by Joost Hiltermann, Ali Vaez, Elizabeth Dickinson, and Daniel Scheiderman
An attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on September 22, which killed 29 people, dangerously raised tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Iran accused a local insurgent group (which claimed responsibility), but also pointed to what it said were the group’s enablers in the Gulf and in Washington. The U.S. State Department issued a muted condemnation while proceeding with its otherwise openly hostile rhetoric toward Tehran. And key Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, stayed mostly silent, failing to condemn the attack or express sorrow for its victims. A tragedy can create opportunities for diplomacy and eventually a new accommodation, but instead, after Ahvaz, all sides are feeding the risk of further escalation.
I. One Shock Away from Conflagration
The attack on a military parade in Ahvaz comes at a moment of heightening tensions throughout the Middle East following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May. A local group called the Ahvaz National Resistance Front promptly claimed responsibility, as did the Islamic State. Iran lent credence to the Front’s claim, accusing the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark of harboring members of the group and providing them with a media platform. But it also pointed a finger at unspecified Gulf states and the U.S. for sponsoring the attack. The truth may eventually out, but well before that a dangerous escalation could occur in the Gulf on the basis of suspicions alone.
While even the U.S. State Department issued a condemnation of the attack – albeit a muted one – despite the Trump administration’s strong animus toward the Iranian regime, Saudi Arabia remained silent. It may be reckoning that even an expression of sympathy would not absolve it in Iranian eyes, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has barely disguised his hostility toward Tehran. But condolences could help reduce tensions. Tehran is likely to interpret silence as a tacit admission of guilt and this could raise tensions when there is also an opportunity to lower them.
In withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump administration made clear that it deemed the nuclear deal not only inherently flawed but also insufficient in that it failed to cover Iran’s missile program and regional activism through the use of proxy militias. In this latter concern, it found allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Israel, which either had mixed views about, or openly opposed, the JCPOA but adamantly opposed any accommodation with Iran as a result of signing the deal. This partly explains enthusiasm with which they greeted an American president sensitive to their primary concerns and willing to counter Iran, at least rhetorically.
Like his predecessor, Trump appears wary of being drawn into a war in the region. At the same time, his regional allies are becoming impatient, seeing Iran’s hand in political struggles and violent conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. They want U.S. help in pushing back Iran’s influence in the region because they cannot confront Iran’s missiles or militias alone and walk away unscathed. So far, they have benefitted from Tehran’s decision to ignore provocations while it tries to save the JCPOA by waiting out the Trump administration. Iran has remained restrained in response to repeated Israeli attacks on its assets and personnel in Syria and continued to abide by the nuclear deal despite Washington’s withdrawal. The notoriously volatile Strait of Hormuz has been calmer than even during the Obama administration after the signing of the JCPOA.
But Iran’s patience could wear thin. Attacks on the guardians of a regime born in the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), may be too much to bear for its hardliners, now likely itching for revenge. The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move borne of overconfidence, a misread signal, or a misinterpreted or misattributed event could set the region aflame.
II. Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point
Iran’s border provinces, where the majority of the country’s ethnic and sectarian minorities reside, have been historically restive – be it the Kurds in the west, Azeris in the north east, Arabs in the south west or Balochis in the south east. Like in other frontier provinces, the Ahvazis have legitimate grievances against the central government. Sitting on Iran’s vast oil and gas richness, Khuzestan province remains impoverished and underdeveloped. Discrimination against the region’s majority-Arab population and Sunni minorities dates to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in the early twentieth century. Severe environmental degradation and relentless dust storms have transformed the province from a “wetland to a wasteland”. These issues have repeatedly stirred protests over the years, including most recently in July, with locals angry about a lack of access to clean water. These local problems have fueled more radical separatist movements and are exploited by regional and extra-regional powers hostile to the Islamic Republic.
The Ahvaz National Resistance Front is an umbrella organization for several separatist groups, one of which, Nezal (Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz ), launched a satellite TV channel seven months ago. It broadcasts a media campaign against the central government in Tehran, inviting the locals to resist its rule through sabotaging oil pipelines and destroying public and private property. The group’s increased activism in recent months points to new resources, which Iranian authorities allege are coming from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with encouragement from Washington.
Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threatened that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran”. Such declarations play into the Iranian narrative and fears. So does a 2017 memo by John Bolton, currently the U.S. national security advisor, that advocated “providing assistance” to Khuzestan Arabs and other minorities in Iran as a means of building pressure on the country and containing its regional influence. That neither Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or the White House condemned the attack in Ahvaz (the U.S. State Department did, however) further confirms Iran’s suspicions. These are compounded by commentary from prominent Emiratis that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that attacks of this kind “will increase during the next phase”.
Regardless of who instigated it – if this wasn’t an independent operation by the Ahvaz National Resistance Front – the attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart. Iranian grievances caused by internal mismanagement and shortsightedness could be exploited by regional actors and exacerbated by global powers, further deepening internal fault lines and fueling tensions. Iran has been largely shielded from this plague so far; if that changes, regional turmoil will doubtless escalate further.
The Ahvaz attack, however, could also play in the Iranian leaders’ favor. They have been warning for a while that the hostile administration in the U.S. is not targeting the Islamic Republic, but Iran as a polity. The discourse revolves around the concept of Iran’s “Syria-cization” – an alleged ploy by the U.S. and its allies to fragment Iran along its ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Propagating a siege mentality could help change the subject domestically from complaints over mounting economic troubles to a nationalistic rallying around the flag to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, which requires a strong central government.
The attack could also play into the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which despite a series of recent missteps (failing to foil ISIS’s twin strikes in Tehran last year, Israel’s January 2018 coup in removing the country’s nuclear secrets from the heart of the capital and now the targeting of the Ahvaz parade on the Iranian equivalent of Memorial Day in the U.S.) is likely to receive more government support to crack down on separatist groups and fix security breaches. It is also likely to have more maneuvering space to flex its muscles in the region, either by pushing back against Iranian armed dissidents – as the recent missile attacks on the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrated – or imposing a cost on the U.S. and its allies by indirectly targeting their assets.
There will be tensions between the urge to retaliate and the imperative of sticking to Iran’s “strategic patience” strategy, which the leadership deems expedient for surviving a rough patch. Iran’s response ultimately depends on a broad range of elements, from dynamics within the region to what the remaining parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) can do to preserve some of its economic dividends for Tehran.
III. More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf
The attack in Ahvaz is likely to ratchet up regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia while reinforcing widely held, if questionable, suspicions among many in Riyadh and its Gulf allies that the Iranian regime is on the verge of crumbling from within. Calmer actors on both sides would see this moment as a sign that détente between Riyadh and Tehran is more necessary than ever. More likely, however, the incident will embolden those in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Washington who argue for ever-stronger economic sanctions and more direct military pressure against Iran. To at least some of these hawks, the goal is not just to roll back Iran’s regional footprint but to encourage political change in Tehran.
There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault. Neither Riyadh, nor Abu Dhabi nor Manama issued statements. The Qatari and Kuwaiti foreign ministries decried the incident in statements that only further deepened splits within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Among Saudi grievances with Qatar is Doha’s warmer relationship with Tehran. (After the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s chargé was summoned in Tehran the day after the attack, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted a denial of UAE support for the Ahvaz militants.)
Their silence is illustrative of an increasingly mainstream view in the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini security apparatuses that the region’s ills all link to Iran. While not new, this reading has taken on a new intensity and urgency. Gulf powers sense a regional power vacuum and are engaged in a zero-sum competition to fill space. And unrest is moving ever closer to home, as Yemen’s Iranian-allied Houthi rebels fire ballistic missiles at the kingdom. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are also keen to keep the Trump administration’s attention focused on Iran, realizing they may not always have a sympathetic ear in the White House.
In this context, it is tempting for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular to wish for and even anticipate regime change in Tehran. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi viewed economic protests in Iran earlier this year as the first crack in stability. To some Saudi and Emirati commentators, the Ahvaz attack is further evidence of an Islamic Republic whose citizens are losing patience. While they do not expect a full-scale popular uprising tomorrow, they see change on the horizon, provided sanctions can continue squeezing the Iranian economy.
Ahvaz is a particularly sensitive area for the Gulf’s relations with Iran. Home to an Arab minority as well as an important military base, Khuzestan province, of which Ahvaz is the capital, has long been a point of contention between them. It was the area of Iran which Iraqi forces invaded in 1980, hoping to be welcomed by the local population and push on from there to Tehran in a swift motion. Sunnis in the Gulf have often pointed to Iran’s treatment of its Arab Sunni minority (a subset of Khuzestan’s Arab population) as evidence of a sectarian regime that deserves censure. Solidarity with Iran’s Sunni community, in particular, is widespread in the Saudi media and society. Saudi and Emirati commentators pointed to Saturday’s attack as a sign that Iran’s beleaguered minorities are finally fed up. Tehran is in fact to blame, they argue; Sunnis and other minorities have faced repression for too long. Ahvaz is the inevitable explosion from keeping the lid on a boiling kettle.
In the coming days, some in the Gulf expect that the events in Ahvaz could give Iran an “excuse” to play the regional victim – and offer justification for both a further crackdown on its Sunni minority and an attempt to retaliate in the region. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “may try to do anything anywhere” in response to the attack, a Saudi analyst close to the government told Crisis Group.
All this bodes terribly for Iran-Saudi tensions, and in turn, stability in the half-dozen countries where the two powers are competing by proxy. Saudi Arabia and Iran may trade insults, but in Yemen, Iraq and even distant theaters from Afghanistan to West Africa, their respective allies will trade gunfire until the two states find a new accommodation in the Gulf.
IV. No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran
Heading into the coming “high level week” of the UN General Assembly, any U.S. counterpart hoping to see a more dovish side of the U.S. when it comes to Iran policy is likely to be disappointed.
True, the State Department condemned the attack, saying: “We stand with the Iranian people against the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism and express our sympathy to them at this terrible time”. In another context, a statement like this might be seen as a subtle olive branch to Iran. After all, last year the administration blamed Iran’s government for a series of jihadist attacks that took place on a single day in June 2017 against Iran’s Parliament building and Khomeini’s tomb. That yesterday’s milder statement was made under the watch of the highly hawkish current National Security Adviser John Bolton (a lead architect of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal) rather than his more measured predecessor, H.R. McMaster, made the discrepancy all the more interesting.
Yet there is no reason to believe U.S. policy is diverting from its confrontational track. The U.S. has made clear since May (when it pulled out of the Iran deal) that it would pressure the Iranian regime to end its destabilizing regional activities and reinstate a tough sanctions regime. It followed up by creating the Iran Action Group at State, led by new Special Representative Brian Hook, charged with implementing that policy. More than the Ahvaz statement, the correct bellwether of U.S. posture toward Iran is likely what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 21 September (in an interview with CNN’s Elise Labott): “We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor”. This referred to the U.S. perception that Iranian proxy forces in Iraq are responsible for attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate in Basra – and was a none too subtle hint that such proxy action could trigger a direct U.S. attack on Iran itself.
Reprinted with permission from the International Crisis Group. Joost Hiltermann is Middle East and North Africa program director for ICG, Ali Vaez is the project director for Iran, Elizabeth Dickinson is senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula, and Daniel Schneiderman is the deputy U.S. program director.