143] A 52-year-old refugee living in the Netherlands since 2005, Mola Nissi was believed to have been responsible for attacks in Khuzestan in 2005, 2006 and 2013 on oil facilities, the office of the Khuzestan governor, other government offices, and banks.[144]

Together with Habib Jaber al-Ahvazi, also known as Abo Naheth, another ASMLA activist, Mola Nissi focussed in recent years on media activities and fund raising, at times creating footage of alleged attacks involving gas cylinder explosions to attract Saudi funding, according to Iranian activists. Mola Nissi was killed as he was preparing to establish a television station backed by Saudi-trained personnel and funding that would target Khuzestan.

Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, scholar Amal Al-Hazzani asserted in an op-ed that “the al-Ahwaz district in Iran…is an Arab territory… Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925… It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective”.[145] Other Arab commentators have since aired similar opinions.

Compounding the fallout in Europe of Iran’s targeting of activists was the expulsion in October last year by France of an Iranian diplomat accused of being part of a plot to bomb a rally in Paris organised by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. The diplomat was among six people arrested for allegedly plotting the bombing.[146] US officials asserted that the group as part of an Iranian plot to attack the Mujahedeen base in Albania.[147]

Support for the Mujahedeen as well as the son of the last Shah of Iran has figured prominently in broadcasts of UK-based television station Iran International, which, according to The Guardian, is owned by a secretive offshore entity with close links to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed.[148] Saud al-Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s close aide – he was one of several senior Saudi officials removed from office in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi murder – was reportedly among the station’s main funders. “I can say that Iran International TV has turned into a platform…for ethnic partisanship and sectarianism,” The Guardian quoted a source as saying.[149]

Geopolitical fallout

The spectre of ethnic proxy wars threatens to further destabilise the Gulf as well as Pakistan. The Baloch insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan has complicated Chinese plans to develop the port of Gwadar in Balochistan as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative, and forced Pakistan to take extraordinary security precautions. A stepped-up proxy war could embroil Indian-backed Chabahar in the conflict. The wars could, moreover, spread to Iran’s Khuzestan and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in Balochistan goes beyond the flow of funds to militant madrasahs in the province. It also drives Saudi plans to invest some US$10 billion in a refinery and gold and copper mine in Balochistan and bail the South Asian state out of a financial crisis with billions of dollars in aid and deferred payments for oil imports.

Saudi-backed militants in Balochistan benefit from widespread resentment about the lack of benefits from China’s massive investment in the region. The provincial government asserted in December 2018 that Balochistan’s share in CPEC was dismal.

Saudi Arabia’s desire to see regime change may, however, be tempered by its plans to become a major gas exporter within a decade by investing US$150 billion to enable it to export three billion cubic metres of gas a year by 2030.[150]

Viewed through the lens of the timeline of Saudi Arabia’s gas plans, the Kingdom is likely to benefit more from an Iran that is isolated and weakened for years to come. That would give the Saudis the time to get up to speed on gas before an Iran that returns to the international fold under a new, more accommodating. A potential destabilisation campaign that is low-level and intermittent but not regime-threatening would serve that purpose. In effect, it would aim to attempt regime collapse rather than regime change, forcing Iran to marshal its energies domestically instead of regionally.

That approach would also extend the window of opportunity on which Saudi Arabia relies to assert regional leadership. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive economic sanctions, international isolation and domestic turmoil serve to keep Iran weak and unable to leverage its assets. Moreover, the perceived threat of Chabahar to Saudi interests pales against the opportunity of Saudi Arabia as a major gas exporter.

In a study published in 2015, energy scholar Micha’el Tanchum suggested that it would be gas supplies from Iran and Turkmenistan, two Caspian Sea states, rather than Saudi oil that would determine which way Eurasia’s future energy architecture tilts: China, the world’s third largest LNG importer, or Europe.

With 24.6 billion cubic metres potentially available for annual piped exports beyond its current supply commitments, Iran, unfettered by sanctions and with no Saudi competition, could emerge as Eurasia’s swing producer, which would significantly enhance its regional clout.[151]

Saudi officials see tough US sanctions and the hardening attitude towards Iran as a way of preventing the Islamic Republic from becoming a nation of even more strategic importance than it already is to several key players in the Great Game, the 21st century great power rivalry in Eurasia that is likely to shape a new world order.

Unfettered by international sanctions, Iran’s geography would have made the Islamic Republic pivotal to the success of China’s trans-continental, infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative in ways that Saudi Arabia is not. With sanctions in place, Iran’s options are likely to be defined by whether it continues to adhere to the nuclear accord and the degree to which China, Russia and Europe can dull the impact of the harsh US measures.

Black swans

The murder in October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi makes it difficult to assess which way Saudi Arabia will sway in the balance between its interest in weakening Iran over the long term by destabilising it without truly endangering the regime and going for the Islamic Republic’s throat. The killing may also have been part of a broader effort designed to not just neutralise critics, but also to strike at Iran where it hurts.

Eighteen months before the murder, senior Saudi intelligence officials close to the Crown Prince were reportedly exploring ways of assassinating key Iranian figures like Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force.

The assassination campaign would have been designed to take out some of the Kingdom’s most implacable enemies in Iran and sabotage the country’s economy.[152] The officials met in March 2017 with several businessmen with intelligence backgrounds, who pitched a US$2 billion plan to use private intelligence operatives to undermine the Iranian economy by deterring Western companies from investing in Iran and launching operations to sow mistrust among Iranian officials.

The Saudi officials involved in the meeting included Major-General Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy head of intelligence, who was fired weeks after Khashoggi’s death on charges of having led a rogue operation to kill the journalist.[153]

George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who advises UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, had already pitched the plan to White House and Emirati officials before the meeting, which was also attended by Joel Zamel, an Israeli with close ties to his country’s intelligence and security agencies as well as to the Emirati leader. The meeting followed a trip to New York in January 2017 by Gen Assiri to discuss regime change in Iran with members of Mr Trump’s post-election transition team.[154]

Mr Nader and Mr Zamel were both questioned about the plan by US Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose investigation into potential collusion between Mr Trump’s election campaign and Russia was recently completed. The two men had piqued Mr Mueller’s interest because private security contractor Erik Prince had arranged for Mr Nader and Mr Zamel to meet Mr Trump’s son, Donald J. Trump Jr, in late 2016 to consider ways in which they could help the campaign.[155]

International regulation trumps maximum pressure

On a broader scale, the question arises whether Mr Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” approach to Iran, as well as North Korea, ultimately leaves the US with few choices beyond covert or overt military confrontation. “A pressure campaign will only be effective if enough time is dedicated to it. In other words, there are no quick and easy victories, as the North Korean case demonstrates. And attempts to get them will only push the goalposts further away,” said political scientist Ariane M. Tabatabai.[156]

In an ironic twist, international regulations could prove to be a more effective way of attempting to curb or modify Iranian policies. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, is a case in point. Concerned that it could be blacklisted by FATF, Pakistan moved to crack down on militant groups.[157]

Landing on the blacklist would have had a debilitating impact on Pakistan’s stuttering economy. It would restrict the ability of multilateral organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) to aid or lend to Pakistan.

The fact that Iran faces a similar dilemma has sparked intense debate in the Islamic Republic about how to deal with FATF demands that it join the watchdog and significantly upgrade its legal anti-money laundering and terrorism finance infrastructure to evade being blacklisted.

Iran’s Parliament has so far passed two or four Bills required for membership and together with the Expediency and Discernment Council is debating accession to the Combating the Financing of Terrorism Convention (CFT) and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, or Palermo Convention.[158]

The FATF demands have put Iran between a rock and a hard place, and the designation of the IRGC is likely to complicate any Iranian efforts to comply and strengthens hardline opposition to the demands.

Nevertheless, Iranian ratification of those conventions, coupled with FATF membership, holds out the promise of more effectively and more quickly curtailing the country’s funding of regional proxies than maximum pressure and US sanctions are likely to achieve.

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), referring to the US sanctions, has said that the decision would “smooth the path for Iran’s increased financial transactions with the rest of the world, help remove the country from investment blacklists…foil enemy plots to use the allegation of supporting terrorism as a pretext to put pressure on Tehran”.[159]

The passage of the Bills was also intended to strengthen European, Russian and Chinese resolve to salvage the nuclear accord by defying the US sanctions. “The Iranian lawmakers’ decision (will) pave the way for the unimpeded implementation of the measures taken by Iran and Europe to bypass US sanctions, such as the initiative to establish a Special Purpose Vehicle to facilitate payments related to Iran’s exports, including oil,” IRNA said.

The agency was referring to a European plan to create a separate entity for dealings with Iran that would not be affected by the sanctions because it would have no exposure to the US market and its transactions would not be carried out in greenbacks.

Iranian failure to comply could significantly increase the pain of US sanctions by prompting those banks and financial institutions still willing to do business with Iran to rethink their positions.

The designation of the IRGC may have cemented Iranian rejection of the FATF demands that already seemed doomed before the US move. Ali Shirazi, a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, argued against parliamentary ratification of the two conventions on the grounds that it would force Iran to sever its ties to proxy groups in various parts of the Middle East.

Mr Khamenei’s opposition was boosted when Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, which oversees legislation passed by Parliament, said aspects of a Bill that would have authorised Iran to join the United Nations convention against terrorist financing were against Islamic law and the constitution, and sent it back to lawmakers for revision.[160]

The long and short is that Iran is at a crossroads more because of the application of a rules-based international and multilateral system than the coercion of punitive sanctions imposed by a world power. In effect, Iran is proving to be a litmus test of varying forms of global governance.

James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture



[1] Julian Borger and Martin Chulov, White House asked the Pentagon for plans to strike Iran – report, The Guardian, 14 January 2019,

[2] The Times of Israel, Pompeo warns Iran against using proxies to target US: ‘We’ll go to the source,’ 22 September 2018,

[3] Dion Nissenbaum, White House Sought Options to Strike Iran, The Wall Street Journal, 13 January 2019,

[4] Jonathan Swan, Mattis had “deep concerns” about White House request for Iran strike options, Axios, 14 January 2019,

[5] The Week, Pentagon and CIA officials fear that the White House is about to escalate tension with Iran, 6 April 2019,

[6] Ibid. Borger and Chulov, White House asked the Pentagon

[7] John R. Bolton, How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, National Review, 28 August 2017,

[8] John R. Bolton, To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran, The New York Times, 26 March 2015,

[9] Daniel R. DePetris and Richard Sokolsky, IRGC Designation: More From The War-With-Iran Playbook, LobeLog, 8 April 2019,

[10] John Bolton, Twitter, 8 April 2019,

[11] Holly Dagress, United States Designates Iran’s IRGC a Foreign Terrorist, Atlantic Council, 8 April 2019,

[12] Trita Parsi, Twitter, 8 April 2019,

[13] Benjamin Netanyahu, Twitter, 8 April 2019,

[14] Asharq AlAwsat, Saudi Arabia Welcomes US Terrorist Designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, 9 April 2019,

[15] Agence France Presse, US designates Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as terrorist organization, 8 April 2019,

[16] David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper, Iran’s Swift Release of U.S. Sailors Hailed as a Sign of Warmer Relations, The New York Times, 13 January 2016,

[17] Zack Beauchamp, The US and Iran are tacitly cooperating in Iraq, Vox, 17 November 2015,

[18] Mir H. Sadat and James P. Hughes, U.S.-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan, Middle East Policy, Vol. 17:1,  p. 31-52,

[19] Al Jazeera, Iran’s Rouhani defends IRGC, says US ‘terror’ label a ‘mistake,’ 9 April 2019,

[20] Stephen Kalin and Parisa Hafezi, Saudi crown prince says will develop nuclear bomb if Iran does: CBS TV, Reuters, 15 March 2018,

[21] Natasha Turak, Alleged Saudi ballistic missile base signals greater divergence from Washington, CNBC, 1 February 2019,

[22] Keith Johnson, Who’s Afraid of Saudi Nukes? Foreign Policy, 22 February 2019,

[23] James M. Dorsey and Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, To Shoot or not to Shoot? Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern Militaries Respond Differently, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Working Paper No. 295, 18 December 2015,

[24] Gawdat Bahgat and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, Iran’s Defense Strategy: The Navy, Ballistic Missiles and Cyberspace, Middle East Policy, Vol. 24:3, p. 89-104,

[25] Michael Sterner, The Persian Gulf: The Iran-Iraq War, Foreign Affairs, Fall 1984,

[26] James M. Dorsey, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Wahhabism, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 16 March 2016,

[27] James M. Dorsey, Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 5 May 2017,

[28] CNN, Iranian plot to kill Saudi ambassador thwarted, U.S. officials say, 12 October 2011,

[29] Embassy of Israel in India, Two Years After the Attack on an Israeli Diplomat, 13 February 2014,

[30] Eydar Peralta, Thai Police Say Iranian Bomb Suspects Targeted Israeli Diplomats, National Public Radio, 16 February 2012,

[31] Michael R. Gordon, U.S. Ties Iran to Deadly Iraq Attack, The New York Times, 2 July 2017,

[32] Bruce Riedel, Captured: Mastermind behind the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, Brookings, 26 August 2015,

[33] Eliana Raszewski, Argentine court clears ex-President Menem in Jewish bombing cover-up case, Reuters, 1 March 2019,

[34] US Department of State, Department Press Briefing – April 2, 2019, 2 April 2019,

[35] Haaretz, FULL TEXT: Mike Pompeo’s Cairo Speech on Mideast Policy and Obama, 11 January 2019,

[36] CBS News, Twitter, 14 February 2019,

[37] US Department of State, After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy, 21 May 2018,

[38] Eli Clifton, Congressional Hawks Gear Up to Kill Talks, Bomb Iran, The Nation, 4 December 2014,

[39] Al Jazeera, Warsaw conference: Gulf ministers slam Iran in leaked video, 16 February 2019,

[40] The White House, Twitter, 12 February 2019,

[41] David E. Sanger and Marc Santora, Anti-Iran Message Seeps Into Trump Forum Billed as Focusing on Mideast Security, The New York Times, 13 February 2019,

[42] Barbara Slavin, US government no longer excludes MEK as leadership option for Iran, Al-Monitor, 6 March 2019,

[43] Deutsche Welle, سخنگوی وزارت خارجه آمریکا: سازمان مجاهدین خلق جایگاهی در ایران ندارد  (State Department spokesman: MKO has no place in Iran), YouTube, 25 September 2018,

[44] Daniel Benjamin, Yes, We Do Know the MEK Has a Terrorist Past, Politico, 13 December 2016,

[45] Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, MEK: When Terrorism Becomes Respectable, 17 October 2012,

[46] Shireen, Hunter, Don’t Rule Out The Possibility Of War With Iran, LobeLog, 14 January 2019,

[47] Reuters, Iran says Saudis back terrorism after senior prince attends rebel rally, 10 July 2016,

[48] Borzou Daragahi, The ‘political cult’ opposing the Iranian regime which has created a state within a state in Albania, Independent, 27 September 2018,

[49] Ibid. Daragahi, The ‘political cult’ opposing the Iranian regime

[50] Ty Joplin, Saudi Arabia Secretly Sent Truckloads of Gold and Rolex Watches to the Iranian MEK, Albawaba News, 18 September 2018,

[51] #FreeIran, Excerpts from Amb. John Bolton’s speech at the Free Iran Gathering Paris 1 July2017, YouTube, 24 July 2017,

[52] Executive Branch Persónnel Public Finance Disclosure Report (OGE Form 278s), Bolton, John, 11 June 2018,

[53] Eli Clifton, Hacked Emails Reveal Close Ties Between UAE And Anti-Iran/Qatar Advocacy Groups, LobeLog, 21 July 2017,

[54] Iran Business Risk, Advisory Board,

[55] Eli Clifton , Pompeo, Bolton To Headline Shady Anti-Iran Event During UNGA, LobeLog, 24 September 2018,

[56] Tovah Lazaroff, Netanyahu: Israeli and Arab States Advancing Common Interest of Combatting Iran, Jerusalem Post, 13 February 2019,

[57] Raphael Ahren, In clip leaked by PMO, Arab ministers seen defending Israel, attacking Iran, The Times of Israel, 14 February 2019,

[58] Julian Pecquet, Gingrich considered registering as a lobbyist for Iran regime change, Al-Monitor, 12 February 2019, by%20newsletter%202-15-19&utm_term=Registered%20Users

[59] Ibid. Benjamin, Yes, We Do Know the MEK Has a Terrorist Past

[60] Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, Chabahar and Gwadar Agreements  and Rivalry among Competitors  in Baluchistan Region, Journal of Iranian Studies, Vol 1:1,

[61] Ibid. Dorsey, Pakistan caught in the middle

[62] Ibid. Dorsey, Pakistan caught in the middle

[63] The New Arab, Iran hints at Saudi role in deadly suicide bombing, 6 December 2018,

[64] Jamal Ismail, Ansar Al-Furqan Group Claims Attack against IRGC HQ in Iran, Asharq Al-Awsat, 8 December 2018,

[65] Jamal Ismail, Ansar Al-Furqan Group Claims Attack against IRGC HQ in Iran, Asharq Al-Awsat, 8 December 2018,

[66] David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, U.S. Revives Secret Program to Sabotage Iranian Missiles and Rockets, The New York Times, 13 February 2019,

[67] Ibid. Sanger and Broad, U.S. Revives Secret Program to Sabotage Iranian Missiles

[68] The White House, Remarks by President Trump and Vice President Pence Announcing the Missile Defense Review, 17 January 2019,

[69] Michael R. Pompeo, Iran’s Firing of Space Launch Vehicle Defies International Community, US Department of State, 15 January 2019,

[70] Press TV, Enemies seek to sabotage missile program: IRGC, 10 May 2016,

[71] Warren Ritchey, Iranian missiles reignite `war of cities’ with Iraq. Escalating attacks on nonmilitary targets give urgency to UN diplomacy, The Christian Science Monitor, 1 March 1988,

[72] Steven A. Hildreth, Iran’s Ballistic Missile and Space Launch Programs, Congressional Research Service, 6 December 2012.

[73] Michael Elleman and Mark Fitzpatrick, How to Strike a Missile Deal With Iran, Foreign Policy, 6 August 2018,

[74] Sebastien Roblin, Saudi Arabia Already Has a Ballistic Missile Arsenal Courtesy of China—With a Little Help from the CIA, The National Interest, 22 September 2018,

[75] John Bolton, Twitter, 15 January 2019,

[76] David Albright, Olli Heinonen, Frank Pabian, and Andrea Stricker, A Key Missing Piece of the Amad Puzzle: The Shahid Boroujerdi Project for Production of Uranium Metal & Nuclear Weapons Components, Institute for Science and International Security, 11 January 2019,

[77] PM of Israel, Twitter, 15 January 2019,

[78] Elise Labott, Bolton reassures a nervous Israel about Trump’s Syria plan, Politico, 6 January 2019,

[79] Peter Jenkins, Some Want Iran’s Past To Poison Its Future LobeLog, 21 December 2019,

[80] Daniel R. Coats, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 11 May 2017,

[81] US Department of State, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, 16 January 2016,

[82] Jonathan Tirone, U.S. Hits a Wall in Efforts to Turn the Screws on Iran, Diplomats Say, Bloomberg, 25 January 2019,

[83] Paul Pillar, Trump On Iran: A Lie That May Lead To War, LobeLog, 16 January 2019,

[84] Ryan Pickrell, The US Navy is sending an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in a message to a belligerent Iran, Business Insider, 4 December 2018,

[85] Ted Regencia, Rouhani unveils Iran’s cruise missile-equipped Fateh submarine, Al Jazeera, 17 February 2019,

[86] Ben Wolfgang and Guy Taylor, EXCLUSIVE: Iran-al Qaeda alliance may provide legal rationale for U.S. military strikes, The Washington Times, 18 February 2019,

[87] Jonathan Swan, Inside the Oval: How Trump tormented Mattis, Axios, 14 January 2019,

[88] Rebecca Kheel, Trump tweets in Persian to send message to Iran on revolution’s anniversary, The Hill, 11 February 2019,

[89] Javad Zarif, Twitter, 12 February 2019,

[90] Elise Labott, John Bolton Is Living His Dream, Politico, 4 February 2019,

[91] Al-Monitor, Intel: Bolton’s Iran strike plans leaked after he elevated longtime associate, 14 January 2019,

[92] Haaretz, 4 Conspiracy Theories Promoted by Frank Gaffney, Ted Cruz’s New Adviser, 18 March 2016,

[93] Curt Mills, John Bolton Taps Iran Regime Change Advocate, The National Interest, 7 January 2019,

[94] Bryant Harris, Pompeo faces Senate buzz saw over stance on Iran, Muslims, Al-Monitor, 12 April 2018,

[95] Kenneth P. Vogel, Meet the Members of the ‘Shadow N.S.C.’ Advising John Bolton, The New York Times, 21 May 2018,

[96] Ibid. Vogel, Meet the Members of the ‘Shadow N.S.C.’

[97] Ibid. Vogel, Meet the Members of the ‘Shadow N.S.C.’

[98] Mehdi Hasan, John Bolton Wants to Bomb Iran — and He May Get What He Wants, The Intercept, 16 January 2019,

[99] International Crisis Group, On Thin Ice: The Iran Nuclear Deal at Three, 16 January 2019,

[100] Laura Rozen, Trump administration finds its Iran policy not working, Al-Monitor, 17 January 2019,

[101] James M. Dorsey, US’s Iran Sanctions: Mixed Prospects and a Beyond-SWIFT Question, Al Jazeera Studies Centre, 18 December 2018,

[102] Erin Cunningham, Crazy-rich Iranians face blowback at a time of sanctions and economic stress, The Washington Post, 14 January 2019,

[103] Shahir Shahidsaless, Iran’s Reform Camp Is in Crisis, Atlantic Council, 11 January 2019,

[104] Ibid. Shahidsaless, Iran’s Reform Camp Is in Crisis

[105] Daniel R. Coats, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community, Director of National Intelligence, 29 January 2019,—SSCI.pdf

[106] Interview with the author, 17 February 2019

[107] Babak Taghvaee, Twitter, @BabakTaghvaee, 19 February 2019,

[108] Vugar Bakhshalizada, Regime Change in Iran is Dangerous for America, The National Interest, 7 March 2019,

[109] National Security Council, Defense Planning Guidance, FY 1994-1999, 16 April 1992,

[110] Maysam Behravesh, Besieged Iran crafts a defence budget for dark times, Middle East Eye, 17 January 2019,

[111] Radio Farda, Less Budget For Iran’s Defense Ministry, More For IRGC, 27 December 2018,

[112] Ibid. Behravesh, Besieged Iran crafts a defence budget for dark times

[113] ‘Seymour M. Hersh, Preparing the Battlefield, The New Yorker, 29 June 2008,

[114] Muhmmad Sahimi, Who supports Jundallah? Frontline, 22 October 2009,

[115] Thomas Erdbrink, Insurgents in Pakistan Stepping Up Iran Strikes, The New York, Times, 9 October 2014,

[116] France 24, Timeline of recent attacks in Iran by militant groups, 22 September 2018,

[117] Abubakar Siddique, Jundallah: Profile Of A Sunni Extremist Group, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 20 October 2009,

[118] Ian Black, Iran captures Sunni insurgent leader Abdolmalek Rigi, 23 February 2010,

[119] Robert Baer, Iran’s Biggest Worry: Growing Ethnic Conflict, Time, 21 October 2009,,8599,1931402,00.html

[120] James Risen and Matt Apuzzo, Getting Close to Terror, but Not to Stop It, The New York Times, 8 November 2014,

[121] Press TV, Rigi: US, Israel paid for assassination, 20 May 2010,

[122] Mark Perry, False Flag, Foreign Policy, 13 January 2012,

[123] BBC News, Iran Jundullah leader claims US military support, 26 February 2010,

[124] Interviews with the author, April 2007

[125] Ibid. Baer, Iran’s Biggest Worry

[126] US Department of State, Foreign Terrorist Organizations, Undated,

[127] Ayaz Gul, Pakistan Rescues Kidnapped Iranian Border Guards, Voice of America, 15 November 2018,

[128] Umar Farooq, The Dangerous Drug-Funded Secret War Between Iran and Pakistan, The Daily Beast, 29 December 2014,

[129] Azer Ahmadbayli, Who hired Armenian Diaspora of Iran to stir things up? Trend News Agency, 6 March 2019,

[130] Agayev Tapdiq Qebele, Tractor sazi sepahan 1:0, YouTube, 2 March 2019,

[131] James M. Dorsey, Amid ethnic protests, Iran warns of foreign meddling, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 15 August 2018,

[132] Fazel Hawramy, IRGC masses troops on Iraq border amid rising tensions with Kurdish groups, Al-Monitor, 16 October 2018,

[133] Tamasha, ‘Muharram Security Exercise in Osnova  (رزمایش امنیتی «محرم» در اشنویه), 3 October 2018,

[134] Fazel Hawramy, Will Iranian Kurds be on front lines of US conflict with Iran? Al-Monitor, 25 July 2018,

[135] Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Kurdistan Peshmerga Command issues statement on recent conflict  (فرماندهی نیروی پیشمرگه کوردستان در رابطه با درگیری اخیر، بیانیه‌ای صادر کرد), 10 June 2018,فرماندهی-نیروی-پیشمرگه-کوردستان-در-رابطه-با-درگیری-اخیر-بیانیهای-صادر-کرد

[136] Jack Detsch, Kurdish rebels join anti-Iran lobbying fray, Al-Monitor, 2 October 2018,

[137] Al Jazeera, Iranian Guards claims missile attack on Kurdish rebels in Iraq, 10 September 2018,

[138] John Henley, Danish bridges closed due to ‘major police operation,’ The Guardian 28 September 2018,

[139] Emil Gjerding Nielson and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Iranian spy service suspected of assassination plot in Denmark: security chief, Reuters, 30 October 2018,

[140] James M. Dorsey, Attack in Iran raises spectre of a potentially far larger conflagration, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 23 September 2018,

[141] The Guardian, Iran summons UK, Dutch and Danish envoys over attack on military parade, 23 September 2018,

[142] The Baghdad Post, Mullahs’ security personnel injured as violent clashes erupt in Ahvaz, 9 August 2018,

[143] Martijn Haas, Crime shooting victim The Hague: Iranian Ahmad Mola Nissi (Misdaad Slachtoffer schietpartij Den Haag: Iranese Ahmad Mola Nissi), Panorama, 9 November 2017,

[144] James M. Dorsey, Murder in The Hague: Saudi-Iranian proxy war heats up, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 10 November 2017,

[145] Amal Al-Hazzani, The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz, Asharq Al-Awsat, 6 March 2012,

[146] Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Jennifer Rankin, Diplomat arrested over alleged attack plot on Iranian group in France, The Guardian, 2 July 2018,

[147] Laurence Norman and Matthew Dalton, U.S. Accuses Iran of Terror Plots in Effort to Sway Europe, The Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2018,

[148] Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Concern over UK-based Iranian TV channel’s links to Saudi Arabia, The Guardian, 31 October 2018,

[149] Ibid. Dehghan, Concern over UK-based Iranian TV

[150] Rania El Gamal, Saudi Arabia aims to export 3 bln cubic feet/day of gas before 2030, Reuters, 26 February 2019,

[151] Micha’el Tanchum, A Post-Sanctions Iran and the Eurasian Energy Architecture, Atlantic Council, September 2015,

[152] Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirkpatrick, Saudis Close to Crown Prince Discussed Killing Other Enemies a Year Before Khashoggi’s Death, The New York Times, 11 November 2018,

[153] Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirkpatrick, Trump Jr. and Other Aides Met With Gulf Emissary Offering Help to Win Election, The New York Times, 19 May 2018,

[154] Erin Banco and Betsy Woodruff, Saudi Spy Met With Team Trump About Taking Down Iran, The Daily Beast 25 October 2018,

[155] Ibid. Mazzetti, Bergman and Kirkpatrick, Trump Jr. and Other Aides

[156] Ariane M. Tabatabai, Maximum Pressure Yields Minimum Results, Foreign Policy, 6 March 2019,

[157] Asif Shahzad and Drazen Jorgic, Pakistan begins crackdown on militant groups amid global pressure, Reuters, 5 March 2019

[158] Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Iran approves anti-money laundering bill to ease foreign trade, Reuters, 5 January 2019,

[159] Islamic Republic News Agency, Joining CFT foils enemy plots, 8 October 2018,

[160] Agence France Presse, Iran Guardian Council rejects terror financing bill, Daily Star, 4 November 2018,


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