Iran protests could evolve into ethnic/sectarian strife

The Iranian Arab ethnic minority could be the first to emulate its Sunni brethren in Iraq and Syria.

AN IRANIAN couple looks out over the city of Tehran. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN IRANIAN couple looks out over the city of Tehran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The popular movement of protest which erupted on December 28 in Iran is different from the 2009 Green Revolution. The 2009 protests had the goal to cancel the results of the fraud in the reelection of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and gathered millions of people in Tehran mainly from the young and educated middle class, under the leadership of Islamist reformist presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
This time, the spontaneous protests started in the northwestern city of Mashad, traditionally a religiously conservative place, against rising prices, unemployment and economic inequality, and spread to the major cities of Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz, as well as dozens of towns across the country. Many of the demonstrators are poor workers and young Iranians fed up with the lack of economic opportunity. No reformist group has made any statements in support of the ongoing protests.
Quite quickly and in response to the brutal repression by the police, the demonstrations turned against the regime, challenging the rule of the supreme leader with people chanting slogans such as “Death to the Dictator” and tearing down posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s foreign policy is also seen by the people as responsible for its economic hardships: “Forget Palestine,” “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” chant the demonstrators while burning pictures of Maj.- Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, only days ago presented as the victorious commander against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Activists have circulated on social media a video featuring Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitting that Tehran pays the expenses of Hezbollah, including food, drinks and arms’ bills.
Besides the economic and political reasons behind the latest upheaval there are also basic demographic realities which could, under certain conditions, as in the Syrian crisis, transform the popular protests into a bloody ethnic and sectarian civil war.
Iran is not different from Iraq and can be even compared with Syria. Persians represent only 65% of its population (55% according to other sources), Shi’a Azeris 16%, Kurds 7%, Lurs 6%, Arabs 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmens 1%. Most of Iran’s minorities live in the provinces adjacent to its borders, the Kurds and the Arabs next to Iraq and the Baloch on the two sides of the Pakistani border. Iran is relatively homogeneous in terms of religion as 89% of the population is Shi’ite. The Sunnis are largely drawn from Iran’s Arab, Kurdish and Baloch populations.
The suppression of minority rights has resulted in ethnic insurgencies over the years, some of which continue to trouble the Iranian regime.
It is of note that violent protests have spread in all provinces inhabited by these minorities, including the Shi’a Azeris.
• Arabistan. In Ahwaz, a majority Arab region in Iran’s southwest, protests have been going on for weeks against the repression and confiscation of Ahwazi land and water. Thousands took to the streets when an Iranian parliamentarian, Qassem al-Saeedi, slammed the government’s discriminatory policies. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings in 2011, Ahwazi Arab Iranians have stood in solidarity with their Sunni counterparts in Syria.
Ansar al Furqan, an Iran-based jihadist group, claimed that “a major oil pipeline was blown up in Omidiyeh region of occupied Ahvaz, Iran” in order “to inflict losses on the economy of criminal Iranian regime.”
The group announced it had established a new unit, the Ahwaz Martyrs Brigade.
Videos of oil pipelines on fire circulated on social media in April 2017, when the military wing of the Arab Liberation Movement of Ahwaz claimed responsibility for the blast, and in October, when a group calling itself Kata’ib Ahrar al Ahwaz (the Free Ahwaz Battalions) claimed credit. In recent weeks, Ansar al Furqan has stepped up its propaganda by releasing several videos and photo sets, including photos from one of its training camps.
The Iranian Arab ethnic minority could be the first to emulate its Sunni brethren in Iraq and Syria. Arab nationalist insurgents led by the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) were responsible for 20 operations in 2012 and six attacks against energy infrastructure in the oil rich Khuzestan province in 2013.
They had received financial support and operational training in Dubai.
At a December 6-7, 2016, Gulf Cooperation Council meeting, ASMLA leader Habib Jabr called on the GCC member countries to view the Ahwaz issue as the most important link in the chain of Arab resistance to the Persian-Iranian plan.
In January 2017, ASMLA fighters targeted the main IRGC regional military base in the Ghizaniya region, a day before the funeral of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The attack came six days after they destroyed two major oil pipelines in the region, as part of the group’s new strategy for 2017.
• Iranian Kurdistan. Jerusalem Post journalist Seth J. Frantzman cites Hussein Yadanpanah, leader of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) in Iran, who claims that Iranian Kurds have played an important role in the present protests throughout eastern Kurdistan as they suffer oppression and neglect at the hands of the regime.
Indeed, in a joint statement, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan have jointly blamed Iran’s political and economic problems for the protests. The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an Iranian affiliate of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operating since 2004 from bases located in northern Iraq mountainous regions, separately asked for freedom for the Kurdish nation and all Iranian nationals.
Just one day before the present protests began in Iran, a commander of the PDKI stated that after ending a two-decades ceasefire in 2015 with the objective of deploying armed Peshmerga militia to northern and northwestern parts of Iran, the party has stepped up its aggression against Iranian security forces as part of a strategy codenamed Rasan, or resurrection. On the fifth day of the protests, huge crowds of Iranian Kurds have taken to streets in Sanandaj and Kermanshah chanting against the Islamic Republic while supporting the Kurdish cause. Iranian forces opened fire at protesters in Kermanshah.
In May 2017, the leftist Komala party, after 25 years, resumed its armed struggle against the central government in Tehran and Iranian military, especially the IRGC. Komala signed an alliance agreement with the PDKI in 2012, well reflected in their common armed deployment to the mountains.
• Iranian Baluchistan. Since 2013 there has been a surge of attacks against Iranian military and provincial officials in Iranian Baluchistan by the Sunni extremist group Jaish ul-Adl, or the Army of Justice, based in Pakistan.
In January 2017, Jaish ul-Adl carried out an operation against Iranian forces on the outskirts of the city of Sarbaz in Baluchistan, killing and wounding a large number of regime military personnel, including senior IRGC officers. The operation came three days after Arab fighters in Ahwaz blew up two oil pipelines there, warning that more such operations are planned. Jaish Al-Adl’s spokesman, Ibrahim Azizi, said that the operation took place “in the context of our mutual struggle founded in cooperation that has grown stronger in recent years, which aims to create a practical and political alliance to end the [Iranian regime’s] injustice and oppression against our peoples and to address its terrorism against the people of Iran and against Arabs and Muslims generally.”
• ISIS or jihadism as possible rallying solution On June 7 after two years of efforts to build an infrastructure in the Sunni provinces of Ahwaz, Kurdistan and Baluchistan from whence to reach the capital Tehran, ISIS finally succeeded to strike at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s symbols, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mausoleum and the parliament.
The Kurdish connection in the surprise attack became evident with the advance of the investigation. One gunman, Serias Sadeghi, an Iranian Kurd from the city of Paveh, near the Iraqi border, was one of the attackers from that community. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence arrested 41 ISIS members within the three Kurdish provinces of Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan Gharbi, and also in Tehran.
Already in March 2017, ISIS published a video in Farsi, with some parts in the Baluchi dialect, titled, “Persia – Between Yesterday and Today.” The video accuses Iranian Shi’ites of committing many crimes against Sunnis and oppressing the Sunni population of Iran,” exporting the revolution,” spreading Shi’ism, and secretly collaborating with the US and Israel. The main speakers in the video are Abu Faruq al-Farisi, speaking Farsi, Abu Mujahid al-Baluchi, speaking Baluchi, and Abu Sa’d al-Ahwazi (from the Ahwaz region). The three speakers call on Iranian Sunnis to rise up against the regime and “join the path of jihad.”
The attacks destroyed the myth the Iranian security and defense authorities tried to build: Iran as an island of stability, beyond ISIS’s reach. It also raised the specter of cooperation between ISIS or other jihadist cells and Sunni separatist movements in Ahwaz, Kurdistan and Baluchistan, thus increasing the efficiency and the lethality of the attacks inside Iran.
• The Azeri provinces. The recent popular protests involved also the Azeri Shi’a population.
Security forces have arrested at least 40 people in the northwestern province of Ardabil. Most of the detainees were released after interrogation but 15 are still in custody.
In the meantime, unconfirmed reports have suggested that about 90 people were arrested in Tabriz.
The emancipation of the Azerbaijani population in northwestern Iran has been on the rise since the mid-1990s. Since 1996, there have been large demonstrations in Tabriz, Urmia and other mostly Azerbaijani cities in northwestern Iran approximately once every two to three years. The chief demand of the demonstrators is for the establishment of instruction in the Azerbaijani language and the recognition of the linguistic autonomy of the “Azerbaijani Turks,” as they present themselves.
The unrest in May and June of 2006 was the culmination of Azerbaijani demonstrations for emancipation and against offensive publications demeaning the Azerbaijani minority. Large riots occurred in the cities of Tabriz, Urmia and Ardabil, suppressed by militia and army units called in from other regions of Iran. The events of 2006 and the harsh reprisals that followed served to solidify Azerbaijani nationalism and to exacerbate animosity toward the theocratic regime. That animosity has been strongly evident during the presidential election in 2009, and again during the presidential election of 2013, when another wave of protests and subsequent repression occurred.
What next? Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei blamed the rallies on outside powers, “Iran’s enemies, using the various tools at their disposal, including money, weapons, politics and security apparatus, allied to create problems for the Islamic establishment.”
The secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, pinned blame on Saudi Arabia. He proclaimed that 27% of Twitter hashtags on the protests were created by Saudis, saying that Riyadh has “recruited some foreigners to work in the organization, for they cannot do it themselves.”
Indeed, US President Donald Trump has used several Twitter posts to express support for those protesting against the Iranian government.
In his last one he even promised “great support from the United States at the appropriate time!” But besides the US attempt to raise the issue of the popular protest at the United Nations not much seems to have been done.
There is the possibility that the anonymous organizers of the protests or some of the participants have been encouraged by Trump’s strong rhetoric against Iran and Iran’s place in his new national strategy doctrine.
Denis Ross, president Barack Obama’s special adviser on Iran, mentions Trump’s desire to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, but at this point, he notes, the administration does not have an anti- Iran strategy.
James M. Dorsey, a known expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, observes that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman could, with or without US backing or cooperation, attempt to further destabilize the Islamic Republic by stirring unrest among Kurds and the Baloch. Saudi Arabia, he mentions, has funneled large amounts of money in the last 18 months to militant groups and madrasas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on the Iranian region of Sistan and Baluchistan.
A Riyadh-based think tank believed to be supported by Prince Muhammad last year published a blueprint for stirring unrest among the Iranian Baloch.
At the writing of this article, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Maj. Gen.
Mohammad Ali Jafari has declared the defeat of the “sedition” in the country, as tens of thousands of people attended pro-government rallies called to counter the unrest. He said “security preparedness and people’s vigilance” had led to the defeat of “enemies” and that the Guards had only intervened in a “limited” way in three provinces.
He added: “There were a maximum of 1,500 people in each place and the number of troublemakers did not exceed 15,000 people nationwide.”
Indeed, by Wednesday, the protests had shown some signs of abating, though demonstrators were still taking to the streets after dark in many outlying provinces. Elite forces from the Revolutionary Guards Corps were deployed to three of them – Hamadan, Isfahan and Lorestan – to help quell uprisings there. Tehran remained curiously muted.
Time will tell if the spontaneous popular protests were only a momentous burst of anger by an impoverished and disillusioned population, or if a spark will reignite the uprising.
While the attention of the international community, the media and the public opinion is focused on the general picture of the protests, little consideration is given to the minorities’ plight and the repression of their just grievances.
The plight of the oppressed minorities in Iran though doesn’t seem to subside, and it is possible these forces will take advantage of the momentum and boost their battle against the Islamic regime.
The writer is a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy and the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.