In June 2012, ethnic and sectarian violence erupted in Burma’s northwestern Rakhine state between Rohingya Muslims and the majority Rakhine Buddhists. The spark appears to have been the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, albeit after the murders of ten local Muslims. Unrest spread quickly: within a week more than 30,000 were homeless. By October that number had grown to 100,000. The plight of the Rohingya Muslims and their “genocide” became a cause célèbre in the Muslim world. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), for example, condemned the “ethnic cleansing, killings, rape, and forced displacement” of the Rohingya.
Against the backdrop of growing violence in Syria, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, flew instead to Burma “to raise awareness” of the Rohingya Muslims’ plight. It is against this context that Iran now appears to be involving itself with the Rohingya Muslims. For Iranian officials to remain silent would effectively cede ownership over this populist issue to Sunni powers. Not only does Iran see itself in a sectarian competitor with Turkey, but it also sees the OIC as an extension of this conflict because OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is a close friend to Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül.
Iran’s outreach to the Rohingya, however, should concern Western policymakers. The delegation described in the excerpted article includes the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC). At first glance, the IKRC appears to be a legitimate aid organization: it provides food, fuel, and assistance for the disabled, elderly, and orphans in a number of countries.
However, with assets supplied by the Supreme Leader and many members veterans of the IRGC, the IKRC has in recent years become involved in activities which concern U.S. policymakers. In 2010, for example, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the IKRC branch in Lebanon as a terrorist entity for its aid and assistance to Hezbollah. Given that the Rohingya are not the only Muslim community experiencing unrest in the region—the ongoing Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand has been particularly intractable—any involvement of Iranian officials could ultimately prove detrimental to U.S. interests.
Seldom do organizations such as the IKRC offer assistance and then leave. That Iran’s outreach to Burma’s Muslims coincides with a renewed American and, more broadly, Western diplomatic and commercial engagement there might also have security implications should Iranian authorities use charities they control to exploit and radicalize displaced persons as they have in Lebanon.