Nuclear Agreement Overshadows Arab Unrest in Iranian Khuzestan

The accord recently struck between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1) represents a watershed in Middle East diplomacy. The culmination of almost two years of negotiations, the deal outlines a plan to lift most international economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for its agreement to forego any pursuit of nuclear weapons and to accept other limits on its nuclear program. The implications of Iran’s return to the international fold for geopolitics, Iran’s overall strategic posture and domestic political situation and global energy markets have been extensively analyzed and debated. Also important, however, is the agreement’s potential impact on Iran’s precarious ethnic and sectarian minority dynamics.

Given the opposition to the nuclear agreement from many Arab Persian Gulf states, the current position of Iran’s ethnic Arab minority population in the country’s southwestern province of Khuzestan merits consideration. This was underlined by a series of attacks in recent months against Iranian security forces and other targets in Khuzestan claimed by ethnic Arab militants affiliated with the Harakat al-Nazal al-Arabi li-Tahrir al-Ahwaz (Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz—ASMLA) (YouTube, May 17; al-Arabiya, April 2; Press TV, April 2; Ahwazna.net, April 1). The Arabs of Khuzestan are known as the Ahvazi (Ahwazi in Arabic) and have endured various forms of abuse and repression by the state on account of their ethnic and cultural identity. Significantly, the vast majority of Iran’s proven oil reserves—between 80 and 90 percent—are located in Khuzestan. Consequently, any volatility in Khuzestan will become increasingly relevant as foreign oil firms contemplate their much-anticipated return to Iran’s energy sector (Financial Times, July 16).

In April, the ASMLA announced what it called an “unprecedented escalation” in its armed campaign against Iranian security forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Basij paramilitary units and other targets that represent the state, on its network of official websites and social media platforms (Ahwazna.net, April 1; Twitter, April 1). On April 2, the ASMLA’s armed wing, the Mohieddin al-Nasser Martyr Brigades, attacked a police checkpoint in Hamidiyeh, approximately 16 miles west of the provincial capital Ahvaz, killing three police officers and wounding two others (al-Arabiya, April 2; Press TV, April 2). Iranian authorities later announced that they had detained the perpetrators of the April attack (Press TV, April 22). The ASMLA also claimed responsibility for a May 16 attack against the governor’s office in Susangerd, located about 40 miles northwest of Ahvaz. The attackers used homemade explosives and small-arms fire. Video footage of the operation was shared by the ASMLA online (YouTube, May 17; al-Arabiya, May 17). The number of casualties resulting from the May attack is uncertain. These attacks fit the pattern of previous operations executed by the ASMLA and other Ahwaz militant currents in Khuzestan (See: Terrorism Monitor, January 23, 2014).

The attacks occurred amid a backdrop of heightened tensions in Khuzestan in recent months. The March 14 self-immolation of an Ahwazi street vendor, Younes al-Asakirah, in Khorramshahr to protest against what he saw as the unlawful confiscation of his wares by the authorities sparked a wave of protests across Khuzestan. Ahwazis who attended al-Asakirah’s funeral used the occasion to direct their ire against the government. The ensuing crackdown by the security forces resulted in scores of arrests and the imposition of other repressive measures (Middle East Eye, March 26). In another incident, at a May 17 soccer match between the local Foolad Khuzestan team and the visiting al-Hilal team from Saudi Arabia, some Ahwazi fans reportedly chanted anti-government slogans couched in Arab nationalist rhetoric, while other fans showed their support for the visiting al-Hilal squad on account of its Arab origin (al-Arabiya, May 18).

Between two and four million Ahwazis reside in Khuzestan; estimates of the Ahwazi population can be smaller or larger depending on the political persuasion of the source. Despite residing amid tremendous oil wealth, Ahwazis suffer from severe poverty, underdevelopment and environmental degradation, as well as social, political and cultural subjugation due to their Arab identity (Human Rights Watch, April 29). Many Ahwazis believe that their predicament is the product of a calculated effort to emphasize the Islamic Republic’s Persian character at their expense, even though the majority of Ahwazis are Shi’a Muslims. These circumstances have provided a fertile ground for the spread of secessionist and nationalist impulses among many Ahwazis over the years.

Central to the Ahwazi national cause is a discourse of historical grievance and sacrifice, and the ASMLA draws from a long tradition of Ahwazi separatist activism. For example, its armed wing, the Mohieddin al-Nasser Martyr Brigades, draws its namesake from Mohieddin Shaykh Nasser al-Kaabi Humaidan, one of the founding leaders of the Arabistan Liberation Front (ALF). Founded in 1958, the ALF sought the establishment of an independent “Arabistan”—Ahwazis and pan-Arab nationalists often refer to Khuzestan as Arabistan, the largely Arab territory that enjoyed a period of limited self-rule during different eras of history—and hoped for its eventual unification with other Arab lands. The ALF was steeped in the pan-Arab nationalist ideology advocated by Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser. However, Mohieddin al-Nasser was arrested in 1963 for his involvement in irredentist and separatist politics, and was executed in 1964 along with other leading ALF figures (National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz, August 3, 2001). The Ahwaz nationalist movement also leverages a sophisticated political activist network, and the Ahwazi diaspora and sympathetic activist organizations in Europe and beyond regularly advocate on behalf of the Ahwazi cause. In July, for example, protesters gathered at the London headquarters of Iran’s National Oil Company to draw attention to the plight of the Ahwazis (YouTube, July 3).

Iran has accused the ASMLA and other ethnic Ahwazi activist and militant organizations as serving as proxies for enemies of the Islamic Republic. In particular, the historical links between Ahwazi militants and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq continues to shape Iranian perceptions of its Arab population. The rhetoric and actions of Ahwazi militants are likely to feed Iran’s suspicions. The ASMLA has embraced similarly motivated activist movements that purport to act on behalf of Iran’s ethnic Kurdish, ethnic Baloch and other minority communities, including violent insurgent groups. For instance, a statement issued by the ASMLA in May threatened that its future military operations will be coordinated with ethnic Baloch and ethnic Kurdish insurgents (al-Sharq [Dammam], May 15). The claimed establishment of a virtual “joint media center” between Ahwazi and Baloch national causes in Iran also raises another set of questions about the level of coordination—real or otherwise—between violent opposition movements operating in Iran (Twitter, July 5).

The ASMLA has also praised Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations for devoting more attention to the Ahwazi cause. The ASMLA has also declared solidarity on behalf of Ahwazis with Saudi Arabia and other countries involved in Operation Decisive Storm to repel the advances of Zaydi Shi’a Ansar Allah (Supporters of God, a.k.a. the Houthis) in Yemen and what it describes as Iran’s “destructive interference” in Arab affairs (Ahwazna.net, April 1). For Iran, an opinion column penned in March by prominent Emirati businessman Khalaf Ahmed al-Habtoor vindicates its worries about the intentions of its Arab rivals regarding Khuzestan. Titled “Arab Ahwaz Must be Liberated from Iran,” al-Habtoor echoes the claims of injustice made by Ahwazis and calls on Arab countries—and especially the Gulf Cooperation Council—to support the Ahwazis’ demands for independence by, among other things, providing billions of dollars of direct aid. He also suggests that the return of an independent “Arabistan” would sever Iran’s access to oil revenue (al-Arabiya, March 29). A series of meetings between Ahwazi activists and U.S. officials, disclosed by Wikileaks, is also likely to have raised alarm bells in Tehran over the extent of foreign influence in Khuzestan (Wikileaks, January 14, 2007; Wikileaks, December 6, 2006; Wikileaks, June 13, 2006; Wikileaks, May 8, 2006; Wikileaks, April 4, 2006).

The strategic repercussions of any further rebellion and upheaval in Khuzestan carry far-reaching implications for Iran, regional stability and global energy markets. The ASMLA has previously targeted energy infrastructure, and any future foreign investment in Khuzestan’s energy sector would likely represent a high-value target for Ahwazi militants. Meanwhile, Iran’s traditional rivals in the Middle East are also likely to continue to view the Ahwazi cause as a lever in which to check or otherwise threaten Iran, even as the shifting global diplomatic climate becomes more favorable to the Islamic Republic.

Chris Zambelis is a Senior Analyst specializing in Middle East affairs for Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.