On the evening of Oct. 23, part of a gas pipeline facility in the western Iranian city of Shush exploded—one of several recent attacks on Iranian infrastructure near the country’s borders. In contrast to the clandestine campaign of sabotage against Iran’s nuclear facilities, whose perpetrators do not openly claim responsibility—though most suspect it is the work of the United States or Israel—the Shush hit was promptly followed by a press release put out by a group called the “Battalions of the Martyr Mohiuddin Al Nasser.” The group is comprised of Ahwazi Arabs, one of several non-Persian ethnic groups inside Iran who together number at least 40 percent of the Iranian population. Some of these minority communities, which live mostly in the outlying provinces of the country, are restive and have been for years: The regime in Tehran represses their languages and cultures, chokes the local economy, and limits their movement. Increasingly, these groups have been organizing themselves politically and militarily—and some in Washington and Israel could not be more thrilled with the development.
Following the logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a few influential policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv have argued for years that support for the aspirations of non-Persian Iranians—like Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds—would be both morally right and strategically useful as a means to destabilize the regime. Some even see an opportunity to partner with these groups for a ground assault to complement air strikes on Iranian nuclear targets.
Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker in 2008, claimed the Bush Administration had begun a “major escalation of covert operations against Iran” including “support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations.” Citing retired and unnamed intelligence officials, Hersh suggested that the groups were being used to attack Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other regime targets, complementing American covert action against Iran’s nuclear program. (Hersh did not respond to a request for comment on his assertions.)
I recently spoke with two former U.S. government officials who had been involved in Iran policy during the Bush years. They opined that Hersh had blurred actual policy with contingency plans that had not been implemented. They also felt that the Obama Administration has had little interest in such strategies, preferring a more limited focus on the nuclear facilities themselves. These competing assertions should all be taken with a grain of salt. As Israelis say of their own Iran policy: “He who knows, doesn’t talk, and he who talks, doesn’t know.”
But activities in recent months prove that an equally important question is what Iran’s minorities and sympathetic neighboring countries are doing on their own. Extensive reporting from local sources in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states reveals that several countries surrounding Iran are beginning to back the country’s ethnic dissidents as a way of waging a proxy war against the mullahs. In Saudi Arabia, media and clerical elites recently mobilized to raise public awareness about the situation of Ahwazi Arabs, frame their cause as a national liberation struggle, and urge Arabs and Muslims to support them. Saudi donors are providing money and technological support to Ahwazi dissidents seeking to wage their own public information campaign, calling on Ahwazis to rise up against their rulers. The Saudi initiatives, in turn, join ongoing ventures by Azerbaijan and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government to organize and train other dissident groups.
These recently expanded initiatives clearly correlate with the upsurge in violent attacks in Iran’s outlying provinces, pointing to a new campaign reminiscent of what Hersh imputed to the Bush Administration—but with local players in the lead. These players seem poised to escalate in the months to come, whether Americans or Israelis attempt to work with them or not.
Ahwaz as defined by Arabs (as opposed to the Persian designation “Ahvaz,” which is smaller) is a territory the size of Belarus that borders Iraq to the west and faces Saudi Arabia across the Persian Gulf. Some estimates say it is home to 3 million Arabic speakers, though locals claim the number is much larger. The area contains approximately 80 percent of Iran’s oil reserves and nearly all of its gas reserves, as well as a nuclear reactor near the city of Bushehr. Small wonder the regime in Tehran takes harsh measures to discourage separatist tendencies: It has reportedly repressed the study and use of Arabic in Ahwaz—especially hypocritical given that Arabic, the language of the Quran, is otherwise celebrated by the Islamist regime and taught in schools countrywide. It has cut off the population from its Arab neighbors and executed scores of political activists. Locals allege that Tehran is also trying to alter the demographics of the area by moving Persians there, much the way Beijing has exported Han Chinese to Tibet.
Ahwazis who oppose the Islamic Republic call their land “Iranian-occupied territory.” While some dissidents demand greater autonomy and an end to repression, others, such as the National Organization for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz, want an independent state. Though it is difficult to gauge support for particular organizations, it is beyond dispute that a critical mass of Ahwazis are willing to organize against Tehran at risk to themselves. Thousands rioted for four days in April 2005, reportedly instigated by rumors that the government was planning to transfer Arabs out of Ahwaz. They braved live ammunition that killed 20. In April 2011, perhaps inspired by the Arab spring uprisings, thousands more took to the streets in their area; according to Amnesty International, another 27 were killed.
Few Westerners follow these happenings, and for decades, few Arabs did either: The region’s government media and semi-independent satellite channels barely covered it. Arab disinterest may have stemmed from the fact that the majority of Ahwazi Arabs are Shiite, a despised sect to many in the predominantly Sunni Arab world. “But Arab governments have also been afraid of the regime in Tehran,” said Saeed Dabat, an activist with the Movement of Arab Struggle for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz based in Copenhagen. “None of them was willing to rouse popular sentiments for a cause they wanted nothing to do with.”