Who opposes the Iranian regime and why?

Some of these groups are ethnic or religious based and have opposed the regime for decades.

June 7, 2017 17:53
4 minute read.

Attackers raid Iran parliament and mausoleum, up to seven dead (credit: REUTERS)

Attackers raid Iran parliament and mausoleum, up to seven dead (credit: REUTERS)


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As the dust settles after the terror attack targeting two highly symbolic institutions in Iran, the parliament and tomb or Mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, many groups who oppose the regime are taking notice. Some of these groups are ethnic or religious based and have opposed the regime for decades. Some are secular, others religious. What unites them is a loathing for the Ayatollahs and their system of government.

1) Mojahedin-e Khalq

The People’s Mojahedin of Iran, often called MEK, was founded in 1965 and is dominated by the Rajavi family. It combines a unique brand of Marxism and Islamism. Initially supportive of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, the group found itself persecuted by the new regime and went underground and into exile. It launched armed attacks on the government beginning in 1981 under the auspices of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. It carried out armed attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, siding with Iraq, and undertook assassinations. This got it labeled a terror organization by the US and in the EU. However after the US invasion of Iraq, as Iranian influence increased in Baghdad, MEK members and their armed camp in Iraq were attacked. The group’s main center of operations in Europe continues to attract support and it has lobbied successfully to be removed from terror lists, arguing it renounced terror. In 2012 the US removed it from its terror list.

2) Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Sunni Jihadists

Since the 1990s when Al-Qaeda emerged as major Sunni jihadist terrorist group, it has set its sights on Iran. Iran suffered terror from Sunni Jihadists before, but in 1998 the Taliban and Al-Qaeda murdered 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazari Sharif in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda plotted other attacks on religious and civilian sites in Iran. Since 2000 the baton has been passed to other jihadist groups such as Jundullah, and Islamic State. The more extreme Sunni Jihadists hate the Iranian regime because it is Shia and ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban has engaged in attacks on Shia minorities in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They also oppose Iran's involvement in Iraq and Syria.

3) Balochistan

Balochistan, a vast area that spans southeastern Iran and western Pakistan is inhabited mostly by the Baloch minority group which is suppressed in by both countries. There are several million Balochis in Iran and they have opposed the regime in various ways, for instance in the 1980s through the Balochi Autonomist Movement. Some Baloch groups want autonomy or federalism, others are more jihadist in nature. In October 2009 a Sunni Islamist Balochi group called Jundullah attacked Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members in a bombing.  Since 2003 they have killed hundreds in various bombings targeting the regime and civilians.  Other Sunni jihadist groups in the province are also active, including one called Jaish-ul Adl (JAA). In raids in 2015 several Iranian soldiers were killed, as well as several of the militants. Groups such as JAA have carried out numerous attacks which Iran has tried to blame on United States support. Another group called Harakat Ansar Iran is also active. It has killed Basij militia members and bombed a mosque in Chabahar.

4) Kurdish groups

There are around seven million Kurds in Iran living in the east and northeast. Since the 1940s they have been involved in attempts to create a Kurdish state or demand rights within Iran. In 1946 Qazi Muhammad founded the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan or PDKI. They supported the alliance of secular and religious groups that opposed the Shah in 1979 but like most others they soon found themselves suppressed by the new theocracy. In the 1980s the PDKI waged a guerilla war against the regime. Many of their members and leaders, such as Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, were driven into exile and assassinated. In 2016 The PDKI and its current leader Mustafa Hijri announced they would send their peshmerga, including women fighters, back into Iran to combat the IRGC and since then there have been low level clashes. The PDKI partners with other groups through the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran (CNFI).

Kurdish opposition to the regime also includes the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), a group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, a leftwing group. It was founded in 1997 and has waged a low level insurgency since 2004. The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), which has existed since the 1990s, was very active in the war against Islamic State in Iraq. However its men seek to return to Iran to fight the government with the skills they learned on the frontline in Iraq.

5) Women’s rights groups

Since the 1980s women in Iran have been forced to cover their hair and their “modesty” has been policed by religious authorities. During the same period women have attempted in various ways to oppose the regimes policies. Sometimes this takes the form of small acts of protest such as not covering the hair entirely. This has resulted in arrests and harassment. However it has not stopped active social media campaigns such as ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ and attempts to sneak into volleyball matches (from which women are banned).
6) Azeris, Arabs and other minorities

Non-Persian minority groups who face persecution from the regime have banded together under the umbrella of the CNFI to oppose the regimes policies. Their general agenda is a more federal Iran that allows different ethnic groups more rights. The CNFI includes Turkmen, Lurs, Azeris, Kurds, Baloch and others and Arabs from the Democratic Solidarity Party of Al-Ahwaz. Numerous other Arab parties, often with the name Ahwaz in the title, either exist abroad or underground in Iran’s Khuzestan province. They have carried out intermittent attacks against the regime. Bahai and Zoroastrian religious minorities have been jailed and suppressed by the regime since the 1980s.

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