Experts: Insurgencies In Southern Iran Could End Up Bolstering Regime
Shiite Arabs and nomadic Baluchi in the country’s southern provinces have increased their violent campaigns, posing a threat to a monolithic regime
Iranian authorities arrested 10 people in connection with last week’s suicide bombing—claimed by al-Qa’ida-linked Ansar al-Furqan—that killed two people at a police headquarters in the country’s southeast.
It comes on the heels of another attack in late September by four gunmen dressed in military fatigues who opened fire at a parade in Khuzestan, a southwestern province bordering Iraq. Both Islamic State and the separatist group Ahvaz National Resistance claimed responsibility for the shooting which killed 25 people.
The uptick in violence is part of a growing insurgency in southern Iran by two different peoples: namely, ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan Province and nomadic Baluchi, primarily Sunnis, located largely in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. The former are struggling to achieve statehood or, at the very least, partial self-rule, while the latter feel threatened in a predominantly Shiite state.
“Whereas the Baluch militants frame their plight as a struggle against oppression and victimization at the hands of the ‘apostate’ Shiite regime, the Arab separatists frame theirs as a struggle against the ‘Persian enemy,’ which prevents the emergence of an independent Arab state in Ahvaz [Khuzestan],” Chelsi Mueller, an Iranian expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, explained to The Media Line.
In 2003, an armed insurgency in Sistan and Baluchestan Province began with the creation of the Jundullah group, whose initial mission was to gain equality for Sunnis in Iran. Jundullah’s first act of violence was the ambush of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s motorcade, followed by a series of bombings, shootings and kidnappings targeting government officials and citizens alike. After the group’s leader was killed in 2010, members shifted focus towards waging Jihad in order to restore an Islamic caliphate.
In Khuzestan Province, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) aims to carve out its own autonomous region for ethnic Arabs considered a minority even though they also are Shiites. While the oil-rich province is a primary source of Iran’s wealth, the Arabs therein are often denied the economic dividends.
ASMLA was created in 1999 and six years later launched a series of suicide bombings. Last year, the group took credit for blowing up two oil pipelines in Khuzestan Province.
“Iran is a very multi-ethnic state but also a very ideological one [and the leadership] opposes all attempts at separatism,” Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, stressed to The Media Line. “To this end, Iran deals with the insurgencies brutally, employing the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] to mass arrest and kill people.”
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In fact, the IRGC in June assassinated Molavi Jalil Qanbar-Zehi, leader of the Baluchi Ansar al-Furqan organization, and last month drew widespread criticism after attempting to execute the head of the ASMLA on Danish soil. Another member of the latter group was murdered last year in The Hague with many pointing the finger at Iran.
Dr. Eldad Pardo, a Middle East expert at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, believes that ongoing unrest in southwest Iran may, somewhat counter-intuitively, benefit the mullahs in the long-run.
“Iran’s major argument to maintain popular support is that it is a stable country, unlike others in the region like Iraq and Syria,” he contended to The Media Line.
“If we see major violence it means the regime can’t exercise control, but with small-scale [relatively infrequent] attacks Tehran’s case that it provides security for its people is bolstered.”
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic continues to deflect blame onto other foreign powers, foremost Saudi Arabia, which it claims finances and provides logistical support for the insurgency movements.
“However, it is hard to see how this would help other Gulf countries,” Dr. Pardo concluded, “as the attacks help garner support for the regime and the Iranians would retaliate against them.”
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)