On the evening of Oct. 23, part of a gas pipeline facility in the western Iranian city of Shush exploded—one of several recent attacks on Iranian infrastructure near the country’s borders. In contrast to the clandestine campaign of sabotage against Iran’s nuclear facilities, whose perpetrators do not openly claim responsibility—though most suspect it is the work of the United States or Israel—the Shush hit was promptly followed by a press release put out by a group called the “Battalions of the Martyr Mohiuddin Al Nasser.” The group is comprised of Ahwazi Arabs, one of several non-Persian ethnic groups inside Iran who together number at least 40 percent of the Iranian population. Some of these minority communities, which live mostly in the outlying provinces of the country, are restive and have been for years: The regime in Tehran represses their languages and cultures, chokes the local economy, and limits their movement. Increasingly, these groups have been organizing themselves politically and militarily—and some in Washington and Israel could not be more thrilled with the development.
Following the logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a few influential policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv have argued for years that support for the aspirations of non-Persian Iranians—like Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds—would be both morally right and strategically useful as a means to destabilize the regime. Some even see an opportunity to partner with these groups for a ground assault to complement air strikes on Iranian nuclear targets.
Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker in 2008, claimed the Bush Administration had begun a “major escalation of covert operations against Iran” including “support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations.” Citing retired and unnamed intelligence officials, Hersh suggested that the groups were being used to attack Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other regime targets, complementing American covert action against Iran’s nuclear program. (Hersh did not respond to a request for comment on his assertions.)
I recently spoke with two former U.S. government officials who had been involved in Iran policy during the Bush years. They opined that Hersh had blurred actual policy with contingency plans that had not been implemented. They also felt that the Obama Administration has had little interest in such strategies, preferring a more limited focus on the nuclear facilities themselves. These competing assertions should all be taken with a grain of salt. As Israelis say of their own Iran policy: “He who knows, doesn’t talk, and he who talks, doesn’t know.”
But activities in recent months prove that an equally important question is what Iran’s minorities and sympathetic neighboring countries are doing on their own. Extensive reporting from local sources in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states reveals that several countries surrounding Iran are beginning to back the country’s ethnic dissidents as a way of waging a proxy war against the mullahs. In Saudi Arabia, media and clerical elites recently mobilized to raise public awareness about the situation of Ahwazi Arabs, frame their cause as a national liberation struggle, and urge Arabs and Muslims to support them. Saudi donors are providing money and technological support to Ahwazi dissidents seeking to wage their own public information campaign, calling on Ahwazis to rise up against their rulers. The Saudi initiatives, in turn, join ongoing ventures by Azerbaijan and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government to organize and train other dissident groups.
These recently expanded initiatives clearly correlate with the upsurge in violent attacks in Iran’s outlying provinces, pointing to a new campaign reminiscent of what Hersh imputed to the Bush Administration—but with local players in the lead. These players seem poised to escalate in the months to come, whether Americans or Israelis attempt to work with them or not.
Ahwaz as defined by Arabs (as opposed to the Persian designation “Ahvaz,” which is smaller) is a territory the size of Belarus that borders Iraq to the west and faces Saudi Arabia across the Persian Gulf. Some estimates say it is home to 3 million Arabic speakers, though locals claim the number is much larger. The area contains approximately 80 percent of Iran’s oil reserves and nearly all of its gas reserves, as well as a nuclear reactor near the city of Bushehr. Small wonder the regime in Tehran takes harsh measures to discourage separatist tendencies: It has reportedly repressed the study and use of Arabic in Ahwaz—especially hypocritical given that Arabic, the language of the Quran, is otherwise celebrated by the Islamist regime and taught in schools countrywide. It has cut off the population from its Arab neighbors and executed scores of political activists. Locals allege that Tehran is also trying to alter the demographics of the area by moving Persians there, much the way Beijing has exported Han Chinese to Tibet.
Ahwazis who oppose the Islamic Republic call their land “Iranian-occupied territory.” While some dissidents demand greater autonomy and an end to repression, others, such as the National Organization for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz, want an independent state. Though it is difficult to gauge support for particular organizations, it is beyond dispute that a critical mass of Ahwazis are willing to organize against Tehran at risk to themselves. Thousands rioted for four days in April 2005, reportedly instigated by rumors that the government was planning to transfer Arabs out of Ahwaz. They braved live ammunition that killed 20. In April 2011, perhaps inspired by the Arab spring uprisings, thousands more took to the streets in their area; according to Amnesty International, another 27 were killed.
Few Westerners follow these happenings, and for decades, few Arabs did either: The region’s government media and semi-independent satellite channels barely covered it. Arab disinterest may have stemmed from the fact that the majority of Ahwazi Arabs are Shiite, a despised sect to many in the predominantly Sunni Arab world. “But Arab governments have also been afraid of the regime in Tehran,” said Saeed Dabat, an activist with the Movement of Arab Struggle for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz based in Copenhagen. “None of them was willing to rouse popular sentiments for a cause they wanted nothing to do with.”
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.