Saudis’ Proxy War Against Iran
Ethnic minorities, backed by neighboring Arab countries, are ramping up assaults against the regime in Tehran
Then, last summer, something changed. In June, a young Saudi cleric named Abdullah Al Ya’n Allah, hosting a new satellite TV program called Ahwaz the Forgotten (Al-Ahwaz al-Mansiya), castigated Arabs for ignoring the plight of their brethren living under Iranian occupation. Saudi newspaper headlines began to describe the mistreatment of Ahwazi Arabs. Elaph, a Saudi-backed online magazine, started educating its readers on the history of the “Ahwazi struggle” and covering news from the “front.” The high-traffic, Saudi-backed Al-Arabiya Web site in September gave a platform to a prominent Ahwazi activist, publishing a speech he had given about his cause during a French parliamentary symposium. (English translation here.) And in a country where poetry still inspires a mass audience, popular Saudi poet Nauf al-Mutayri began writing odes to the woebegone province. (In fact, she contacted me out of the blue last month to propose that I too learn about Ahwaz and try to interest Americans in its “liberation.”)
The kingdom has used media in this coordinated way before, most memorably in the 1980s, when broadcasts and publications were enlisted to attract Muslims everywhere to the jihad against Soviets in Afghanistan. The case for a similar, if more modest, project to focus on Ahwaz is clear: Saudi Arabia, a kingdom backed by Sunni Islamist clerics, has long viewed Shiite Iran as its regional rival. It opposes Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria’s regime, which is massacring Sunni rebels. They feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear project, which they believe to be near fruition. Earlier this year, they were also personally enraged following an attempted assassination by the Iranians of a beloved adviser to the king, Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir, in the middle of downtown Washington, D.C.
In addition to pointed daily coverage of the mullahs on Saudi-backed networks such as Al-Arabiya, Saudis are launching new Persian broadcasts to make their case against the regime to the Iranian population. It would seem that by touting the Ahwazi cause within the kingdom, Saudis also want to unleash their people’s prayers, their fighting spirit, and their savings. This week, thanks to Saudi donor Muhammad al-Habdan, the Ahwazis themselves are launching their own TV network, beaming skyward from Riyadh and down to Iran via an Egyptian orbital satellite. Habdan has backed hardline Salafi media in the past; accordingly, a Saudi television producer told me, the new Ahwazi channel is likely to toe a Salafi jihadist line. (Some technical specs about the network have been posted to a corresponding website in English.)
But Saudi support for the Ahwazi opposition is one piece of a larger regional picture. Saudis are also providing more modest funding to non-Arab ethnics in Iran, as are two other neighboring countries. From the Iranian province of Baluchistan, an overwhelmingly Sunni-populated area, a new separatist group announced its establishment on Oct. 11. Ya’n Allah, the Saudi host of Ahwaz the Forgotten, immediately began to publicize the group, both on television and via his Twitter followers. I reached the group’s media director in Bahrain last week. (He goes by Ali al-Mahdi, a name with a Shiite ring to it—a caustic joke for a Sunni militant who speaks about Shiites with great hostility.) He complained of too little backing: “We get support for [families of] martyrs, like from students … $500, $1,000 [at a time]. It’s nothing!” For the first time publicly, Mehdi claimed credit on behalf of his organization for the mid-October suicide attack near a mosque in southeastern Iran. “If we get [more] support,” he said in response to a question about Gulf donors, “you will see Baluchistan on fire,” he said, “like Syria and Afghanistan.” He added that if Iran makes good on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, his group will attack the free port of Chah Behar, a key transit point for Chinese, Russian, and North Korean ships, so that Iran loses all southeasterly access to the seas.
Meanwhile, as Tel Aviv University’s Ofra Bengio noted last month, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government now provides Iranian Kurdish opposition groups with a safe haven and the freedom to organize, train, and access Iran across its porous eastern border. Thanks to the KRG’s warm relations with the United States and Israel, the area may also have served as a connecting point for talks and cooperation between the two powers and Iran’s Kurds (or play such a role in the future).
As for Iran’s Azeri population, it is better-integrated into Tehran’s power structure than the other groups—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is Azeri himself—and therefore less likely to form a serious separatist movement. But this has not stopped the neighboring government of Azerbaijan from hoping otherwise: A parliamentary resolution was introduced this year to rename the country “North Azerbaijan,” implying that a “South Azerbaijan” should be carved out of northern Iran. The government’s present relations with the United States and Israel have never been better and hostility toward Iran never greater. Aside from the interest in its own co-ethnics in Iran, Azerbaijan also sponsors nationalistic Arabic TV programming and beams it into Ahwaz. (The larger context of Azerbaijani activities against Iran has been described elsewhere.)
The low-grade assaults this year perpetrated by ethnic minorities receive considerably less coverage than cyber-initiatives like Stuxnet and the assassination of nuclear scientists, but they nonetheless contribute to the bleeding of the regime. This regional proxy war, now escalating, is morally questionable: Should ethnic groups’ legitimate political aspirations be exploited for other purposes? Should attacks on civilian targets, such as mosques, ever be sanctioned? It is also strategically questionable: Will some of these dissidents go on to support a radical agenda and attack the West? Is the fragmenting of Iran into several states in the long-term interest of the region and the United States.? For all its tradeoffs, it belongs in both the public discussion and the quieter conversations about our next steps on Iran policy.
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