Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ethnicity versus theocracy

Regional, ethnic and religious divisions inside Iran now pose a serious threat to the clerical regime. But the west would be foolish to try to manipulate these domestic tensions for its own political ends, writes John Bradley from Ahvaz

Unrest among ethnic Arabs in Ahvaz (better know among Arabs as Ahwaz most of whom decline to use the Farsi Ahvaz), the capital of the oil-rich Khozestan province bordering southern Iraq, presents Iran with its most serious domestic security threat since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The tension mounts just as discussion in Washington about Iran's myriad internal ethnic and religious divisions reaches fever pitch.

Two men found guilty of a bomb attack against a bank in Ahvaz in January, in which six people died, were publicly hanged from a crane earlier this month where the bombing occurred. Both were from the ethnic Arab community, which makes up a slim majority in the province and has close cultural and tribal ties to Iraqi Arabs across the border. A day earlier, three other Iranian Arabs were executed in a local prison, according to unconfirmed reports. Three more face imminent execution, opposition groups say.

Some 50 locals have been identified as being behind a string of bombings that killed 21 people following anti- government riots in April 2005, Iranian officials have announced. The riots were the result of the ethnic Arabs' fury at a leaked letter attributed to Vice President Muhamed Ali Abtahi -- but strongly denounced by Abtahi as a forgery -- that disclosed "official plans" to expel them from the province, and replace them with ethnic Persians.

At least 20 people were reported killed, and hundreds injured, in the riots. Amnesty International said that security forces summarily executed many of those arrested, accusations also dismissed as false by Tehran. The scale of the riots would probably have escaped international attention had the Arabic- language satellite station Al-Jazeera not managed to get a film crew into the province.

Al-Jazeera was subsequently banned from reporting from Khozestan. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been forced to cancel three trips to Ahvaz at the last minute. The official reason given each time was "bad weather," but it was more likely the result of security threats. One of the worst bombings took place, for instance, just hours before Ahmadinejad was about to give a speech at a mass rally.

"Geographically, the unrest in Khozestan has turned into a very great threat," said Dr Ibrahim Yazdi, a former Iranian foreign minister who now heads the Freedom Movement in Iran opposition party. "It is true that some of the ethnic Arabs there are in favour of independence for Khuzestan, and in the [1991] Persian Gulf War many of them went into the street in support of Saddam," he added. "But the way the Iranian government is handling the current crisis, with further repression, is the wrong policy to adopt."

The vast expanse of arid plains in Khozestan are punctuated by the flaring of gas fires at dozens of oil drilling rigs, which provide Tehran with approximately 80 per cent of its revenues from crude oil production.

Before the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq, the province was among Iran's most developed. When Iraq invaded it in 1980, hoping to take advantage of the chaos following the 1979 revolution and seize the oil fields, then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein portrayed himself as the "liberator" of the Khuzistani Arabs. Although many Iranian Arabs in the border towns did openly support Iraq, the majority elsewhere did not -- possibly because they are almost exclusively from the Shia sect of Islam, which was persecuted by Saddam. Ultimately, Saddam's rhetoric backfired. Rather than divide Iran, he helped unify the country.

Relentlessly bombed by Iraq for eight years, the main cities of Khozestan were decimated, and the province now ranks among the poorest, and least developed, in the country. The capital, Ahvaz, does not even boast a decent hotel; and visitors arriving in the city centre are greeted with the stench of an open, festering sewer next to the main hospital. Drug addiction is also a major local problem: during the evenings, the riverbank is dotted with groups of addicts, who discuss among themselves their progress towards rehabilitation under the supervision of social workers.

Ethnic Arabs complain that, as a result of their divided loyalties during the Iran-Iraq war, they are viewed more than ever by the clerical regime in Tehran as a potential fifth column, and therefore suffer from an official policy of discrimination.

In an impoverished Arab tribal village five kilometres outside Ahvaz, a dozen young Arab men pointed to the oil pipelines that run between their homes, carrying oil from the nearby drilling rigs to refineries near the Persian Gulf coast.

"We don't have any freedom here," said one of them, who works as an engineer at a local oil drilling rig. "We are standing on all of the country's wealth, and yet we get no benefit from it," he added, asking not to be further identified for fear of government reprisals.

The group pointed out that only Farsi is taught in their village school, although all the students are Arab; and that no local Arabic-language newspapers are allowed to be published in the province. They also claimed that they suffer much higher levels of unemployment and poverty than do Persians.

"The government says that we are traitors," added another, who said that -- like most members of his family -- he was unemployed. "But we are Iranians. It is the government in Tehran that is treacherous, because it refuses us equal rights."

Major oil pipelines supplying crude oil to the Abadan refinery on the Persian Gulf coast caught fire a few days after the two Arabs were publicly hanged in Ahvaz, and Iranian officials said they could not rule out sabotage as the cause. The Abadan refinery has a capacity of 450,000 barrels per day, around 30 per cent of Iran's total refining capacity.

Pipelines in Khozestan were previously bombed in September 2005, temporarily disrupting supplies. Last October, Tehran claimed it also foiled an attempt to bomb the actual Abadan refinery following the terrorist attacks in Ahvaz, using five Katyusha rockets with a timer on them. "We know that certain Ahwazi Arab tribal leaders have been politically co-opted and armed by the regime to help guard oil installations. Consequently, they have an in-depth knowledge of the pipeline infrastructure," said Nasser Bani Assad, a spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, which lobbies on behalf Iran's ethnic Arabs and uses the Arabic name for Ahvaz.

"If the current ethnic repression continues, it is possible that some members of these tribes will attack the installations they were meant to be guarding," he predicted.

Disruptions to oil supply in Ahvaz on a scale seen in the Niger Delta will have global economic and political implications, and the latest attacks came as Al-Qaeda shifted the focus of their campaign in the Persian Gulf region to sabotaging oil facilities. A major attack on the Abadan refinery, which represents over a quarter of Iran's refining capacity, or even on the export pipelines from Ahvaz's massive oil fields, would severely disrupt both Iran's oil exports and domestic fuel supplies, according to Assad. He also said that global oil prices would also "shoot through the roof" if what he called "the Ahwazi intifada" does indeed begin to strike with any degree of success Iran's oil industry.

Iranian officials have blamed the rise in violence on exiled separatist groups operating from neighbouring Iraq, but Britain denies offering support to the Arab rebels. Officials are also furious that Britain, Canada, and the US allow opposition groups based there to operate freely. At least 60 Arabic-language opposition radio and satellite television stations are beamed into the province from around the globe.

"These groups incite terrorist acts and inflame the situation by 'spreading false reports'," said Khozestan's deputy governor, Mohsen Farokhnejad.

"Why do these Western governments allow them to do this when they claim to be fighting terrorism?" he asked, while dismissing accusations of discrimination, and pointing out that nine of the province's 17 MPs are ethnic Arabs and that Arabs also hold many senior government positions both in the local governorate and in Tehran.

All the main overseas-based opposition groups have denounced the terrorist attacks. However, one liberal, Tehran- based Iranian analyst, who asked not to be identified, said the most popular group operating from Canada, the National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz that runs the "Ahwaz TV" satellite television station, does seem to advocate armed resistance. It recently listed the names of people it claimed were Ahvazi informants working for the regime, and an individual was murdered as a result, the analyst added. The family complained and proved that the victim was not an informant, leading to an apology from Ahvaz TV. The group advocates a "peculiar combination of religious jihadist ideology with pan-Arabism -- a sort of Ba'athism gone mad," the analyst said.

Only slightly more than half of Iran's 69 million people are Persians. The rest are ethnic Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Baluchis and Lors.

That makes Iran, in the eyes of many observers, not so much a nation-state as a multinational empire dominated by Persians, much as the Soviet Union once was dominated by Russians.

The Islamic Majlis Centre for Research, a parliamentary think tank, recently warned in a report that Iran could face serious internal conflict and unrest unless the government addresses the needs of its ethnic minorities. The report said the country faced two key challenges: poverty among non-Persian ethnic groups living in border areas, and youth unemployment. It stated that various ministries had already issued their own internal studies and reports on ethnic minorities in relation to national security, but suggested that the root causes of the "surge in identity movements" must be addressed.

In addition to Khuzestan, two other remote Iranian provinces have recently witnessed serious unrest among ethnic and religious minorities: Bolochistan and Kurdistan.

In December, guerrillas in the Bolochistan lawless province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, kidnapped nine Iranian soldiers, although seven were subsequently freed. Approximately 2.1 million Iranian Balochis reside here and have long resented the regime in Tehran, claiming the government brutally oppresses and neglects the Balochi population, 35 to 50 per cent of whom are unemployed and most of whom are Sunni.

Anti-Persian and anti-Shiite sentiment pervades the impoverished province. Sunni rebels, who say they number in the thousands and are ready to take on the Tehran regime, are openly calling for US support.

It is here that Ahmedinejad is thought to have escaped an assassination attempt last December, when unidentified assailants attacked his motorcade.

The province of Kurdistan in the north-east, bordering Iraq, has been a scene of sporadic anti-government demonstrations since last June. At least 40 people have reportedly died in clashes with the security forces, while more than 700 have been arrested. The authorities have also closed down a number of Kurdish-language publications. Kurds, who are also Sunnis, have been emboldened by the US-led invasion of Iraq, one of the few successes of which has been the emergence of a semi- autonomous Kurdish region just across the Iranian border.

The intelligence wing of the US marines has launched a probe into Iran's ethnic minorities. Iranian activists involved in a classified research project for the marines told The Financial Times last month that the Pentagon was examining the depth and nature of grievances against the Islamic government, and appeared to be studying whether Iran would be prone to a violent fragmentation along the same kind of fault lines that are splitting Iraq.

The research effort comes at a critical moment between Iran and the US. Last month the Bush administration asked Congress for US$75m to promote democratic change within Iran, having already mustered diplomatic support at the UN to counter Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme.

US intelligence experts suggested the marines' effort could indicate early stages of contingency plans for a ground assault on Iran, according to The Financial Times. Or it could be an attempt to evaluate the implications of the unrest in Iranian border regions for marines stationed in Iraq, as well as Iranian infiltration.

"It would be a very grave mistake for the West to try and interfere in Iran's ethnic tensions," Professor Nasser Hadian, who teaches political philosophy at Tehran University, said in an interview. "It would unleash a wave of Iranian nationalism, and a massive backlash against any minority group seen as colluding with the West," he added.

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