As you may have noticed in 2007 -- timetable for Iraq withdrawal, anyone? -- in our system of government as it is presently constituted, the executive branch has a tiny modicum of autonomy from the legislative branch, particularly with respect to foreign policy.
On Wednesday -- burying the news in the post-election media frenzy -- the State Department gave us a little taste of what the executive branch can do without waiting for Congress to say, "Simon Says." At long last, the State Department formally designated the Iranian terrorist organization Jundallah as a "foreign terrorist organization."
The United States has officially designated Iranian extremist group Jundallah as a foreign terrorist organization, the State Department said Wednesday.
Jundallah, also known as the People's Resistance Movement of Iran, operates primarily in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan, which borders Pakistan.
The State Department said Jundallah "has engaged in numerous attacks resulting in the death and maiming of scores of Iranian civilians and government officials. Jundallah uses a variety of terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, ambushes, kidnappings and targeted assassinations."
Most recently, the Sunni group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in July at the Zahedan Grand Mosque. The attacks targeting Shiite worshipers killed 27 people. Iranian leaders said the United States was behind the attacks.
The designation means that individuals, property and interests linked to Jundallah are prohibited in the United States and it is illegal for Americans to provide any material support -- including donations -- to the organization, according to the State Department.
Kudos to CNN for noticing the State Department's press release amidst the post-election frenzy. But the CNN article doesn't provide any context that indicates the potential significance of this designation, beyond noting that Iranian leaders accused the US of responsibility for the July attack.
Robert Burns of AP, in an article you can find on the Washington Post's web site (nothing on the NYT as of this writing) gives context:
The State Department named a Sunni militant group in Iran to a U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations on Wednesday, a move likely to be welcomed by Tehran just weeks before the resumption of talks over its disputed nuclear program.
A State Department spokesman said adding the Jundallah organization to a terrorist list that contains 46 others -- including al-Qaida, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the Pakistani Taliban -- was not intended as a conciliatory gesture.
But some experts said the timing could still help smooth relations in advance of a new round of negotiations over Iran's uranium enrichment program, the central source of tension between Tehran and Washington.
The AP's Nasser Karimi, reporting from Tehran on protests against the US and Britain, suggests that Iranian protesters took note of the move:
Despite the familiar chants against the United States, protesters did not appear to burn U.S. flags in what could be a rare nod of approval to Washington for adding an Iranian militant group to its terrorist list.
The anti-British demonstration, however, included the Union Jack going up in flames. The protest appeared to be reaction to Iran's announcement that it arrested four suspected members of a Kurdish rebel group with a top official allegedly living in Britain.
Outside the former [US] embassy, crowds - including many school children bused to the event - chanted anti-American slogans and taunted effigies of Uncle Sam and President Barack Obama.
But protesters did not burn U.S. flags, which has been a feature of rallies to mark the embassy takeover for the past three decades. It was not clear, however, whether this was officially sanctioned restraint.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, said the absence of burning U.S. flags at the rally could be "a sign of respect" by Iran's leaders.
Former Bush Administration officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett call the State Department's move a "notable turn-around," and provide more historical context:
In early 2009, shortly after President Obama came into office, the United States considered designating Jundallah as a FTO, as a conciliatory message to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In March 2009, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly warned the Obama Administration that Iran had intercepted communications between U.S. officials and Jundallah militants. "Bandits, terrorists, and murders are in touch with American officers in a neighboring country," he said. "[The Americans] say, 'Let's negotiate. Let's start relations.' They have the slogan of change. But where is the change? ...Change has to be real. You change, and we shall change as well."
Nevertheless, we were told that the Obama Administration decided against such a "conciliatory" move in the wake of the Islamic Republic's contested June 2009 presidential election-even though nothing had changed about Jundallah's track record or its plans to carry out future lethal attacks inside Iran. Since then, the perception that the United States continues to have ties to Jundallah and other groups considered terrorists by most Iranians has had a deeply corrosive effect on Iranian assessments of the Obama Administration's seriousness about strategic engagement with Iran and its ultimate intentions towards the Islamic Republic.
The Leveretts noted that there is evidence that the Obama Administration "inherited" from the Bush Administration links to Jundallah, and that the Administration had taken no action to dispel the notion that these links continued.
In April 2007, ABC News reported:
A Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News.
The group, called Jundullah, is made up of members of the Baluchi tribe and operates out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan, just across the border from Iran.
U.S. officials say the U.S. relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or "finding" as well as congressional oversight.
Tribal sources tell ABC News that money for Jundullah is funneled to its youthful leader, Abd el Malik Regi, through Iranian exiles who have connections with European and Gulf states.
Some former CIA officers say the arrangement is reminiscent of how the U.S. government used proxy armies, funded by other countries including Saudi Arabia, to destabilize the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.
In May 2007, the London Telegraph reported:
the CIA is giving arms-length support, supplying money and weapons, to an Iranian militant group, Jundullah, which has conducted raids into Iran from bases in Pakistan.
So this isn't just a question of being rhetorically consistent in US opposition to "terrorism." There is a recent history of specific evidence of active US support for this particular Iranian terrorist group.
It's impossible for the US to "prove" that it isn't supporting Iranian terrorist groups. But the world knows that the US has a system for listing "terrorist groups," and the world knows that it's much, much more problematic for the US to support a terrorist group after it has formally designated it as one. So if the US doesn't list such a group, it's a meaningful signal. And therefore if the US does list it, it's a meaningful signal.
And this proves that the Obama Administration can still do many very useful things to reduce international tensions, even with the "Empire Forever" crowd back in control of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, ever the cheerleader for "Empire Forever," triumphantly crows.