COLOR MAP of Iran’s ethnic groups and oil fields:
As their forces are increasingly bogged down in Iraq, George W. Bush and Tony Blair are laying the groundwork for their next military expansion, next door in Syria or Iran.
Their confrontation with Iran, in particular, has long been in the cards. Three years before the invasion of Iraq, the Project for the New American Century asserted that Iran “may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has.”
When the U.S. media reports on the growing confrontation with Iran, it invariably focuses on Tehran’s nuclear program, Iranian leaders’ verbal sparring with Israel, and how both outside challenges are strengthening the hand of Iranian “conservative” hardliners against “moderate” reformers.
Yet little attention has been paid to the potential role of ethnic minorities in the Iran crisis, particularly of the Iranian Arab minority, centered in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. Events in the oil-rich province bordering Iraq could serve as a harbinger of U.S.-British intentions in Iran, and expose Khuzestan as Iran’s Achilles Heel. Recently, a series of bombings and ethnic clashes has begun to show that something is rotten in Khuzestan, which could be an early warning of a coming war.
Last June, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter warned that the U.S. is building up military capabilities in Azerbaijan, on Iran’s northern border, and sponsoring rebel bombings inside Iran. The obstacles to a full-scale invasion of Iran would at first glance appear to be formidable. As Ivan Eland has observed, “invading Iran would likely make the bloody quagmire in Iraq look like a picnic. Iran has nearly four times the territory and three times the population of Iraq. Also, Iran’s terrain is much more mountainous than Iraq’s and even more ideal for guerrilla warfare.”
Yet if ethnic tensions in Khuzestan province can be effectively exploited by the U.S. and Britain, they may feel that a more limited destabilization or invasion will put Iran’s main oil province under Western control. In other words, the prospects of an invasion may loom larger, simply because Bush thinks it can be a “mission accomplished” with less effort than an all-out conquest of Iran. Bush and Blair use the prospects of civil war to justify their continuing occupation of Iraq (though their actions instead appear to be stimulating an Iraqi civil war). They are also not above stimulating a little ethnic strife to get their way next door in Iran.
Think of Khuzestan as a “Kuwait-Inside,” with most of Iran’s crude oil deposits contained within the small province. Like in Iraq, Nigeria or Colombia, much of the oil is under the lands of a historically aggrieved ethnic minority. The Arab Shi’ites living on the plains of western Khuzestan share both their ethnicity and faith with the majority Arab Shi’ites across the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway in Iraq. Arabs make up only 3% of Iran’s population, but a majority (or at least a plurality) of about 3 million in Khuzestan (which some Arabs call “Ahwaz” or “Arabistan”). Iranian-speaking Luri and Bakhtiari tribes inhabit the Zagros mountain range to the east. Persians also live in the large provincial cities, such as Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz, Dezful, and Bandar-e Khomeini.
A Key Pivot
For centuries, Khuzestan has been a key pivot of Iran’s history and economy. Khuzestan was the seat of the ancient civilization of Elam, with its capital at Susa. It was overrun by numerous civilizations and tribes, including the Persian Empire in 539 BC, and often functioned as a frontier zone between empires. Arabs from Basra colonized the province in 642 AD, though it usually has been formally controlled by Persia.
In 1897, the British Empire backed Khuzestani Arab rulers to secede from Persia and become the de facto British protectorate of “Arabistan” (much as the British did in neighboring Kuwait). The entire southern zone of Persia was declared a British “sphere of influence” in 1907, and the following year a British adventurer discovered oil in “Arabistan,” at Masjed Soleyman. The discovery created the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed British Petroleum (BP). In 1925, Reza Shah’s forces retook “Arabistan,” and renamed it Khuzestan, as he renamed “Persia” as Iran a decade later.
British troops occupied Khuzestan during World War II, but after the war Iranians grew more concerned that Westerners had a stranglehold on their oil wealth. In 1951, the Iranian nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry based mainly in Khuzestan (including Anglo-Iranian’s holdings), drawing the wrath of Western powers. Two years later, a CIA-engineered coup ousted Mossadegh, and installed the new Shah Reza Pahlevi, who opened Khuzestan to a U.S.-British oil concession.
In 1978, Arab oil workers in Khuzestan went on strike against the Shah, and played a central role in the Iranian Revolution that toppled him the following year. They openly supported the revolution in its early months, when it included leftist and other secular parties (that were later crushed by the Islamic Republic). Encouraged by Western powers that were threatened by the revolution, Saddam Hussein launched a brutal invasion of Khuzestan in 1980, and occupied its western Arab oil region. He tried to engineer the secession of the province from Iran, and backed an Arab separatist rebel group (which also briefly seized the Iranian Embassy in London).
Yet in the Iran-Iraq War, most Iranian Arab Shi’ites fought on the side of Persian-ruled Iran, just as Iraqi Arab Shi’ites fought on the side of Saddam’s Sunni-ruled Iraq. State territoriality trumped both ethnic and religious territoriality, in a massive slaughter complete with trench warfare and “human wave” attacks, aerial bombing and missile strikes, and the use of chemical weapons on both sides. Iranian forces pushed the Iraqis out of Khuzestan in 1982, but the province’s cities and oil refineries were the most heavily damaged in the war, that finally ended in 1988. (The U.S. had cynically had supplied aid to bleed both sides, including a naval intervention to escort vessels carrying Iraqi oil, and the sale of missiles to the Iranians.)
[See map here.]
Iran remained neutral during the 1991 Gulf War, which was waged within earshot of Khuzestan. After the war, the U.S. allowed Saddam to crush an Iraqi Shi’ite rebellion next to Khuzestan, in fear that a Shi’ite-majority ruled Iraq would become a satellite of Tehran. Yet although Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani was born in Iran–and the holiest Shi’ite cities of Karbala and Najaf are within Iraq–the Iraqi Shi’ite clerics do not generally favor an Iranian-style theocratic state that might alienate their youth from the religion.
Tehran opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, even if it was glad to see Saddam’s capture. The contrast in U.S. and Iranian policy stands as a textbook case of the advantages of a political strategy over a military strategy. Washington invaded Iraq, lost at least 2,000 troops, was bogged down by a growing insurgency, and saw its influence (and its favored exile candidates) rejected by Iraqis. In contrast, Tehran watched as its second-greatest enemy eliminated its greatest enemy, advised its Iraqi allies to play along with the occupation so their candidates could run in elections, then saw the Shi’ite parties come to power–all without firing a shot.
In 2005, the conflict between Iraqi Shi’ites and the occupation forces has grown more intense, particularly in the oil-rich British occupation zone around Basra. A violent series of events has oddly pointed toward neighboring Khuzestan as (once again) the best barometer of conflict along the Iran-Iraq border.
In Basra on September 19, British troops clashed with Iraqi police and Shi’ite militia, who had ironically welcomed the toppling of Saddam two years ago. The police had arrested two British undercover commandos who possessed suspicious bomb-making materials. British troops launched an armored raid on the jail to free their agents, fighting the same Iraqi police they had earlier trained. Iraqis had thought it strange that British agents would be caught with the types of bombs associated with insurgents attacking “Coalition” troops, and some assumed that the agents were trying to pit Iraqi religious groups against each other.
Yet at the same time, bombs were going off across the border in Khuzestan. In June, a series of car bombings in Ahvaz (75 miles from Basra) killed 6 people. In August, Iran arrested a group of Arab separatist rebels, and accused them of links to British intelligence in Basra. In September, explosions hit Khuzestani cities, halting crude oil transfers from onshore wells. On October 15, two major bomb explosions in an Ahvaz market killed 4 and injured 95. A November 3 analysis in Asia Times blames Iraqi Sunni insurgents for the bombings.
Iranian officials accused Britain of backing the attacks, and tied the rebel bombs to the British commando incident in Basra. The Daily Star of Beirut reported on October 17 that Iranian officials “point to Western collusion in the sudden spike this year in ethnic unrest in the strategic, oil-producing province of Khuzestan and describe it as proof of a shadowy war that is receiving far less coverage in the international press than events in Iraq. Since the beginning of 2005, riots and a bombing campaign timed to coincide with the June presidential elections rocked Khuzestan’s major cities.”
Tony Blair and his Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied the charges, and in turn accused Tehran of sending agents to stir up trouble in Basra and other Iraqi cities, by supporting Iraqi Shi’ite militias. A London-based Arab exile group claims that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are establishing an exclusive military-industrial zone along the Iraqi border to support infiltration into Basra, is carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Arab farmers for this Free Zone project, and has conducted large exercises to practice quelling Arab unrest in Khuzestan.
Has London tried to encourage Iranian Arab rebels in Khuzestan? In March, Secretary Straw had met with London-based Iranian Arab exiles. The following month, a letter allegedly from the Iranian Vice-President was read on Al-Ahwaz television (broadcast from the U.S. via satellite) supposedly advocating the removal of Arabs from Khuzestan and the importation of Persians to settle the strategic region. Though Tehran denounced the letter as a forgery, Arab youths took the streets of Ahvaz and clashed with police. Five were killed, and over 400 Arabs were arrested in a crackdown after the riots. A November 4 Eid protest of the continuing arrests of Arab activists reportedly ended with 2 protesters dead and 200 arrested, according to the British Ahwazi Friendship Society.
The Arabs of Khuzestan have long resented Tehran for failing to alleviate chronic poverty and unemployment in the oil-rich province, and for neglecting postwar reconstruction of the bombed-out cities. But even if Arab minority grievances are real and legitimate (which they are), the timing of Western interest in their grievances coincides too neatly with the larger desire to pressure and isolate Iran. Both Washington and London have a long history of championing the rights of an ethnic minority against an “enemy” government, then abandoning or selling out the minority when it is no longer strategically useful.
Watch the Western media for claims that Iran plans “ethnic cleansing” on the scale of Kosovo or Darfur, in propaganda designed to manipulate naÃ¯ve liberals or human rights groups. Watch Fox News for the new neo-con warning of an emerging “Shi’ite bloc” of Iran, southern Iraq, Alawite-ruled Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah (which incidentally has had training camps in Khuzestan). Neo-cons may even urge Bush to pull back support for Iraqi Shi’ite leaders, and to take a harder line on Iran’s nuclear and human rights violations.
Even if the truth of exaggerated claims and conspiracy theories can be easily challenged, their main purpose is to win public support in the West for a new war against Iran, just as false WMD claims were used to win congressional support for an Iraq invasion. Some Democrats may be gullible enough to again accept such claims, including those who criticized Bush for confronting Iraq rather than Iran on WMD (such as John Kerry, who wrote that “tougher measures” may be needed against Iran).
Many of Khuzestan’s Arabs may seek to regain their autonomy from Tehran. But it is not clear that they wish to secede from Iran, nor to join Iraq–even if it is now ruled largely by fellow Arab Shi’ites. Iraqi Shi’ite leaders (many of whom recently returned from exile in Tehran), would not want to alienate their old friends by encouraging Khuzestan’s Arabs, or allowing Iraqi territory to be used as a launching pad for a new invasion.
The Americans and British, however, do not necessarily need Iraqi territory to invade Iran. They can launch strikes from aircraft carriers against Iranian nuclear power installations. If their goal is only oil-rich Khuzestan, they could again use nearby Kuwait as a staging ground for this new invasion to “liberate” oppressed Arabs. If their ultimate goal actually is Tehran, they could use Afghanistan or Azerbaijan as a staging ground. They could stimulate rebellion among ethnic Azeris in northwestern Iran (much as the Soviets did at the end of World War II), or among Iranian Kurds — at the risk of inspiring Kurdish separatists in Iraq and Turkey.
The “Khuzestan Gambit”
But the key to the future of Iran is in its southwest, in Khuzestan–with its oil fields, its shared ethnic-religious identity with Iraq, and its proximity to U.S. and British forces eager to secure final revenge for the ouster of the Shah. The Beirut Daily Star predicts that the “first step taken by an invading force would be to occupy Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan Province, securing the sensitive Straits of Hormuz and cutting off the Iranian military’s oil supply, forcing it to depend on its limited stocks.”
The defense website Globalsecurity.org even names this invasion strategy the “Khuzestan Gambit,” astutely observing that the province “is the one large piece of flat Iranian terrain to the west of the Zagros Mountains. American heavy forces could swiftly occupy Khuzestan, and in doing so seize control of most of Iran’s oil resources, and non-trivial portions of the country’s water supply and electrical generating capacity.”
In a “Khuzestan Gambit” strategy, U.S. and British forces aiding an Arab uprising would turn Khuzestan into a de facto autonomous protectorate of “Arabistan” or “Ahwaz,” in order to take control of the country’s oil-dependent economy. By holding the region as an economic “hostage,” they could then dictate their terms to Tehran. Pentagon strategists’ fanciful thinking may be that, without access to the country’s oil wealth, the ruling clerics would be undermined and Iranian reformers would lead a new revolution.
Yet like previous strategies in Iraq, this one will also be sure to backfire, by destroying any chance of reform in Iran, and rallying “moderate” Iranians around their government. Even a limited intervention–for example, to halt an Iranian crackdown on Arab dissidents–could inspire Arab Gulf States to militarily assert their claims to islands long disputed with Iran. If Khuzestan officially or unofficially secedes, the move could set into motion the “Balkanization” of Iran, which would inevitably tear apart neighboring countries.
On top of all that, the Americans and British may simply lose a new war against Iran, just as they are losing the war in Iraq today. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are more formidable fighters than Saddam’s Republican Guard. The Iranian military could launch a counterattack or effectively melt into an Iraq-style insurgency. If Tehran feels backed into a corner, it may desperately retaliate with exactly the strategy that Bush and Blair have accused it of — backing attacks on the West and Israel, or deploying nuclear weapons. If their land and oil is being occupied anyways, what would Iranians have to lose?
Zoltan Grossman is a Member of the Faculty in Geography and Native American Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He received his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has written and organized around connections between military interventions, natural resources, and ethnic nationhood. His writings are at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and e-mail at email@example.com (Thanks to Ali Abootalebi for draft comments.)