|Stirring the ethnic pot
By Iason Athanasiadis
TEHRAN - Today's Iran is the latest manifestation of a great and endlessly
undermined Persian empire that once stretched from Iraq to Afghanistan,
embracing a multitude of ethnicities along the way. The Islamic republic that
came into being a generation ago is a microcosm of its imperial past, with
Arabs, Azeris, Bakhtiaris, Balochis, Kurds, Turkmens and Lurs co-existing
alongside the majority Persian population.
But as this month's riots by ethnic Arabs in the southern province of Khuzestan
demonstrated, Iran's multicultural milieu could also be its Achilles' heel, an
open door for foreign opportunists seeking to infiltrate this fledgling nuclear
Iran is particularly vulnerable to foreign penetration in that
non-Persian, non-Shi'ite ethnic minorities inhabit its extremities. Aside from
Khuzestan's Shi'ite Arabs, there are Sunni Balochis in the southeast, Sunni Kurds
and Shi'ite Azeris in the northwest and Sunni Turkmens in the northeast.
areas adjoin countries that are either hostile to Iran's ruling clerics or
contain US troops. The United States has dramatically expanded its presence
in the region post-September 11, 2001, even as it has raised the level of its
anti-Tehran rhetoric. US troops and advisers currently reside in Iraq,
Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Pakistan. At the same time, Tehran
maintains ambiguous relations with neighbors Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan,
Turkey and Iraq, although it is currently on a regional charm offensive and a
pro-Iranian government seems poised to come to power in Baghdad.
Tensions rising in Balochistan
Iraq is already a proxy battleground between Tehran and regional powers Saudi
Arabia and Israel, flashpoint areas for ethnic and other trouble appear along
Iran's edges, too. In the arid southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan,
the Iranian army has been fighting for years a bloody campaign
against organized drug-smuggling networks that run heavily defended
convoys along the heroin route from Afghanistan to Europe.
The province is particularly crucial for Iran's national security in that it
borders Sunni Pakistan and US-occupied Afghanistan. Moreover, its Balochi
inhabitants complain that, as a Sunni minority, they face institutionalized
bias by the Shi'ite state. In addition, they complain of discrimination in the
education they are given, the jobs they can get, and the forms of cultural
expression they are allowed.
Sections of the population claim that a systematic plan has been set in
motion by the authorities over the past two years to pacify the region by changing
the ethnic balance in major Balochi cities such as Zahedan, Iran-Shahr,
Chabahar and Khash. Similar allegations sparked the rioting in Khuzestan this month,
after a letter purportedly signed by Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi
advising that the Arab element in the province be diluted was circulated in
Balochistan, and that US special forces teams have allegedly fanned out into
Iran from Afghanistan.
Though the claim has been strenuously denied by Tehran as much as
Washington, it remains that, three years after the US-backed ousting of the Taliban,
the US military is digging into Afghanistan for a long stay.
Furthermore, Tehran has long been suspicious of a US military presence in the
Pakistani port of Gwadar, fearing that the deepwater facility could be used as
a launching pad for US espionage in Iran and the sponsoring of separatist
meddling in Balochistan.
All this is against the backdrop of a simmering Baloch insurgency against
Islamabad on the Pakistani side of the border, which local officials blame
Tehran for inciting. The construction of a military base housing an army
battalion with heavy weapons, including tanks, on the Pakistani side of the
border has sharpened tensions. It has also been reported that Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence set up a unit in the provincial capital, Quetta,
last year to monitor suspected Iranian activity in Balochistan.
A former Pakistani interior minister was also quoted by the Daily Telegraph as
saying that Tehran's state-controlled radio had launched a propaganda campaign
against Islamabad. "Radio Tehran broadcasts between 90 and 100 minutes of
programs every day which carry propaganda against the Pakistan government," the
former minister said. He added that Iran was suspected of providing financial,
logistical and moral backing for the insurgency. United Press International also
recently quoted unnamed US officials claiming that Pakistani President General
Pervez Musharraf had granted the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) organization
permission to operate from Pakistani Balochistan.
If true, this is sure to escalate tensions between Islamabad and Tehran over
the controversial Marxist-Islamist group that has assassinated several top
Iranian government figures since 1979 and enjoyed Saddam Hussein's protection
until 2003. The MEK are reportedly in talks with Washington, while their
fighters are under US protection in Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
An American spy visits Iran
When Reuel Marc Gerecht climbed into the back of a truck a decade ago at
the start of a secret trip to Iran, he was embarking on a long-cherished
journey into a country that he had spent his entire life until then studying, but
could never visit. He was also rebelling against a career of often numbing
tedium in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), mostly spent at headquarters
or sitting in the US Consulate in Istanbul sifting through Iranian visa
applicants in his search for well-connected intelligence recruits to run inside
In his book Know Thine Enemy , Gerecht penetrates Iran with the help
of an Azeri-Iranian accomplice as he mulls over ways to destabilize its clerical
regime. From cultivating high-ranking Azeris to inciting separatist Kurds to
fostering divisive clerical rivalry between the holy Shi'ite cities of Najaf
in Iraq and Qom in Iran, Gerecht constantly mentally prods methods of
destabilizing the Islamic republic.
In the process, he sheds valuable light on how an intelligence professional
might approach the dismemberment of a hostile country. "I continuously scripted
possible covert action mischief in my mind. Iranian Azerbaijan was rich in
possibilities. Accessible through Turkey and ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, eyed already
by nationalists in Baku, more Westward-looking than most of Iran, and
economically going nowhere, Iran's richest agricultural province was an ideal
covert action theater."
Worried that he would be revealed as an American infiltrator, Gerecht never
made it to Tehran. But his book is a fascinating introduction into the
psychological warfare that intelligence operatives wage. Examining
opportunities for exploiting the ethnic distinction between the Azeris and the
Persians, he looks for "a weak link between Azeris and 'proper' Persians" that
would allow "a case officer [to] slice a man's soul, the regime and conceivably
the country apart".
Gerecht wistfully comments that "a well-constructed program, even if it failed,
could still unnerve the mullahs. Here, covert action needs only to scare - to
let the mullahs know the Great Satan is toying with the idea of tearing Iran
apart. Even the hardcore Iranians know they will lose if the United States
really takes aim. Worldwide Islamic revolution, terrorism or assassination
wouldn't look so appealing if the price were Azerbaijan."
Last week, as violent riots raged in Iran's southern province of Khuzestan
between ethnic Arabs and government forces, another powerful extract from
Gerecht's book came to mind: "An independent or autonomous Shi'ite state in
southern Iraq would have re-energized Iraq's Shi'ites, long docile under
ferocious Sunni rule. The age-old clerical rivalry between Najaf and Qom would
have been reborn. Hostile to the clerical hubris of [ayatollah Ruhollah]
Khomeini's Iran, Najaf's Arabic-speaking mullahs would loudly have debated the
fundamentals of Khomeini's theocratic rule. Dissident senior Iranian clerics
disgusted with Tehran could have repaired to Najaf, as the ayatollah once did
under the Shah. A network of anti-regime clerics could have formed. At minimal
cost to the United States, Washington could have encouraged a Shi'ite civil
What Gerecht did not explore were the effects that a burgeoning rivalry
between Najaf and Qom - coupled with the coming to power of a Shi'ite-majority
government in neighboring Iraq - might have on Iran's Shi'ites, especially the
ethnic Arabs living in the southern province of Khuzestan.
This month's riots gave a tantalizing indication of what a US-backed covert
operation in Iran might look like. After several days of civil chaos, between
five and 31 people were dead with hundreds injured or imprisoned. Iran's
defense minister and the highest-ranking ethnic Arab in government, Rear
Admiral Ali Shamkhani, arrived in Ahwaz to declare that "Iranian Arabs enjoy a
high status in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I assure you any other type of
political system but the Islamic Republic would have sought ways for uprooting
them, just as the ousted Shah's regime moved in that direction".
Under the Shah, who was thrown out in the revolution of 1979, ethnic minorities
were largely ignored and their languages banned as part of a national policy of
stressing the Persian character of the state. In line with the Shah's anti-Arab
policy, Khuzestanis were marginalized and their province was the only territory
not to be named after its ethnic minority, unlike Kurdestan, Azerbaijan and
But the Arabs were not the only ones to be discriminated against. The Kurds
were portrayed as being wild and untrustworthy, an official position that
largely contributed to their taking up arms just five months after the
proclamation of an Islamic republic and at a time when the country was
domestically weak and fragmented.
arrived on a tide of rhetoric about the
reinstatement of justice and equality for the
oppressed Iranian people. Encouraged by the new
approach, the country's ethnic minorities banded
together to form a 30-member committee and went to
Tehran to negotiate with the newly formed Supreme
Revolutionary Council for more rights and even
The government's reaction to their demands was to stress that there are no
nationalistic boundaries within Islam. Talks broke down. When Saddam Hussein
invaded Iran in September 1980 and transformed Khuzestan into a bloody
battleground, the Kurds seized the opportunity to rebel in the north.
Khomeini demanded a "saintly war" against them and the insurgency was quashed
after two years of fighting. In the south, the main theater of the Iran-Iraq
War, several cities in the oil-rich province were laid waste, with the
blasted ruins of Khorramshahr becoming Iran's Stalingrad and a turning point
in the eight-year war of the 1980s. Khuzestan's inhabitants fought bravely
during the war and proved their allegiance to Iran, but today, more than 15
years after the end of hostilities, many feel poorly rewarded, and parts of
their province's infrastructure remain shattered.
They protest that the central government shows no concern for their economic
plight and that the huge profits generated by the province's oil industry and
agricultural sectors are not trickling into the local economy. "We're talking
about the repressed complaints of the [Khuzestani] people," a high-ranking
Iranian official with Arab roots told the Asia Times Online.
"After the end of the war, the government did not carry out reconstruction in
Khuzestan as it did in other provinces. If the government wants to end this
situation now, it can. It can change the governor and invest money in the
Although there is little proof of external interference in the recent riots -
aside from the standard rhetoric about "paid agents" emanating from Tehran - a
failure to address local grievances could allow conservative Persian Gulf
governments to seize a foothold in the region. Already worried over the
prospect of the developing of a Shi'ite arc that stretches from Tehran to
Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, Saudi Arabia and the conservative Sunni sheikhdoms
around it are consulting with Washington on how best to contain Iran.
According to one well-connected ethnic-Arab consultant who spoke to Asia Times
Online, Saudi-funded Khuzestanis are now active in the province, converting
locals to Sunni Islam. "You have right now Saudis penetrating into this region
and for the first time we're speaking about people converting from Shi'ism to
Sunnism because of the money they're being offered and a lack of hope," he
said, citing recent talks with the head of an Arab tribe.
While Saudi agents have been carrying out such a program in Baghdad's Shi'ite
neighborhoods (Qadhimmieh is one example), this latest development marks an
attempt by Riyadh to extend its activities into Iran. The efforts to import
Arab and Sunni nationalism into Iran are a reply to former attempts by Tehran
to export the Shi'ite Islamic revolution to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and
"I doubt that you can destabilize the Iranian regime with Arab discontent in
Khuzestan, there are just not enough of them," said Gregory Gause, director of
the Middle East studies program at the University of Vermont. Arab
discontent "is a problem, but not a regime-threatening one. The Gulf Arabs
could supply money, but little else."
Despite fears in Tehran that outgoing Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi's
US occupation-aligned interim government may have smuggled weapons into
Khuzestan across its long common border, no reports of weapons being used surfaced
during the recent disturbances. "It's a war on two sides," the ethnic-Arab consultant
told Asia Times Online.
"Just as there's a Shi'ite community in northern Saudi, so are the Saudis now
trying to find some footholds inside Iran. Khuzestan is an obvious choice. At
the moment, it's very small scale. They enter with the appeal to pan-Arabism
and slowly they put more pressure on people to convert to Sunni Islam. In the
end, they convert because of political and economic dissatisfaction - it's not
a religious thing yet."
The province is also potentially vulnerable for its mixture of vast
oil supplies and an Arab-Persian demographic imbalance that bears a
striking similarity to Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where an Arab Shi'ite
majority sits atop most of the kingdom's oil supplies and is correspondingly viewed
with suspicion by the Sunni royal family. So sensitive is the Eastern Province
that the Pentagon's military planners drew up contingency plans in the 1970s
to invade it and seize its oilfields in the event that serious unrest or a Soviet
invasion should threaten the integrity of the Saudi monarchy.
Saudi Arabia's Arab Shi'ite minority rioted from November to February 1980 in
the Eastern Province, where they form the majority, a sensitive issue in the
Sunni Wahhabi kingdom. Coming in the aftermath of the seizure of Mecca's Great
Mosque, in the same year, by Sunni fundamentalists and a siege that lasted 15
days, the Shi'ite riots demoralized the Saudi royal family. The tension was
finally defused after the then-Saudi deputy minister of the interior, Amir
Ahmad ibn Abd al-Aziz, drew up a comprehensive plan to improve the standard of
living in Shi'ite areas. While his recommendations were immediately accepted,
plans for an extensive electrification project, swamp drainage, the
construction of schools and a hospital and other infrastructure projects have
only partially been implemented.
At present, Khuzestan and Kurdestan remain Tehran's greatest ethnic separatist
challenge. The province's Arabs are among Iran's least-integrated ethnic
minorities and lack a national hero of the stature of Sattar Khan and Bagher
Khan, who, as Iranian legends of Azeri extraction, played a key role in the
Constitutionalist Revolution of 1906 and in incorporating their communities
into the national body.
The coming to power of an Arab Shi'ite and Kurdish Sunni government in Baghdad
caught the imagination of Iran's ethnic Arabs and Kurds. In Iran's Kurdestan
province, civil disturbances erupted this month when Kurdish celebrations over
Jalal Talabani's appointment to the Iraqi presidency turned violent. With
Israeli military and intelligence personnel widely reported to be active in
Iraq's Kurdish areas, training Kurdish militias and allegedly infiltrating Iran
for intelligence-gathering, Tehran will have to be extremely careful in
policing the mountainous territory between the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish
"The external factor has always had a crucial impact on Iran's ethnic
movements," said Kayhan Barzegar, a professor of Iranian foreign policy at
Tehran's School of International Relations. "Under the new circumstances in
Iraq some people along the boundaries feel that now is the time to try. The
Kurds considered the [Iraqi] electoral success a great victory. In Sanandaj
they're saying that this is a great era, that they must express themselves."
Iran's government is anxious that there is no repeat of the foreign-sponsored,
ethnic-centered republics of Mahabad and Azerbaijan (Kurdish and Azeri,
respectively). Both republics were Russian-backed and short-lived and remain
embedded in Iran's collective memory as unpleasant historical precedents of a
foreign superpower meddling in domestic affairs.
Ultimately, the Islamic Republic is a far more robust country today than when
it took its first faltering steps in the early 1980s. Even were the minorities
to be whipped up against the central government, the Persian majority is
unlikely to be won over by a minority agenda. The removal of a strong Iraqi
government took away the only regional actor that could realistically inspire
Iran's Arabs to revolt or mount covert operations against Tehran.
long as Iraq remains a weak state, Khuzestan's Arabs will not be tempted to betray
their country and throw their lot in with Baghdad. At the end of his trip
to Iran, Gerecht speculates about the possible effects of a US-backed covert
action operation in Iran. "Would we be playing with fire, tempting a geographic
implosion of the Muslim world," he wonders. "Perhaps. But nation-states
don't take shape unless there is a popular will for them. A lavishly
funded CIA covert-action program to tear Brittany from France wouldn't
work. Bretons may hate Paris, but they're French. The same may be true for
Azeris and the Islamic Republic. Still, a little CIA mischief would help the
two make up their minds - while convincingly reminding the mullahs of US
omniscience and power."
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us
for information on
sales, syndication and
All material on this
website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written
© Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times
Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong
11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110