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TEHRAN – When it comes to Iran, the widespread belief is that the United States cannot possibly occupy the country – it’s the size of France, Britain, Italy and Spain combined – and thus exercise the avowed White House goal of regime change.
The next best thing – from the point of view of armchair warriors – would be subversion from within. Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, in a widely distributed opinion piece a few months ago, stated that should the US attack Iran, ethnic minorities “might welcome the humiliation of their oppressors,” that is, the Persians. Nonsense replays itself, as in the US supposedly being greeted as the “liberator” of Iraq.
In the overdrive run-up to the attack on Iraq in 2003, the ultimate neo-conservative mantra was “Real men go to Khuzestan.” Indeed, some of of these “real men” may already have been there. The Iranian government is convinced US, British and/or Israeli special ops have been conducted on Iran’s western and southeastern borders, at least since early 2005.
Significantly, the new US budget calls for additional funds to special operations and psy-ops (psychological operations) in Iran, in addition to the US$75 million the administration of President George W. Bush wants to spend to advance “regime change.” For their part, the US marines have commissioned Hicks and Associates, a subsidiary of Science Applications International Corp, one of the biggest US defense contractors and heavily involved in the Iraq invasion, to carry out in-depth research into Iranian ethnic groups.
The ultimate prize is Khuzestan province, where 90% of Iran’s oil is located and which provides the country with 80% of its funds from oil production. In January, Tehran announced it had evidence of British special ops and bombings in Khuzestan, starting last year. Two Iranian Arabs were hanged in public for bombing a bank in the provincial capital Ahvaz in January. Three others were executed in a local prison.
At least 50 Arabs were accused as perpetrators of bombings that killed 21 people last April – after an “official” (but unconfirmed) letter was leaked with detailed plans for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs in Khuzestan. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has already had to cancel three trips to Ahvaz at the last minute.
The province could not be more sensitive. Iran’s second nuclear reactor will be built in Khuzestan. During an extended Nauroz – the Persian New Year – which in many cases goes on until early April – the Revolutionary Guards promote instructive Khuzestan tours to huge groups from all over the country, who are bused to battle sites of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. As many as 2 million people a year may participate in these tours. During this period special permits are not issued for the foreign press.
John Bradley was one of the few foreign journalists to be allowed in Khuzestan last month. In a dirt-poor Arab village near Ahvaz, crossed by pipelines supplying crude oil to the huge Abadan refinery (450,000 barrels a day), Bradley saw Iranian Arabs complaining that “we are standing on all of the country’s wealth, and yet we get no benefit from it.”  Unemployment is rife, Farsi is the only language taught in local schools, and no Arab-language newspapers are allowed. The pipelines have already been bombed – last September. One month later, Tehran announced it had cracked a plot to bomb Abadan with five Katyusha rockets.
Welcome to the Ahwazi intifada
There is speculation in Tehran that al-Qaeda may be courting Arab tribal leaders in Khuzestan as part of its broader strategy of sabotaging oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf region. Exiled Khuzestanis for their part pin their hopes on an “Ahwazi intifada” (Ahvaz, the Farsi name, is “Ahwaz” in Arabic). The official Iranian government position remains that this would-be intifada is being conducted from Iraq – with substantial help by Britain, Canada and the US.
Trying to defuse the situation, Tehran argues that nine of Khuzestan’s 17 members of the majlis (parliament) are Arabs, and Arabs are posted in senior positions both in Khuzestan and in Tehran. But the root of the problem – which is economic – remains. According to the Islamic Majlis Center for Research – a government think-tank – Tehran must do everything in its power to fight poverty in its ultra-sensitive non-Persian areas, as well as youth unemployment nationwide.
We will Persianize you
Khuzestan shares a land, river and sea border with Iraq. Saddam Hussein posed as a self-styled “liberator” of Arabistan – as Arabs call the province – during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. He embarked on a wide-ranging campaign to encourage local Shi’ites to rebel against the Islamic Republic. They didn’t. The logic of war led to the destruction of Abadan and its refinery, and the devastation of Khorramshar and its port. Today, still because of the war, Khuzestan is almost enclosed in a shell. It used to be totally open to the outside world.
The groups living in Khuzestan have lived and traded together for centuries. They have a common history that reaches beyond ethnic rivalry. Many non-Persian dynasties have ruled for centuries. It’s true that most of Iran’s population whose mother language is not Farsi lives in the border areas – Azeris, Kurds, Turkmens, Balochis and Arabs. But their identity is always imprinted under Iran, not in a separatist vein.
Iran has a strong capacity of assimilation, synthesis, cultural appropriation and Iranization. Alexander the Great brought Hellenism to the heart of the Persian Empire, and was totally Persianized afterward. Iran’s Islamization after the Arab invasions was counteracted by its tremendous intellectual, artistic and scientific pull, which influenced the whole Muslim world. Iranian Islam is really something else. Turks and Mongols were also Persianized and became promoters and ambassadors of Persian language, culture, art and literature.
The former foreign minister (under ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) and current secretary general of the opposition party, the Freedom Movement of Iran, Ebrahim Yazdi, nuances the explosive situation according to different Iranian borders. “People in Khuzestan complain about lack of freedom and economic development, and unemployment. Azeris are not independentists. Kurds are not for separation. With Arab governments it’s different. They directly support separation in Khuzestan – ever since [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, [Hafez] Assad, [Muammar] Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein. No Arab country will complain when there are disturbances.”
Moreover, “Americans and Pakistanis are against separation in Pakistani Balochistan. Once again, it’s different as far as Khuzestan is concerned.”
Yazdi sees many dangers in the venomous atmosphere of mutual accusations between Tehran on the one side and Washington and London on the another. Ahmadinejad has publicly accused the British in Iraq of “hiring terrorists for sabotage.” Yazdi added that the US “could be tempted to try a real interventionist policy. If the Iranians are challenging the US, they must be prepared to react and defend themselves against the other side.”
The crucial fact remains that any US interventionist dream of the “real men go to Khuzestan” kind is doomed. It will generate even more passionate Iranian nationalism, not to mention a nationwide and potentially bloody backlash against Arab Iranians, who will then be inevitably regarded as traitors in collusion with the Anglo-Americans.
1. Repression of Arabs fuels unrest in Iran, Washington Times, March 23.