Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Britain and U.S. Reject Accusations Over Attacks

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The Times

The corrosive mistrust that festers between Iran and the West stretches from the British and US-backed coup of 1953 to the present day, with continuing covert foreign programmes aimed at regime change. British intelligence sources strongly deny Iranian assertions that Britain is backing the Sunni rebel group behind the weekend’s suicide attack on the Revolutionary Guards in Sistan-Baluchistan. Washington also denies involvement. In 2005, the year that the opposition Jundallah turned to violence, Washington began the latest covert programme of lending assistance to Iranian militant opposition groups, hoping to effect regime change from within. In 2007 President Bush requested, and received, a budget of $400 million from Congress to back such groups violently opposing the Islamic regime — among them Jundallah and the Mujahidin e-Khalq. The latter, although proscribed by the State Department as a terror organisation, has proved valuable in passing intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programme, including the 2002 reports of a secret nuclear plant at Natanz that blew the lid on Iran’s current nuclear programme. The group, also known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has an office in London. The Bush Administration’s backing for internal regime change sprang from a realisation of the risks of military action against Iran to halt its nuclear programme. The question is whether such programmes have continued under President Obama and whether they may now threaten to derail the diplomatic track that he espouses. Colonel Sam Gardner, a retired US Air Force commander, argued in a study last year that such clandestine activities only made the regime more paranoid and distrustful of the veracity of a diplomatic approach.

“It is bad policy and it is dangerous,” he wrote in October 2008. Comments out of Tehran on Sunday suggest that the regime does not believe that anything has changed. “Mr Obama said that he will extend his hand toward Iran but with this terrorist action he has burnt his hand,” Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Iranian parliament said. British officials said it would make no sense for the West to be involved with a violent terrorist organisation such as Jundallah, given its informal links to groups like the Taleban and al-Qaeda. They also argue that its Baluchi nationalist platform threatens the integrity of its ally, Pakistan. Yet Jundallah’s leader denies a separatist platform, saying that he is only fighting for the rights of Sunni Baluchis in Shia-majority Iran. Pakistani military officials have themselves complained about the US backing Jundallah on its soil. Yet Pakistan itself is believed to train and assist Jundallah as a tool of influence in Iran, just as it created the Taleban to give it leverage in Afghanistan. Operation Ajax, the CIA/MI6-backed coup which overthrew the democratically elected Iranian Government in 1953, serves as a reminder that Western intelligence services historically have been prepared to intervene in Iran. British officials insist that their relationship with Pakistan rules out any tie-up with Jundallah. MI6 may have some history with Iran but it has strict guidelines about covert action. If intelligence officers from the service become involved in an undercover mission, backed by Special Forces — the two organisations frequently operate together — approval is required from the Foreign Secretary if there is any risk of political or diplomatic damage to British interests.