The Struggle for Arabistan: Tensions and Militancy in Iran’s Khuzestan Province

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 2

Ahwazi Arab insurgents attacked a key gas pipeline in late November 2013

Thousands of Iranians were reported to have sought medical attention in November 2013 due to complaints of shortness of breath and other maladies following a spell of acid rain that blanketed parts of the southwestern province of Khuzestan. Due to the impact of the local oil industry – over 90 percent of Iran’s oil capacity is located in Khuzestan Province – and other factors, the World Health Organization (WHO) named Ahvaz, the provincial capital, as the world’s most polluted city (Tehran Times [Tehran], October 19, 2013). Yet the latest environmental catastrophe to befall Khuzestan Province has overshadowed the predicament of the region’s sizeable ethnic Arab population. The Iranian Arab ethnic minority known as the Ahvazi (Arabic: Ahwazi) Arabs has endured oppression and discrimination by the hands of the state. It also eclipsed a series of attacks against energy infrastructure attributed to ethnic Arab nationalist insurgents led by the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) (Ahwaz News Agency, November 28, 2013).        

In a public statement, the ASMLA claimed responsibility for a November 27 attack against a natural gas pipeline running from the towns of Shadegan and Sarbandar. According to ASMLA spokesman Habib Nabgan, the attack was executed by the Majid al-Baghbeh Martyrs Battalion of the Mohiuddin al-Nasser Martyrs Brigade, part of the ASMLA’s armed wing. Nabgan’s statement elaborated on what he called a “heroic operation” executed by the “valiant Ahazvi national resistance” against “oil and gas facilities that are the backbone of the Iranian economy” (Ahwaz News Agency, November 28, 2013). Nabgan, who also heads the ASMLA’s political wing, the National Resistance of al-Ahwaz, is a longtime activist for Iranian Arab causes. He previously led the banned Lejnat al-Wefaq (Reconciliation Committee) and other efforts on behalf of ethnic Arab and other minority causes in Iran. Nabgan operates in exile from Denmark, where he received political asylum (Press TV [Tehran], November 18, 2013).  

The attack was the sixth perpetrated by the ASMLA in 2013. It also occurred days after the airing of a documentary produced by Iran’s Press TV showing taped confessions of three alleged members of the ASMLA to an attack against a natural gas pipeline in the town of Shush and an earlier strike against a train carrying oil near the Haft Tepah train station in October and September 2012, respectively. The alleged assailants also claimed responsibility for an additional 20 militant operations and stated that they had received financial support and operational training in Dubai (Press TV, November 18, 2013). Defenders of the alleged assailants accused Iranian authorities of employing physical and psychological torture and other draconian methods to extract false confessions designed to malign the image of Iranian Arabs and undermine their legitimate demands (Ahwaz News Agency, November 23, 2013). In a seemingly related incident also affecting energy infrastructure in Khuzestan Province, Iranian authorities reported that security forces defused an explosive device planted on an oil pipeline linking the cities of Abadan and Mahshahr (Fars News Agency [Tehran], December 1, 2013). The ASMLA and other ethnic Arab militant organizations operating in Khuzestan Province have mounted diverse operations over the years ranging from traditional terrorist and insurgent-style attacks targeting symbols of the state (including the security services), assassinations of political and religious leaders and attacks against soft civilian targets such as banks (al-Jazeera [Doha], January 24, 2006; June 12, 2005). Importantly, the ASMLA has since committed to attacking only critical energy infrastructure targets to limit the possibility of civilian casualties (Ahwaz News Agency, November 28, 2013).                                                                           

A glimpse at the human and physical geography of Khuzestan Province is essential to understanding the circumstances that have contributed to the recent turbulence. Iran has contended with multiple episodes of violent unrest and insurgency rooted in ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and ideological grievances, many of which predate the formation of the Islamic Republic. Iranian Arabs suffer from widespread poverty and other socioeconomic problems, despite the fact that they inhabit a region rich in natural resources. They also complain of being subject to what they see as a calculated policy of ethnic and cultural discrimination by a state that sees them as threats to internal unity and pawns of hostile foreign interests. In this regard, Iranian Arabs claim to be the target of a deliberate campaign by the state to erase their Arab cultural identity in favor of the ethnic Persian-dominated character propagated by the Islamic Republic. As a result, Iranian Arabs tend to frame their struggle through different prisms, including a combination of ethnic, nationalist, social justice or human rights discourses. The cultural and topographical nomenclature attributed to Iranian Arabs and Khuzestan Province is also the subject of contention. For example, Iranian Arabs often point to Iran’s policy of forcibly changing the original Arabic names of towns and other landmarks as proof of its goal to purge Arab culture. Consequently, political movements promoting Iranian Arab causes can advocate a range of solutions, including irredentism, autonomy and nationalism under the broader framework of Iranian citizenship. [1] 

While estimates of the demographic breakdown of Khuzestan Province tend to be politicized, between two and four million Iranian Arabs are believed to inhabit the region. Equally important, Iranian Arabs are overwhelmingly Shi’a in their beliefs, with a minority of Sunni followers. At the same time, there are signs that members of the Shi’a community are converting to Sunni Islam in what may represent an attempt to assert a new identity distinct from the Shi’a tradition represented by the Islamic Republic (al-Arabiya [Dubai], April 14, 2011).    

Iranian Arabs and many pan-Arab nationalists refer to Khuzestan Province as Arabistan after the historical Arab-dominated territory that enjoyed a period of limited autonomy and relative independence in different periods of history.  Khuzestan Province is located adjacent to Iraq’s southern Basra Province. As a result, Iranian Arabs share close cultural affinities, including common linguistic attributes and a shared tribal lineage, with their ethnic kin across the border (Egyptian Gazette [Cairo], November 11, 2011). The struggle for control of Khuzestan Province and its energy resources was central to Iraq’s strategy during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a longtime supporter of Iranian Arab political and militant movements, calculated that Iranian Arabs would revolt against Iran and side with Iraq. However, Iranian Arabs remained loyal to Tehran throughout the Iran-Iraq War. Nevertheless, the impact of Iraqi-tinged Arab nationalist discourse and Baathist ideology continues to permeate the agenda of groups such as the ASMLA that seek the creation of a reconstituted Arabistan (see Terrorism Monitor, October 14, 2011). In April 2011, Ahvaz and other locations across Khuzestan were the scene of protests to commemorate the anniversary of an earlier uprising in 2005. The protests were dubbed the Ahvaz “day of rage” by local activists in an obvious effort to emulate the popular opposition protests witnessed around the Arab world. The demonstrations elicited a violent crackdown by Iranian authorities that left scores of dead and wounded (al-Jazeera, April 16, 2011). 

The geopolitical repercussions of unrest in Khuzestan Province warrant closer attention. In response to Iran’s steadfast support for the Baathist regime in Syria, notable segments of the political and armed opposition in Syria have acknowledged the Iranian Arab struggle. A detachment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) named itself the al-Ahwaz Battalion in a sign of solidarity with the Iranian Arab cause and to single out Iran’s support for the Baathist regime. A delegation of ASMLA officials traveled to Syria to meet with ranking members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in September 2012 (Ahwaz News Agency, November 25, 2012; August 7, 2013). Furthermore, an attack by the ASMLA against energy infrastructure in Khuzestan Province was dedicated to the Syrian opposition (Reuters, August 15, 2013).  ASMLA head Nabgan has lauded the exploits of ethnic Baloch militants such as Jaysh al-Adl (JAA, Army of Justice) operating in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan and the ethnic Kurdish Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistan (PJAK, Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) in their respective campaigns against the Islamic Republic. He also stated that the ASMLA will continue to resist Iran and will coordinate with its Baloch and Kurdish militant counterparts (Ahwaz News Agency, November 28, 2013). The ASMLA’s predilection for targeting energy infrastructure also raises an important set of concerns given the increasing likelihood of Iran’s eventual, albeit piecemeal, return to global energy markets. 

Chris Zambelis is a Senior Analyst specializing in Middle East Affairs for Helios Global, Inc. a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Note 

1. For an overview of Iranian Arab grievances, see “Ahwazi Arabs,” Unrepresented Peoples and Nations Organization (Netherlands), June 2010, http://www.unpo.org/images/member_profile/awhaziprofile2010june.pdf.