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The U.S., Iran, & Khuzestan
The first front in a possible U.S. war on Iran?
A s their forces are bogged down in Iraq, George W. Bush and Tony Blair continue to lay the groundwork for their next military expansion—in Syria or Iran. A confrontation with Iran, in particular, has long been in the cards. Three years before the Iraq invasion, the Project for the New American Century asserted, Iran “may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has.”
When the U.S. media reports on the growing confrontation with Iran, it invariably focuses on Tehran’s nuclear program, Iranian leaders’ verbal sparring with Israel and how outside challenges are strengthening the hand of Iranian “conservative” hardliners against “moderate” reformers.
Little attention has been paid to the potential role of ethnic minorities in the Iran crisis, particularly of the Iranian Arab minority, which is centered in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. Events in this oil-rich province bordering Iraq could serve as a harbinger of U.S.-British intentions in Iran and expose Khuzestan as Iran’s Achilles Heel. Recently, a series of bombings and ethnic clashes have begun to show that something is rotten in Khuzestan, which could be an early warning of a coming war. Last June former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter warned that the U.S. was building up military capabilities in Azerbaijan, on Iran’s northern border, and sponsoring rebel bombings inside Iran.
The obstacles to a full-scale invasion of Iran would at first glance appear to be formidable. As Ivan Eland has observed, “Invading Iran would likely make the bloody quagmire in Iraq look like a picnic. Iran has nearly four times the territory and three times the population of Iraq. Also, Iran’s terrain is much more mountainous than Iraq’s and even more ideal for guerrilla warfare.”
If ethnic tensions in Khuzestan province can be effectively exploited by the U.S. and Britain, they may feel that a more limited destabilization or invasion will put Iran’s main oil province under Western control. In other words, the prospects of an invasion may loom larger simply because Bush thinks it can be a “mission accomplished” with less effort than an all-out conquest of Iran. Bush and Blair have used the prospects of civil war to justify their continuing occupation of Iraq (though their actions appear to be stimulating an Iraqi civil war). They are not above stimulating a little ethnic strife to get their way next door in Iran.
Most of Iran’s crude oil deposits are contained within Khuzestan.
Like in Iraq, Nigeria, or Colombia, much of the oil is under the
lands of an historically aggrieved ethnic minority. The Arab Shi’ites
living on the plains of Western Khuzestan share both their ethnicity
and faith with the majority Arab Shi’ites across the strategic
Shatt al-Arab waterway in Iraq. Arabs make up only 3 percent of
Iran’s population, but a majority (or at least a plurality)
of about 3 million live in Khuzestan (which some Arabs call “Ahwaz”
or “Arabistan”). Iranian-speaking Luri and Bakhtiari tribes
inhabit the Zagros mountain range to the east. Persians live in
the large provincial cities, such as Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz,
Dezful, and Bandar-e Khomeini.
A Key Pivot
or centuries Khuzestan was the seat of the
ancient civilization of Elam, with its capital at Susa. It was overrun
by numerous civilizations and tribes, including the Persian Empire
in 539 BC, and often functioned as a frontier zone between empires.
Arabs from Basra colonized the province in 642 AD, though it usually
has been formally controlled by Persia.
In 1897 the British Empire backed Khuzestani Arab rulers to secede from Persia and become the de facto British protectorate of Arabistan (much as the British did in neighboring Kuwait). The entire southern zone of Persia was declared a British “sphere of influence” in 1907 and the following year a British adventurer discovered oil in Arabistan, at Masjed Soleyman. The discovery created the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed British Petroleum (BP). In 1925 Reza Shah’s forces retook Arabistan and renamed it Khuzestan, as he renamed Persia as Iran a decade later.
British troops occupied Khuzestan during World War II, but after the war Iranians grew more concerned that Westerners had a stranglehold on their oil wealth. In 1951 the Iranian nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry based mainly in Khuzestan (including Anglo-Iranian’s holdings), drawing the wrath of Western powers. Two years later a CIA-engineered coup ousted Mossadegh and installed Shah Reza Paevi, who openedU.S.British oil concession.
In 1978 Arab oil workers in Khuzestan went on strike against the Shah and played a central role in the Iranian Revolution that toppled him the following year. They openly supported the revolution in its early months when it included leftist and other secular parties (that were later crushed by the Islamic Republic). Encouraged by Western powers that were threatened by the Iranian revolution, Saddam Hussein launched a brutal invasion of Khuzestan in 1980 and occupied its Western Arab oil region. He tried to engineer the secession of the province from Iran and backed an Arab separatist rebel group (which also briefly seized the Iranian Embassy in London).
In the Iran-Iraq War most Iranian Arab Shi’ites fought on the side of Persian-ruled Iran, just as Iraqi Arab Shi’ites fought on the side Saddam’s Sunniruled Iraq. State territoriality trumped both ethnic and religious territoriality in a massive slaughter complete with trench warfare and “human wave” attacks, aerial bombing, missile strikes, and the use of chemical weapons on both sides. Iranian forces pushed the Iraqis out of Khuzestan in 1982, but the province’s cities and oil refineries were the most heavily damaged in the war that finally ended in 1988. (The U.S. had cynically supplied aid to both sides, including a naval intervention to escort vessels carrying Iraqi oil and the sale of missiles to the Iranians.)
Iran remained neutral during the 1991 Gulf War, which was waged within earshot of Khuzestan. After the war, the U.S. allowed Saddam to crush an Iraqi Shi’ite rebellion next to Khuzestan, in fear that a Shi’ite majority-ruled Iraq would become a satellite of Tehran. Although Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani was born in Iran—and the holiest Shi’ite cities of Karbala and Najaf are within Iraq—the Iraqi Shi’ite clerics did not generally favor an Iranian-style theocratic state that might alienate their youth from the religion.
Tehran opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, even though it was glad to see Saddam’s capture. The contrast in U.S. and Iranian policy stands as a textbook case of the advantages of a political strategy over a military strategy. Washington invaded Iraq, lost at least 2,000 troops, was bogged down by a growing insurgency, and saw its influence (and its favored exile candidates) rejected by Iraqis. In contrast, Tehran watched as its second-greatest enemy eliminated its greatest enemy, advised its Iraqi allies to play along with the occupation so their candidates could run in elections, then saw the Shi’ite parties come to power—all without firing a shot.
I n 2005 the conflict between Iraqi Shi’ites and occupation forces has grown more intense, particularly in the oil-rich British occupation zone around Basra. A series of violent events has oddly pointed toward neighboring Khuzestan as (once again) the best barometer of conflict along the Iran-Iraq border.
In Basra on September 19 British troops clashed with Iraqi police and Shi’ite militia, who had ironically welcomed the toppling of Saddam. The police had arrested two British undercover commandos who possessed suspicious bomb-making materials. British troops launched an armored raid on the jail to free their agents, fighting the same Iraqi police they had earlier trained. Iraqis had thought it strange that British agents would be caught with the types of bombs associated with insurgents attacking “Coalition” troops, and some assumed that the agents were trying to pit Iraqi religious groups against each other.
At the same time bombs were going off across the border in Khuzestan. In June a series of car bombings in Ahvaz (75 miles from Basra) killed 6 people. In August, Iran arrested a group of Arab separatist rebels, and accused them of links to British intelligence in Basra. In September explosions hit Khuzestani cities, halting crude oil transfers from onshore wells. On October 15, 2 major bomb explosions in an Ahvaz market killed 4 and injured 95. A November 3 analysis in Asia Times blames Iraqi Sunni insurgents for the bombings.
Iranian officials accused Britain of backing the attacks and tied the rebel bombs to the British commando incident in Basra. The Beirut Daily Star reported on October 17 that Iranian officials “point to Western collusion in the sudden spike this year in ethnic unrest in the strategic, oil-prodKhuzestan and describe it as proof of a shadowy war that is receiving far less coverage in the international press than events in Iraq. Since the beginning of 2005, riots and a bombing campaign timed to coincide with the June presidential elections rocked Khuzestan’s major cities.”
Tony Blair and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied the charges and accused Tehran of sending agents to stir up trouble in Basra and other Iraqi cities, by supporting Iraqi Shi’ite militias. A London-based Arab exile group claimed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were establishing an exclusive military-industrial zone along the Iraqi border to support infiltration into Basra, were carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Arab farmers for this Free Zone project, and had conducted large exercises to practice quelling Arab unrest in Khuzestan.
In March Straw met with London-based Iranian Arab exiles. The following month a letter, allegedly from the Iranian vice president, was read on AlAhwaz television (broadcast from the U.S. via satellite) supposedly advocating the removal of Arabs from Khuzestan and the importing of Persians to the strategic region. Though Tehran denounced the letter as a forgery, Arab youths took to the streets of Ahvaz and clashed with police—5 were killed and over 400 Arabs were arrested in a crackdown after the riots. A November 4 demonstration during Eid (an Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan) protesting the continuing arrests of Arab activists reportedly ended with 2 protesters dead and 200 arrested, according to the British Ahwazi Friendship Society.
Watch the Western media for claims that Iran plans “ethnic cleansing,” on the scale of Kosovo or Darfur, in propaganda designed to manipulate naïve liberals or human rights groups. Wat Fox News for the neocon warning of an emerging “Shi’ite bloc” of Iran, southern Iraq, Alawite-ruled Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah (which incidentally has had training camps in Khuzestan). Neo-cons may even urge Bush to pull back support for Iraqi Shi’ite leaders and take a harder line on Iran’s nuclear and human rights violations.
Even if exaggerated claims and conspiracy theories can be easily challenged, their main purpose is to win public support in the West for a new war against Iran, just as false WMD claims were used to win congressional support for an Iraq invasion. Some Democrats may be gullible enough to accept such claims, including those who criticized Bush for confronting Iraq rather than Iran on WMD (such as John Kerry, who wrote that “tougher measures” may be needed against Iran).
Many of Khuzestan’s Arabs may seek to regain their autonomy from Tehran. But it is not clear that they wish to secede from Iran or to join Iraq—even if it is now ruled largely by fellow Arab Shi’ites. Iraqi Shi’ite leaders (many of whom recently returned from exile in Tehran) would not want to alienate their old friends by encouraging Khuzestan’s Arabs or allowing Iraqi territory to be used as a launching pad for a new invasion.
The U.S. and Britain do not necessarily need Iraqi territory to invade Iran. They can launch strikes from aircraft carriers against Iranian nuclear power installations. If their goal is oil-rich Khuzestan, they can again use nearby Kuwait as a staging ground for this new invasion to “liberate” oppressed Arabs. If their ultimate goal is Tehran, they could use Afghanistan or Azerbaijan as a staging ground. They could stimulate rebellion among ethnic Azeris in northwestern Iran (as the Soviets did at the end of World War II) or among Iranian Kurds—at the risk of inspiring separatists in Iraq and Turkey.
The Khuzestan Gambit
T he Beirut Daily Star predicts that the “first step taken by an invading force would be to occupy Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, securing the sensitive Straits of Hormuz and cutting off the Iranian military’s oil supply, forcing it to depend on its limited stocks.” The defense website Globalsecurity.org even names this invasion strategy the Khuzestan Gambit, astutely observing that the province “is the one large piece of flat Iranian terrain to the west of the Zagros Mountains. U.S. heavy forces could swiftly occupy Khuzestan, and in doing so seize control of most of Iran’s oil resources, and non-trivial portions of the country’s water supply and electrical generating capacity.”
Like previous strategies in Iraq, this one will be sure to backfire, destroying any chance of reform in Iran and rallying “moderate” Iranians around their government. Even a limited intervention—for example, to halt an Iranian crackdown on Arab dissidents— could inspire Arab Gulf states to militarily assert their claims to islands long disputed with Iran. If Khuzestan officially or unofficially secedes, the move could set into motion the “Balkanization” of Iran, which would inevitably tear apart neighboring countries.
On top of all that the U.S. and Britain may lose a new war against Iran, just as they are losing the war in Iraq. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are more formidable than Saddam’s Republican Guard. The Iranian military could launch a counterattack or effectively melt into an Iraq-style insurgency. If Tehran feels backed into a corner, it may desperately retaliate with exactly the strategy that Bush and Blair have accused it of—backing attacks on the West and Israel or deploying nuclear weapons. If their land and oil were being occupied anyway, what would Iranians have to lose?
Zoltan Grossman teaches geography and Native American Studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He has written and organized around connections between military interventions, natural resources, and ethnic nationhood. (Thanks to Ali Abootalebi for draft comments.)
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
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MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.