Domestic Threats to Iranian Stability: Khuzistan and Baluchistan

, November 13, 2005

Vol. 5, No. 9     November 13, 2005

  • The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing a new wave of domestic violence, with multiple bombings in the provinces of Khuzistan and Baluchistan in the past six months.

  • Iran is ethnically diverse. While the recent terrorism may have some ethnic or sectarian component, Iranian nationalism trumps ethnic separatism. Often, regional violence is more a sign of weak central government control and local disaffection than separatist sentiment.

  • When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Saddam Hussein sought to play the ethnic card. The Iraqi leader portrayed himself as the liberator of the Khuzistani Arabs. His rhetoric backfired. Rather than divide Iran, he unified it.

  • Any U.S. or Western attempt to play an ethnic card in Iran will backfire and betray not only the Iranian people, but also long-term Western interests.

  • All data suggest that the majority of Iran’s youth long for the freedom enjoyed in the West. This does not suggest that they are not patriotic. Iranian nationalism is a strong force. While the Islamic Republic’s oligarchy may use inflated oil prices to hold onto power for a little longer, the demographic trends are against the ayatollahs. When the Islamic Republic collapses, a strong unified Iran will be a force for stability and a regional bulwark against the Islamism under which the Iranian people now chafe.

 

Ethnic Separatism in Perspective

Iran is more an empire than a nation. While Persian (Farsi) is the official language, half of all Iranians speak a different language at home.1 The languages and dialects spoken along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea continue to engross linguists and anthropologists. The minority population is huge. More Azeris live in Iran, for example, than in independent Azerbaijan.2 Both Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan have a history of separatism, the latter sparked not only by ethnic discrimination, but also by anti-Sunni religious oppression.

Azeris and Kurds are not alone in exerting regional identities and, on occasion, pursuing separatism. Iranian history is replete with struggles between the center and periphery. In the mid-nineteenth century, Zill as-Sultan, half-brother of the Shah, powerful governor of Isfahan and a number of other Iranian provinces, toyed with the idea of declaring southern Iran to be independent of Tehran. In the decades that followed, tribal sheikhs along the Gulf of Oman refused to remit taxes to Tehran and told European sailors that they were independent of Iran’s rule, a claim reflected on maps of the period. In times of chaos, separatism accelerates. In the years following World War I, famine and recession struck Iran. Tehran ruled in name only. In 1920, Mirza Kuchek Khan, a Robin Hood-like figure from the jungles of Gilan, declared a separate Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran along the southwestern shores of the Caspian Sea. Reza Khan, who would declare himself Shah in 1925, gained his popularity by crushing rebellions in Azerbaijan, Gilan, Kurdistan, Khuzistan, and among the southern Iranian tribes. Even detractors of his rule and that of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah (ousted during the 1979 Islamic Revolution), credit Reza Khan for reunifying the country.

While the forces which drive Iranian separatism might be partly internal, in almost every serious case, regional and ethnic separatists in Iran have benefited from foreign support, be it British, Russian, or Ottoman. As a result, many Iranians conflate demands for federalism or ethnic rights with foreign conspiracy.

 

Tension in Khuzistan

In recent months, violence has focused Western attention on instability in two Iranian provinces: Khuzistan in southwestern Iran, and Baluchistan in southeastern Iran.

Khuzistan has a long and rich heritage. The site of the ancient Elamite kingdom, the province is also home to Susa, where the biblical prophet Daniel lived. Long a malarial backwater, the hot and swampy province regained importance in the eighteenth century. In the late 1700s, Muhammarah – today’s Khorramshahr – was a commercial rival to Basra, across the Shatt al-Arab and Ottoman frontier.

Long populated predominantly by Arabs, the region was known throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Arabistan – “land of the Arabs.”

The region grew in strategic importance in the twentieth century, especially after the 1908 discovery of oil and the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company the following year. The area enjoyed de facto autonomy in the early twentieth century, as constitutional struggle, civil war, and British invasion in World War I paralyzed the central government. After Reza Khan subdued the province, the Iranian foreign ministry changed the provincial name to Khuzistan.3 The oil boom and government efforts to dilute the Arab component of the population have caused the relative size of the ethnic Arab population to shrink.

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Saddam Hussein sought to play the ethnic card. The Iraqi leader portrayed himself as the liberator of the Khuzistani Arabs. His rhetoric backfired. Rather than divide Iran, he unified it. Iranians torn asunder by their revolution rallied around the flag. The brutal eight-year war decimated the province. Iraqi troops leveled Khorramshahr; artillery and aerial bombardment crippled the important oil and refinery towns of Abadan and Ahvaz. Much of the population dispersed into cities like Shiraz and Mashhad, out of Iranian rocket range.

Significant social tension accompanied Khuzistan’s post-war reconstruction. In July 2000, and again two months later, riots erupted in Abadan and Khorramshahr over lack of clean drinking water. Local papers also reported discord over a continuing housing shortage and agricultural shortfalls.4 To this day, the local population complains that Islamic Republic ideologues emphasize mosque building over hospital and school reconstruction.

Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s government, there have been several incidents of terrorism in the region. It is impossible to determine whether the frequency of terrorist attacks has risen, or whether word of the violence is simply reaching the outside world because the opening of the Iraqi border makes concealing incidents more difficult.5 The Iranian press reported April 2005 riots in Ahvaz sparked by a letter attributed to Vice President Muhammad Ali Abtahi (but denounced by Abtahi as a forgery) which announced that the Iranian government would expel ethnic Arabs from the province and replace them with ethnic Persians. The demonstrations were bloody. Radio Farda reported 20 dea

Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He is co-author, with Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave, 2005).