The U.S., Iran, & Khuzestan


s their forces are bogged down in Iraq, George
W. Bush and Tony Blair continue to lay the groundwork for their
next military expansion—in Syria or Iran. A confrontation with
Iran, in particular, has long been in the cards. Three years before
the Iraq invasion, the Project for the New American Century asserted,
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 outside challenges
are strengthening the hand of Iranian “conservative” hardliners
against “moderate” reformers. 

Little attention has been paid to the potential role of ethnic minorities
in the Iran crisis, particularly of the Iranian Arab minority, which
is centered in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. Events in
this 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
have 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. was 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.” 

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
have used the prospects of civil war to justify their continuing
occupation of Iraq (though their actions appear to be stimulating
an Iraqi civil war). They are not above stimulating a little ethnic
strife to get their way next door in Iran. 

Most of Iran’s crude oil deposits are contained within Khuzestan.
Like in Iraq, Nigeria, or Colombia, much of the oil is under the
lands of an 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 percent of
Iran’s population, but a majority (or at least a plurality)
of about 3 million live in Khuzestan (which some Arabs call “Ahwaz”
or “Arabistan”). Iranian-speaking Luri and Bakhtiari tribes
inhabit the Zagros mountain range to the east. Persians live in
the large provincial cities, such as Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz,
Dezful, and Bandar-e Khomeini. 

A Key Pivot 


or centuries 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 Shah Reza Paevi, who openedU.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 Iranian 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).  

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 Saddam’s Sunniruled Iraq. State territoriality
trumped both ethnic and religious territoriality in a massive slaughter
complete with trench warfare and “human wave” attacks,
aerial bombing, 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 supplied aid to both sides, including a
naval intervention to escort vessels carrying Iraqi oil and the
sale of missiles to the Iranians.) 

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. 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 did 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 though 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. 

New Rumblings 


n 2005 the conflict between Iraqi Shi’ites
and occupation forces has grown more intense, particularly in the
oil-rich British occupation zone around Basra. A series of violent
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. 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. 

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, 2 major bomb explosions
in an Ahvaz market killed 4 and injured 95. A November 3 analysis

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 Beirut

Daily Star

reported on October 17 that Iranian officials
“point to Western collusion in the sudden spike this year in
ethnic unrest in the strategic, oil-prodKhuzestan 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 British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied the charges
and 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 claimed that the Iranian Revolutionary
Guards were establishing an exclusive military-industrial zone along
the Iraqi border to support infiltration into Basra, were carrying
out “ethnic cleansing” of Arab farmers for this Free Zone
project, and had conducted large exercises to practice quelling
Arab unrest in Khuzestan. 

In March Straw met with London-based Iranian Arab exiles. The following
month a letter, allegedly from the Iranian vice president, was read
on AlAhwaz television (broadcast from the U.S. via satellite) supposedly
advocating the removal of Arabs from Khuzestan and the importing
of Persians to the strategic region. Though Tehran denounced the
letter as a forgery, Arab youths took to the streets of Ahvaz and
clashed with police—5 were killed and over 400 Arabs were arrested
in a crackdown after the riots. A November 4 demonstration during
Eid (an Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan) protesting the
continuing arrests of Arab activists reportedly ended with 2 protesters
dead and 200 arrested, according to the British Ahwazi Friendship

Arabs in Khuzestan have long resented Tehran for failing to alleviate
chronic poverty and unemployment in the oil-rich province and for
neglecting postwar reconstruction of 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 naïve liberals or human rights groups.
Wat Fox News for the neocon 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 take a harder line on Iran’s nuclear and human
rights violations. 

Even if 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 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
or 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 U.S. and Britain 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 oil-rich Khuzestan,
they can again use nearby Kuwait as a staging ground for this new
invasion to “liberate” oppressed Arabs. If their ultimate
goal is Tehran, they could use Afghanistan or Azerbaijan as a staging
ground. They could stimulate rebellion among ethnic Azeris in northwestern
Iran (as the Soviets did at the end of World War II) or among Iranian
Kurds—at the risk of inspiring separatists in Iraq and Turkey. 

The Khuzestan Gambit 


he 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 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. U.S. 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.” 

a Khuzestan Gambit 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. 

Like previous strategies in Iraq, this one will be sure to backfire,
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 U.S. and Britain may lose a new war against
Iran, just as they are losing the war in Iraq. Iran’s Revolutionary
Guards are more formidable 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 were being occupied anyway, what would Iranians have to lose?


Grossman teaches geography and Native American Studies at Evergreen
State College in Olympia, Washington. He has written and organized
around connections between military interventions, natural resources,
and ethnic nationhood. (Thanks to Ali Abootalebi for draft comments.)