After the alleged Iranian government plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, the White House issued a finding to the intelligence community authorizing stepped-up covert action against Iran. A “finding” is top-level approval for secret operations considered to be particularly politically sensitive.
An earlier finding of the Bush administration already permitted the use of intelligence assets to disrupt Iranian Revolutionary Guard activity in border zones—the areas adjacent to Pakistan inhabited by ethnic Baluchis, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and the ethnically Arab province of Khuzistan, which borders southeastern Iraq. Activity in the Kurdish region was limited and was partially run by Israelis due to sensitivities in dealing with the Turks. That effort was abandoned altogether in 2009, when the Obama administration decided to increase intelligence and military cooperation with Ankara against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Attacks in Baluchistan and the Arab region over the past seven years, which have killed a large number of Revolutionary Guards and even more civilians, were part of the program authorized under the earlier finding.
The new finding extends those existing initiatives and adds involvement with the Azeris, who inhabit northwestern Iran and share a common border, language, and culture with their fellow tribesmen in Azerbaijan. Twenty million ethnic Azeris in Iran comprise nearly 25 percent of the population. When combined with the 2 percent who are Baluchis, 7 percent Kurds, and 3 percent Arabs, Iran has a significant ethnic problem along its borders. This is precisely what the covert action will seek to exploit by encouraging ethnic fragmentation and supplying dissidents with communications equipment, training, and weapons.
Not at all coincidentally, the foreign minister of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, visited Brussels in October to discuss issues of common concern with NATO. He met with U.S. officials and received private intelligence briefings on the “Iranian threat.” Azeris inside Iran are generally well assimilated—Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is himself half-Azeri—but there is a small movement to join the Azeri region of Iran with the existing state of Azerbaijan. The central government in Tehran is unpopular among Azeris. In February 2007, tens of thousands of Azeris marched against Iranian state-sponsored suppression of their language and culture. But there is little evidence that many Azeris would take up arms against Tehran to advance their cause.
The Obama administration’s new finding is partially in response to reports that Israel might attack Iran itself if American sanctions and covert operations are not increased. The U.S. is already cooperating with Israel on the development of a new version of the Stuxnet computer virus, which crippled the Iranian nuclear program’s computers in 2010.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.