Stirring the ethnic potTEHRAN - 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 power.
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.
All these 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.
Iran's ethnoreligious groups
Tensions rising in Balochistan
While 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 Iran.
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 war."
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 Balochistan.
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.
The revolution 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 regional autonomy.
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.
Ayatollah 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 region."
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 Yemen.
"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 borders.
"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.
As 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."