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    Middle East
     Nov 3, 2005
British Arabism and the bombings in Iran
By Mahan Abedin and Kaveh Farrokh

Following the recent bomb attack in Ahwaz and the riots and bombings in late spring, the Iranian government, as well as other sections of Iranian society both inside and outside the country, has pointed an accusing finger at the United Kingdom.

On the surface the accusations seem implausible, not least because they invoke irrational Iranian fears of British guile and omnipotence. However, there is a mass of evidence that connects the British secret state to Arab separatism in Iran.

Whether these connections make the United Kingdom complicit in the recent troubles in Khuzestan is currently unclear. But, at

the very least, the British connection fatally undermines claims that the recent troubles in Iran's strategic southwestern province are either wholly rooted in local conditions or the work of elements in the Islamic republic who seek to "militarize" the country.

British Arabism
An in-depth understanding of the British sponsorship of Arab separatism in Iran requires an understanding of British Arabism in its entirety. Francis Fukuyama, in his description of the American Arabists, opines that they are "... a sociological phenomenon ... Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs, but also the Arabs' tendency for self-delusion".

That tendency for self-delusion is vividly expressed by the main tenets of Arab nationalism, which views all non-Arab Muslim peoples as subsidiary to the Arab language and culture. Moreover, Robert Kaplan observes that psychologically the English-speaking Arabist is "obsessed with the Arabs ... a defining Arabist trait". This psychological process is subsumed under British commercial and political interests. This is vividly exemplified in the case of T E Lawrence, as defined by Kaplan (1993): "Lawrence ... among Arabs in the desert ... became pro-Arab; in Whitehall he was pro-Empire."

British Arabism can trace its origins to geopolitical imperialism, namely the need to project political, economic, and if necessary, military power into Persia. The first official Arabists are Sir Charles Lyall (1845-1920) and William Muit, both civil servants of the British East India Company.

Lyall published works on Arabic literature, including pre-Islamic odes, while Muit wrote extensively about the Arab caliphate. It is difficult to ascertain why they were so keenly interested specifically in Arabic, as Arabic, along with Persian and Sanskrit, had been banned from India's educational system since the 1830s. Another early Arabist was a Cambridge professor, E H Palmer, whose knowledge of Arabic was useful in his role as a secret agent in Egypt, where he died in action in August 1882.

It was in the Arab Bureau of Cairo, however, where British Arabism was formally implemented as a tool for the advancement of British geopolitical and economic interests. The Arab Bureau was set up on February 4, 1916. It was from here that the British coordinated their activities with the local Arab sheikhs of the Persian Gulf.

Their main mission by World War I was to foster an Arab rebellion by way of the invention of Arab nationalism, a domain viewed as a "product" by the British Foreign Office and the Arab Bureau. The primary objective was to accomplish the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Arab nationalism, since the conclusion of World War I, has been encouraged to focus itself against Iran, an ideological proclivity that was taken to its logical extremes by the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein.

Today, the Arab Bureau survives in the form of various innocuous-sounding organizations, namely the Arab-British Center, the CAABU (Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding), the Arab-British Charitable Trust, the Labor Middle East Council, the Anglo-Arab Association and (until 1979) MECAS (Middle East Center for Arab Studies).

While British Arabism has penetrated many sectors of British national life, it is particularly influential in the intelligence, academic and media fields. It is interesting to note that British academic Arabists do not focus on the entire Arab world, which includes Egypt and Libya. Instead, the British academic Arabists have been almost exclusively preoccupied with the eastern Arab world, which is contiguous to Iran (historical Persia) and the Persian Gulf, areas rich in fossil fuels and hence of prime importance to British economic and commercial interests.

To summarize, British Arabism, although a genuine academic discipline and psychological condition, is ultimately a device for furthering British interests in the Middle East. Moreover, the apparent advocacy of Arab issues among British Arabists is selective in three ways:

  • They have remained largely silent (or neutral) with respect to the Arab-Palestinian disputes with the Israelis.
  • They have opposed the formation of a single unified Arab superstate along the lines proposed by T E Lawrence.
  • They actively support anti-Persian views with respect to the role of Persia in the geography, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, history and culture of Islam, the Arabic world, and the Persian Gulf.

    British intelligence and Iranian Arab separatists
    The severing of Iran's Khuzestan province and its "Arabization" has been a long-held British goal. In fact, this policy was made clear in the November 2, 1944 editorial of the Times of London, which proposed Iran's dismemberment by having Khuzestan appropriated by the British.

    To achieve this long-term objective, British Arabists have supported Arab nationalist activities (academic and military) against Iran and in Khuzestan in particular. Needless to say, this plan neatly converged with the ideology and geopolitical aspirations of Arab nationalists, particularly of the Ba'athist variety.

    When Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, with the stated intent of annexing Khuzestan, the BBC news network and English print media, as well as other major Western media outlets, provided full overage of the Iraqi invasion in the first week.

    There were two main premises to the reporting: (a) Iranian resistance would collapse quickly; (b) the Arabs of Khuzestan would fully support the invasion. These premises proved to be utterly unfounded, with Iranian resistance actually stiffening, leading to the permanent expulsion of Saddam's armies from Khuzestan in 1982. The vast majority of Iranian Arabs not only did not support Saddam, but were in fact at the forefront of resistance to the Iraqi invaders.

    The failed Iraqi invasion of Khuzestan (which was partly based on British invasion plans dating back to 1937) has been, to date, the most concerted and determined effort to sever the province from Iran. The fact that it failed was a massive blow to small groups of separatists in the area, and they would have likely faded away had it not been for the patronage of the Iraqi and British intelligence services.

    Although Iranian Arab separatists have had a presence in the UK since the 1970s, their activities became noteworthy after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Working in concert with Iraqi intelligence services, Khuzestani separatists engaged in low-level sabotage operations against Iranian interests in the UK and mainland European countries.

    These sabotage activities reached a dramatic climax on April 30, 1980 when Iraqi-backed Khuzestani separatists seized the Iranian Embassy in London. The subsequent siege lasted for five days, during which time Iraqi agents killed two of the embassy's staff. But the terrorists offered virtually no resistance when Britain's elite Special Air Services stormed the embassy building, killing five out of the six Iraqi agents.

    The dramatic events at the embassy were very much the exception to the rule, as far as British pressure on UK-based Khuzestani separatists was concerned. Indeed, from the early 1980s, the UK has been home to almost all expatriate Khuzestani separatists (with a small number also based in Baghdad), where their activities are tolerated as long as they do not engage in brazen acts of violence on British soil.

    Behind the scenes, however, British toleration in the 1980s translated into active cooperation with the separatists. In some cases, the British even shared separatist agents with the Iraqi intelligence services. In two specific cases dating back to 1985, the British used Khuzestani separatists to infiltrate the Iranian consulate in Manchester and the Iranian Air Force logistics office in the National Iranian Oil Company office in Westminster.

    It is interesting to note that both the Iranian consulate in Manchester and the logistics office were closed down by the British government in 1987. It is unclear whether information supplied by the separatist agents was a decisive factor in the closure of these establishments.

    But the spirit of public toleration and private cooperation collapsed, almost overnight, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Saddam's brazen challenge to the West and Iraq's desire to change the geopolitical balance of the region forced Western intelligence services to cease their cooperation with their Iraqi counterparts. Khuzestani Arab separatists were one of the many victims of this sudden collapse in relations between Iraq and the West.

    The Gulf War of early 1991 and the catastrophic defeat of Iraq further added to the separatists' woes. Today, Khuzestani separatist spokesmen in the UK claim that their cooperation with Iraqi intelligence services ended after the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.

    While it is clearly convenient for the separatists to make such claims, this stance raises far more questions than answers. Firstly, intelligence links (particularly those that are deep-rooted and underpinned by ideological affinity, as in the case of the Khuzestani separatists and the Iraqi Ba'athists) are too complex to be severed so immediately and abruptly.

    Secondly, given that Khuzestani separatism (because of its unpopularity with almost all Iranian Arabs) is only viable when allied to the foreign policy of a powerful state, severing links with the Iraqis would have been followed by patronage by another state.

    But this was not the case. The only other state with the historical motivation, connections and unique resources to consistently support the separatists is the United Kingdom, but evidence strongly suggests that the British authorities dramatically decreased their cooperation after the events of 1990 and early 1991. Indeed, in some cases the British even put up serious obstacles, for instance making it difficult for separatists to travel to countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon to meet with their Iraqi handlers.

    British government opposition notwithstanding, Khuzestani separatists continued to operate in the UK in the 1990s. In many cases they were absorbed by the Anglo-Arab organizations mentioned earlier. While in many cases these organizations are engaged in genuine academic, media and advocacy work, there is little doubt that they are ultimately controlled by the British secret state.

    The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the consequent pressures this has exerted on Iran has made Khuzestani separatism (and other separatist movements in Iran) relevant insofar as it can be used by the West as a pressure point on Tehran. The recent events in Khuzestan are a good example of this.

    Trouble in Khuzestan
    The riots and bomb attacks that occurred in Khuzestan in late spring, coupled with the latest bombing, have been attributed to widely different causes. The Iranian government claims that both the riots and the bombings were essentially the work of foreign elements.

    The Khuzestani separatists in the UK, anxious to deflect attention from separatist violence, pin the blame on elements in the Islamic republic which seek to militarize the country. Both positions suffer from serious flaws.

    Firstly, while the Iranian government is correct to attribute the bombings to foreign elements, it is not being wholly truthful when it dismisses the riots as foreign-inspired. Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan have a number of economic grievances, with roots that may go back decades. These economic woes were sharply exacerbated by the failed Iraqi invasion of Khuzestan, which destroyed the livelihoods of many Iranian Arabs. It would be safe to assume that economic grievances were, at the very least, a factor in the riots of late spring.

    Secondly, the Khuzestani separatist position that the bombings were the work of the Iranian government smacks of clumsily constructed conspiracy theory that does not stand up to even perfunctory scrutiny. The statement by the Khuzestani separatist spokesman that the bombings were either the work of the "Pasdaran or the Basij" immediately discredits their argument, as the Basij and the Pasdaran (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) are effectively the same entity.

    The contention that terrorist organizations do not target their own people is clearly false, as virtually every terrorist organization in the world has victims (in varying degrees) among the people they purports to represent. Furthermore, claims that the Khuzestani separatists are "non-violent" fly in the face of their actual record (the seizure of the Iranian Embassy in London and the killing of two of its employees was clearly not an example of peaceful activism) and is in fact oxymoronic: how can dismembering a nation and producing false historical narratives be achieved by "non-violence"?

    Sources in Tehran are in little doubt that the recent bombings are the work of separatists in Khuzestan who are ultimately controlled by the remnants of the former Iraqi intelligence services. These intelligence services controlled impressive intelligence and sabotage networks in Khuzestan, and it is safe to assume that some of these networks have remained intact since the collapse of the Ba'athist regime in April 2003.

    The motivation behind the bombings is not altogether clear. While sources in Tehran claim that former officers of Iraq's Istikhbarat and Mukhabarat agencies are keen to export the Iraqi insurgency into Iran, it is unclear how this can be done with infrequent and isolated bombings in Khuzestan.

    A more likely explanation is that the remnants of Istikhbarat and Mukhabarat are exacting revenge on Iran for the targeted assassinations of their members since the collapse of the Ba'athist regime. A generally under-reported feature of the troubles in Iraq is the very careful and systematic targeting of influential elements in the former regime by either Shi'ite organizations (in particular the Badr Organization - formerly the Badr Corps - of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) or by covert Iranian operatives in Iraq. The Badr organization has been particularly prolific in this regard, and has recently been accused of even targeting Arab Sunni pilots in the Iraqi air force.

    Iranian allegations that the British government is complicit in this terrorist campaign have as yet not been substantiated by any evidence on the ground. But warming relations between the British government and the very small number of Khuzestani Arab separatists in the UK does raise concerns about the British government's position on this complex situation.

    But it is important to place these concerns in perspective, not least because, contrary to their claims, the Khuzestani separatists have no proper organization in the UK. Their presence is reducible to a few key personalities who run several websites that try to create the impression that there are large socio-political networks behind them. [1]

    What all these websites have in common is the desire to produce a spurious ethnic counter-narrative. To do this the Khuzestani separatists (and their British patrons) amalgamate a series of suppositions, half-truths and myths. All of this is underpinned by the assertion that the Arabs in Khuzestan constitute a majority, yet no valid ethnic statistics have been produced to verify such claims.

    Little mention is made of the fact that Khuzestan is inhabited not only by Arabs but by an array of ethnic groups, including Bakhtiaris, Behbahanis, Lurs in the north, Afshari and Qashqai tribes, and Persians in the major cities.

    Moreover, the separatists' counter-narrative is guided by a very biased selection of information and the retroactive Arabization of Iranian history and civilization. Furthermore, claims that Arabs in Iran constitute a persecuted minority are as false as they are amusing. In fact, since the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Iranian government has gone out of its way to promote the Arabic language (at the expense of Persian) in its drive to "Islamize" Iranian society.

    It is also important to note that Iran's current defense minister, Ali Shamkhani, is an ethnic Arab from Khuzestan. Claims by Khuzestani separatists that the Iranian regime is engaged in the persecution of minorities is particularly strange when one considers the fact that the Islamic republic has shown extreme sympathy for Arab causes both inside and outside of Iran.

    The terrorist campaign in Iran's Khuzestan province is essentially a by-product of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. There can be little doubt that the terrorists are ultimately controlled by insurgent networks in Iraq. There is simply no other rational or convincing explanation for these unusual events.

    Moreover, the deteriorating security situation in Iraq makes it likely that Khuzestan will continue to experience terrorist bombings for the foreseeable future.

    While the Iranian government is keen to implicate the British in the terrorist campaign for obvious propaganda and counter-propaganda reasons, the British have much to answer for their historical connections to Khuzestani separatists. Furthermore, it is clear that the British see the situation in Khuzestan, and the presence of separatists in the UK, as a useful pressure point on the Islamic republic, as the stand-off over Iran's nuclear infrastructure steadily deteriorates into a crisis.

    In the final analysis, Khuzestani Arab separatism does not pose any serious threat to Iran's territorial integrity. The only entity with the overriding ideological and geopolitical motivation to provide significant support to Khuzestani separatists was a strong Iraqi state, and this was blasted away - probably forever - by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    [1] The main so-called "Ahwazi" websites are the following:
  • al-Ahwaz This site has a fancy introduction along with a "national anthem". Their symbols are almost a carbon copy of Ba'athist Party insignia (note the Ba'athist eagle). There is a Persian version of the al-Ahwaz site.
  • The Ahwaz Studies Center purports to be an academic establishment, when in fact it is an anti-Persian site complaining of "ethnic cleansing". This is a dangerous and misleading term - falsely implying violence. For instance, the article on Minoo Island conveniently fails to mention that in any industrial project people are relocated.
  • The London-based British-Ahwazi Friendship Association is a relatively new site and claims as its chairman Daniel Brett, an Englishman. The site is linked directly to the aforementioned Ahwaz Studies Center, the Democratic Solidarity Party of Ahwaz, Ahwaz Human Rights Organization, and al-Ahwaz Television. Interestingly, the site is also selectively linked to other separatist organizations such as "The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan" as well as to the "Iraqi Turkmen Human Rights" organization. Of interest is the "treasurer" of the British-Ahwazi Friendship Association: Mansour Silawi-Ahwazi, who also hosts a separate and particularly amusing site. On this he posted An Arab National Re-Birth Searching for its Identity in an attempt to convey the impression of a separate Arab state since 4000 BC; ie about 4,500 years before the efflorescence of Arab civilization on the Arabian peninsula.

    Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own.

    Dr Kaveh Farrokh has a PhD from the University of British Columbia, specializing in the cognitive and linguistic processes of Persian. He has researched and written extensively on the role of British imperialism in Persia, as well as the pan-Turanian movement. His book, Sassanian Elite Cavalry AD 224-642 was published by Osprey Publishing. He lectures on the history of pre-Islamic Persia at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. A new book encompassing Persia's military and cultural relations with the Greco-Roman world between 553BC-637 AD is due to be released in the fall of 2006.

    (Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

  • How Britain botched the Iran stand-off (Oct 22, '05)

    Britain, Iran playing with Iraqi Shi'ite fire
    (Oct 1, '05)


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