Domestic Threats to Iranian Stability: Khuzistan and Baluchistan
by Michael Rubin
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 deaths and hundreds injured. In the riots' aftermath, Iranian authorities arrested more than 300 protestors. Amnesty International reported that security forces summarily executed prisoners. Authorities cut off telephones and utilities in the city wh ile order was restored.6 But the order did not last. On June 12, 2005, four bombs exploded in Ahvaz, killing eight and injuring several dozen.7 A third wave of bombings hit the city on October 15, 2005, killing at least four and injuring more than eighty.8
A number of ethnic parties and groups claim to represent Khuzistan Arabs. The Under-Represented Nations and Peoples Organization recognizes the Democratic Solidarity Party of al-Ahwaz,9 for example. The Ahwaz Studies Center,10 Ahwazian Revolution Information Center,11 and the Al-Ahwaz Revolutionary Council12 all have an Internet presence, although their constituency and sponsorship is impossible to gauge. Al-Ahwaz.com compiles news and resources relevant to the province's Arab population.
The central government has chosen not to blame homegrown separatists, though. Rather, Tehran has fingered the British for sponsoring the bombings.13 The reasons are manifold. Repeated terrorist incidents embarrass Tehran. Any suggestion of local roots to terrorism in Khuzistan would suggest Iranian security services are impotent. For the same reasons, Iranian authorities cannot blame the Mujahidin al-Khalq, an Islamist-Marxist terrorist group. But to scapegoat the British recalls historical Iranian conspiracy theories, especially given past British commercial involvement in the Khuzistan oil fields. Ratcheting up anti-British rhetoric may also be part of an Iranian strategy to escalate tension between its proxy militias in Iraq and the British military in and around Basra.
The Baluchistan Problem
Iran's Baluchi population also complains of ethnic and religious discrimination. While Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's interpretation of Twelver Shi'ism is the religious base of the Islamic Republic, Sunnis are the majority in the Sistan va Baluchistan province. Sectarian tension has flared sporadically. In 1993, regime radicals razed or forcibly converted several Sunni mosques. A number of Sunni leaders, both Baluchi and Kurd, have died under suspicious circumstances. In March 1996, for example, Iranian operatives killed Molavi Abdul Malek, an Iranian Baluch and Sunni cleric, in Karachi, Pakistan.14 A series of bombings shook the region in October 2000.15 Another wave of terrorist bombings hit Zahedan, the provincial capital, in June 2005.16
While many in Iranian Baluchistan may feel dispossessed, drugs and criminality rather than ethnic separatism may be the greatest threat to domestic stability emanating from Baluchistan. Drug-smuggling across the Afghan and Pakistani frontiers into Iranian Baluchistan is rife. The border is poorly patrolled. Terrain is rough. Recent political tension between Tehran and Islamabad over Iranian support for a Baluchi insurgency in Pakistan has also undercut security and border cooperation.17
The Iranian drug problem is huge. While Iranian opium interdiction accounts for almost a quarter of opiate seizures worldwide, United Nations officials say that Iranian authorities seize only 10 to 15 percent of the drug shipments.18 Iran is not only a transit country for opium and heroin, but also a consumer. Drug addiction is rife and the trade lucrative. Shoot-outs between drug dealers and Iranian police are frequent, as are kidnappings. In recent years, tribal groups or drug smuggling gangs have kidnapped a series of European tourists in order both to embarrass the Tehran regime and to leverage the hostages in prisoner swaps or ransom schemes.19
The Iranian government sometimes seeks to blame Baluch organizations, an accusation they fiercely deny. In 2003, for example, the Baluchistan United Front issued a press release denying government accusations of its involvement in hostage-taking.20 Blaming regional groups - or inadequate cooperation from Afghanistan and Pakistan - may be easier for officials in Tehran than combating corruption among Iran's law enforcement forces and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, components of both of which are complicit in smuggling.
Violence in Baluchistan may have some ethnic component, but a far greater cause is general lawlessness. Central government disinterest and discrimination, exacerbated by sectarian differences, has bred resentment and contributed to the region's underdevelopment. The local disdain for Tehran is consistent with the historic pattern in which the periphery slowly spins away from central government control during periods of weakness. As the violence in Khuzistan, Baluchistan, and elsewhere continues, it is clear that the Islamic Republic is in trouble.
The Iranian regime is unpopular among the majority of its population. Persian-language telephone polls - surveying random households in every telephone exchange - consistently show that only 20 percent of the population supports the philosophical underpinnings of the Islamic Republic. Eighty percent do not think the system can be reformed.21
Anecdotally and quantitatively, 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.
Neither Washington nor any other Western democracy should attempt to play the separatist card in Iran. To do so would not only backfire, but would trade ephemeral short-term gain for long-term strategic harm. The realists are wrong.
1. For an accessible and detailed treatment of Iran's demography, see Bernard Hourcade, Hubert Mazurek, Mohammad-Hosseyn Papoli-Yazdi, and Mahmoud Taleghani, Atlas d'Iran (Paris: Reclus, 1998).