The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz has claimed credit for the recent terrorist attack at a military parade in Iran’s Khuzestan Province that killed 25 people and wounded 60. It should surprise no one that this occurred in the heavily Arab province. Separatist Arab groups have regularly struck at the clerical regime, killing regime officials, allied locals, and civilians, like reported by weeklystandard.com.
An autonomous region until the coming of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who squashed independent tribal confederations throughout Iran in the 1920s, Khuzestan is oil-rich but poor. Although Sunni Arabs may be on the cutting edge of anger against the central government, many Shiites, who are the overwhelming majority of the Arab denizens of the region, appear to be similarly inclined to remonstrate violently against their Iranian overlords. As in Iraq, where Shiite Arabs are becoming more openly hostile to Iranians and the Iraqi militias allied to them, the ancient “Arab-Ajam” divide in Persia can transcend Shiite fraternity.
In modern times, Iran has had a stubborn, often violent minorities problem that goes far beyond the Arabs. Kurdish leaders and oppositionists have been assassinated at home and abroad, most famously by an Iranian hit team at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. Periodically, large swaths of Iranian Baluchestan become no-go areas at night for Iranian security forces, especially when a fierce localism overlaps with the drug trade that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tries more to control than stop. Ethnic clashes often go unreported and misreported in the Western press. We really don’t know the exact ethnic balance in Iran—census figures in the Middle East, a region of fragile national and competitive religious identities, should never be trusted.
The clerical regime rules over many obstreperous peoples that might well bolt if they were allowed to do so: the Baluch of southeastern Iran, the Kurds of the northeast, the Arabs of the southeast, and even possibly the Turkish-speaking Azeris, who may represent as much as 25 percent of the country’s population and dominate the four provinces of Iranian Azerbaijan and the southern environs of the national capital, Tehran. When appropriately Persianized, Azeris move easily within the clerical regime’s elite, and yet “proper” Iranians when among themselves never fail to distinguish who is Irani and who is Turk. Azeris exercise the same precision. And religious differences often sharpen these ethnic/linguistic divisions: The Baluch are overwhelmingly Sunni and the Kurds are probably majority Sunni. The Iranians de souche—the inhabitants and descendants of the Iranian plateau, Parsa in Old Persian—may even be a minority in the lands that now comprise the Islamic Republic.
“Proper” Iranians, of course, want to believe that Persian culture transcends all the divides. The Persian language and literature and the pride that went with them withstood the 7th-century Arab invasion and its magnetic tongue, eventually absorbing most of the Arab settlers into the Persian oikumene. Then appeared the Turks, who first came as slave soldiers and then as all-conquering horse-mounted dynasties. The centripetal eminence of Persian culture absorbed them, too. Ditto the Mongols. (The stunning survival of Persian as a spoken and written language deserves comparison to that of English, another indefatigable and innovative language.)
For the Iranians de souche, the geography of modern Iran is settled. Any ethnic irredentism is illegitimate if it threatens the sovereignty of the boundaries that have held since Persians stopped losing territory to Russians in the early 19th century. Go into any Western foreign-language broadcasting company—for example, the BBC or Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty—and watch the Persian service eye Azeri broadcasters warily. When Azeri journalists try to get footage of Iranian Azerbaijanis illegally singing Azeri nationalist songs at soccer matches in Iran onto Persian-service broadcasts, the reception isn’t warm. It isn’t hard to find Iranian Azeris in former Soviet Azerbaijan willing to talk about the Persian heavy-handedness that they endure. Hang out with Iranian expatriates campaigning for democracy and human rights in their homeland and they can get cagey quickly when it comes to the right of self-determination for the minorities of the Islamic Republic. Iran may be the last of the great Middle Eastern empires but for Persians, a prideful people, it is an indissoluble nation-state.
The accusations of the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the attack in the city of Ahvaz—blaming the Saudis, the Israelis, and behind them the Americans—are a good example of the geographic paranoia that Iranian officials can often indelicately express. Although the regime has become adept at certain kinds of self-criticism so long as nothing cuts too deeply (the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has certainly turned criticism of his underlings into an art form), this disposition stays far away from questions of ethnicity. Acknowledging some corruption, police brutality, even the occasional ugliness of some sharia law practices (child marriage remains a hot button in Iran) is acceptable; confessions about heavy-handed bigotry against the Kurds, Arabs, Baluch, or Azeris are verboten.
To be fair to Zarif: It’s certainly possible that the Saudis had a hand in this attack. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has said that he wants to fight Iran inside Iran. It is far more likely, however, that Khuzestani Arabs who hate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps undertook this mission without Saudi guidance and support. Historically, Khuzestani Arabs have had sufficient group identity and anger at Tehran to generate militant underground organizations. They don’t need Saudi help to pull off such operations. The Guard Corps, the target of the Ahvaz attack, is the primary outfit enforcing the writ of the clerical regime. More than any other Iranian security service, it’s the guards who thump on the minorities when they organize or express themselves too independently. It is the corps that has done the heavy lifting in Syria, where Iran has been on the cutting edge of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs and driven millions from their homes and homeland. In Iraq, in the deep Shiite south that revolves around Basra, the natives have been openly damning the influence of the Revolutionary Guards and their proxies. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the opening of the Iran-Iraq border, Mesopotamian Arabs have again become kissing cousins. Iranian intrusion into Iraqi society likely has an obverse that has so far gained little attention.
It may only be a matter of time before the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Israelis start thinking programmatically about ways to make Iran’s ethnic divisions bloody fissures. Iranian Shiite imperialism—the willful use of religious sectarianism to extend Tehran’s influence throughout the Middle East—is deeply threatening to the Sunni Gulf monarchies, and to Israel because of the clerical regime’s implacable hatred of the Jewish state. (Anti-Semitism is creedal among Iran’s revolutionary elite, especially the Revolutionary Guards.) Given Iran’s development of a deployable foreign legion comprised of Shiite Arabs, Afghans, and Pakistanis, given its ever-improving missiles, given the continuing development of easily concealed advanced centrifuges, given the military alliance between Tehran and Moscow and the retrenchment of American power, Sunni Arabs and the Israelis will certainly try to find new, ideally low-cost, means to check, or at least harass, the clerical regime. With Tehran having used the Shiite and militant Islamist cards against the Sunni monarchies and everyone in the Middle East thinking about ethnicity and identity every waking hour, it would be natural for the Gulfies and the Israelis to explore the possibilities of turning ethnic pride against the Persians, hoping that internal discord will weaken the clerical regime abroad.
That may be bad analysis: Legitimacy denied at home, be it among Iranians de souche or the minorities, may lead Tehran to seek greater legitimacy elsewhere, especially in its sectarian foreign mission and the continuing struggle against Zionism. But if Iran did experience substantial internal discord (and ethnic disquiet can easily play into the larger, nondenominational Iranian distaste for theocracy), then it could paralyze the central government. A small-scale version of this—the aftershocks of the nationwide December demonstrations, the American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the scary Donald Trump “he-might-just-bomb-us” factor—may have temporarily paralyzed Iranian foreign policy on the nuclear issue. It may well have caused Khamenei so far to avoid unleashing allied Arab militias against Americans in Iraq.
It costs little for Saudi Arabia and Israel to investigate how to support “national” grievances inside the Islamic Republic. It’s a decent guess that if Persian nationalism is rising in the Islamic Republic (and the increasing rot of the revolution’s Islamic idealism appears to be amping-up the non-Shiite part of the Persian identity), its ascent may well increase the national consciousness of Iran’s other peoples. Call it complementary friction. And dream up all the worst-case scenarios of Iran fracturing along ethnic lines or just exploding violently in a spasm against the mullahs, and it’s hard to see how any of these eventualities are bad for Saudi Arabia or Israel. Loose nukes would be a problem, but the clerical regime without the JCPOA is still years out from developing atomic weapons. A vengeful Revolutionary Guard military operation aimed against the Saudi oil industry undoubtedly would worry Riyadh, but such attacks would immediately trigger the U.S. Navy, which could be life-threatening for the Iranian military. The clerical regime probably isn’t stupid enough to allow its outrage to open itself up to American firepower.
The Saudis do have to fear Iranian mischief among the Saudi and Bahraini Shia. But the Iranians haven’t been passive bystanders in attempts to exploit enormous Shiite grievances against the Sunni royal families in the peninsula. Saudi and Bahraini security services appear to have gotten pretty good at handling Shiite unrest and Persian mischief—better than Iranian services currently trying to squelch violent discontent among Iran’s Arabs. In Saudi Arabia, the government has literally built walls and trenches around the towns where Shiite radicalism and rebellion may have taken hold in the Eastern Province. Whether from the bold, reckless temperament of the Saudi crown prince or a larger consensus within the royal family that traditional Saudi timidity towards Iran is no longer viable, Riyadh just might have the guts (or the hubris) to think that it can go head-to-head against the Islamic Republic in covert operations.
But reality will likely intrude into any Saudi, Emirati, and Israeli gaming of possible ethnic tumult. Beyond sending money to insurrectionists in Iran, which isn’t hard, Riyadh and Jerusalem may discover that there really isn’t much potential in such projects. Covert logistics is always a pain in the tush. With the possible exception of the Arabs in Khuzestan, Iran’s minorities are pretty hard to reach efficaciously. Arming Iranian Kurds, for example, when Iraqi and Turkish Kurds may not want to be helpful (intra-Kurdish politics are fluid, mind-bending, and, for everyone involved, frustrating) would be challenging. The Pakistanis—that is the Punjabis, Sindhis, and Pashtuns who dominate the Pakistani military and intelligence services—have zero reason to aid Baluch separatism in Iran given the spillover potential in Pakistan. And we have seen no evidence that the Azeris, the Achilles’ heel of the Iranian regime, want to make their grievances violent. The Sunni Gulfies and the Israelis could try the “shit-against-the-wall” theory of covert action—keep trying things until something sticks. But that could lead to just sending money, which would probably rule out the Israelis, who run the cheapest foreign intelligence service in the West.
Which brings us to the Americans and the speculation that the Trump administration might try something beyond sanctions to heighten internal unrest in Iran. By far, Washington is the weakest player in this mix, since the age of lethal covert action—barring another national trauma on the scale of 9/11—is over. Even if the Trump White House wanted to, and there is scant evidence that the president has any intention of adopting a muscular containment or regime-change strategy against the clerical regime, any lethal covert action would require the buy-in of both the leaders of the national-security establishment and the bipartisan leadership of the concerned committees on Capitol Hill. That isn’t likely. Defense secretary James Mattis would have no part of this, and Democrats would leak like crazy, effectively killing any program. There are lots of good reasons why the United States shouldn’t support a clandestine policy of ethnic friction in Iran (American interests and ideals do not align perfectly on this issue with the Israelis’ and Saudis’), but those reasons are irrelevant given the larger reluctance of the Trump administration, particularly the White House, to commit itself to a meaningful containment policy.
Once upon a time, Washington had a pretty solid bipartisan consensus on the Islamic Republic. Differences of opinion and style certainly existed, but the kind of strategic approach advanced by Barack Obama—a sustained attempt to draw near the Islamic Republic, which led in 2009 and 2010 to willful distancing between Washington and the millions of protesters who’d hit the streets in Tehran against tyranny and in 2015 to a short-term nuclear deal that guaranteed the theocracy a vast nuclear-weapons-capable infrastructure—would have been unthinkable. The most determined and “successful” American president on Iran policy since 1979, Obama, sensing that unsatisfying wars had opened new possibilities, shattered fundamental attitudes about the Islamic Republic and the bipartisan will to resist Iranian aggression. What is striking is that Donald Trump, who also exuberantly ran on a foreign policy of retrenchment, has halted, for now, the Republican retreat on Iran. Republicans remain, more or less, where Republicans and Democrats were in 1996, after Tehran bombed the American military in Saudi Arabia at Khobar Towers. This could change rapidly, of course, if the president flipped. Although Trump is adjectivally incontinent, his recent tweet about Iranian president Hassan Rouhani being “an absolutely lovely man” leaves open the possibility that Trump could follow Obama.
The Iranian regime, however, isn’t likely to work through the covert-action limitations of its enemies. The paranoid ruling elite, always thinking that the Americans, the Gulfies, and the Israelis are driving their internal problems, will likely crack down even harder on the minorities since they may fear that a bit of foreign aid could make the volcano explode. Can the Islamic Republic’s security services keep a lid on all the unrest? A betting man would say “yes.” They have survived severe tests by mixing extreme brutality, bribery, controlled elections, and clever neglect to neutralize popular disgust from effectively organizing against the theocracy. But a perfect storm may be brewing in Iran. “Proper” Persians are in an agitated state. So, too, it’s a decent guess, are the peoples of the Iranian periphery.