Ethnic opposition to Iran's regime is on the rise
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Since June 2016 and to a lesser extent before then as well, Iran has been enduring terror attacks and assassinations by ethnic-opposition elements operating within its territory and adjacent to it. These include Kurds in the north and near the Iraqi border, Salafi Sunnis near Iran's eastern border with Pakistan, and Sunni Arabs in the Khuzestan province near the Iraqi border in the southwest.
The Growing Arab Opposition
Early in June, a Sunni group called Suqour al-Ahvaz (Hawks of Ahvaz) took responsibility for an explosion that caused a fire at the Bou-Ali-Sina Petrochemical Complex in Bandar-E Mahshahr, Khuzestan. Iran denied their boast and claimed it was a leak that had led to the explosion. The complex where the explosion occurred is known for protest demonstrations over the difficult employment conditions there.
The group also issued a statement calling for continued resistance to the Iranian occupation of Arab lands, which had "crossed a red line." The statement also said the explosion was a reaction to Iran's repressive policy against the Arab minority in Ahvaz, including ongoing arrests, trials, executions, and expulsions of young people in the area, and warned of further attacks on vital infrastructures and strategic facilities in Iran. The group's spokesman said this was a new tactic aimed at damaging the Iranian economy, which thrives at the expense of the people of Ahvaz who live under the poverty threshold.
Furthermore, in an appeal to a target audience in Arab countries that is fearful of Iran, the group emphasized that it condemned Iran's involvement in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia and averred that it also intended to take action in the "Iranian interior" and to continue the "legitimate struggle until the Arab people of Ahvaz receive their full rights to their land."
On July 11, the group said it had attacked another oil facility in the area. It was the gas and liquid gas pipeline of the Marun Oil and Gas Exploitation Company at the Marun oil field in Khuzestan. One worker was killed and another wounded. Subsequently, a state of emergency was reported in Ahvaz.
On July 17, 2016, the al-Farouq Battalion of Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) targeted oil pipelines in the Johar as-Sabaa' (Haftkel) district (75km northeast of Ahvaz). According to the group's statement, the perpetrators managed to escape despite IRGC efforts to capture them. ASMLA reported that IRGC set up a security cordon around the area
A commander in the al-Faruq Battalions said that that the operation came in response to the ongoing transgressions of the Persian occupation state against the Arab people of Ahvaz and the spreading sectarian strife and immoral intervention in the affairs of neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia. He threatened further attacks, adding that the al-Faruq Battalions performed a careful study of the strategic target points on the oil pipelines stretching from the Johar as-Sabaa' area to the inside of Iran, and they had managed to infiltrate the security cordon on this important economic region and successfully carry out this special attack.
Social media reacted to the attacks with the hashtag #TheAhvazisshakeIran trending on Twitter and praising the resistance. The Elaph newspaper claims that the ASMLA recently warned that they will begin targeting foreign oil companies that work with Iran, and that invest in the oil of the Ahvaz region
In March, ASMALA called on all international oil companies not to legitimize and collaborate with the "Iranian regime's oppression of the Ahwazi people by rushing to invest in the Iranian oil sector following the lifting of international sanctions." ASMLA stressed that "the profits attained by the Iranian regime from the sale of the oil and gas resources in Ahwaz are used both in the brutal oppression of the Ahwazi people, who are denied any share in or profit from their own resources, and in funding terrorist entities which actively work to destabilize security and stability in the Arab world and elsewhere."
Over three million Arabs live in oil-rich Khuzestan. Unemployment has risen and air pollution is measured at very high levels. If the attack was indeed perpetrated by this group, then the Arab opposition has dealt a very hard blow to Iran's oil and gas industry.
In mid-June, another Sunni opposition group, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), announced that it had attacked an oil pipeline in the Zarqan area of Khuzestan. The group claimed it had also carried out additional, similar attacks. Its military wing, the Martyr Mohye al-Din al-Nasir Battalions, posted a short video showing the pipeline that was blown up and asserted that the attack was a reaction to Iranian security forces' activities in the area.
The statement issued by the group read:
The Iranian media gave the event almost zero coverage, and Iranian security forces imposed a closure on the area where it had occurred.
In eastern Iran near the Pakistani border, groups affiliated with global jihad continue to act against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Border Guard Command forces stationed in the area, sometimes hitting them hard. In June the global-jihad group Jaish al-Adl attacked Iranian forces operating in the Sistan and Balochistan Province. Ansar al-Furqan, a jihadi organization active in the Balochistan area, claimed it had killed dozens of Iranian soldiers in a suicide bombing in the city of Khash. Near the Pakistani border in Sistan and Balochistan, five members of the Border Guard Command were killed in a clash with armed Sunni elements who fled back into Pakistan.
The Iranian Kurds
Along with the intensified activity of the separatist forces in Khuzestan and the jihadi groups along the Pakistani and Afghani borders, June also saw stepped-up activity by the Kurdish opposition in Iran. In June, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) attacked IRGC patrols along the Iran-Iraq border in the area of Oshnavieh and Sarvabad, cities that neighbor the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. Several IRGC members and Kurdish fighters were killed in the clashes. In another incident in June some fighters of another Kurdish group, PartiyaJiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK), were killed. The PJAK has links with the Turkish PKK near the city of Sardasht along the Iraqi border.
Currently, six to seven million Kurds live in Iran. Although they are part of the Iranian state, they are distinct from the Shiite minority in several major regards, including language and religion (most Kurds are Sunnis). The Kurds, who are mainly concentrated along the Iraqi border, are poor compared to Iranians who live in the large cities. At the end of May 2016, President Hassan Rouhani visited some Kurdish areas and promised that centers for the study of the Kurdish language would be established and that Kurdish-populated parts of northwestern Iran would be developed after years of neglect: According to Rouhani,
The KDPI has long striven for independence in the Kurdish regions of northern Iran. The increased activity stems from growing awareness of possible Kurdish independence in Syria along the Turkish border, and of the freedom and relative independence enjoyed by Kurds in northern Iraq. The group's military arm, which numbers thousands of fighters, is based in northern Iraq but has not been absorbed by the Kurdish population there. The KDPI is trying to pursue an independent agenda but appears to be caught between conflicting interests; to some extent, the Kurdish groups in the four main countries with sizable Kurdish populations (Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) are waging struggles against each other.
For example, the Kurds in northern Iraq's Kurdish enclave are trying to maintain open channels for oil exportation both to Turkey and Iran and certainly, do not want to open a front with Iran despite the KDPI's growing military activity. Likewise, the Kurds in northern Iraq are maintaining a careful policy of nonintervention in Turkey's difficult and bloody struggle against the PKK, which sometimes includes Turkish bombing of Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. Iran, too, in the wake of clashes with the KDPI, has threatened that the IRGC will not hesitate to act against "terrorists" in their main strongholds in northern Iraq if they do not cease their activity, saying that "they will be targeted wherever they are."
In sum, last month Iran had to deal with subversive activity– though so far of low intensity – by a number of ethnic elements on all its borders in the northwest, the southwest, and the east of the country. The Arabs (in Khuzestan) and the Kurds are trying to pursue a separatist national agenda, and they are inspired by the geostrategic changes in the Middle East and the efforts to reshape it.
The Arab Sunni fighters' targeting of the oil facilities, if it gains momentum, could pose a problem for Iran just as it is trying to renew its oil exports after the lifting of sanctions. Attacks on energy infrastructure for gas and oil could foster an unsafe, unstable environment for international energy companies. Such companies are in any case concerned about Iran's intention to renew contracts using the buyback system, which is more beneficial for a state than for foreign companies. Iran has been reporting little on the attacks on its energy infrastructure, which have mainly been occurring in the Khuzestan province. Meanwhile, Iran's security forces have been cracking down on the Arab minority there augmenting this population's discontent along with its separatist aspirations.
It may be early to envision the mounting ethnic-religious protest in Iran causing a substantial change in the regime's behavior. It is, however, clear that the Iranian regime, which so far has been spared the regional repercussions of the Arab Spring – or Islamic Awakening as the regime calls it – is now starting to feel its effects.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.