Khuzestan is one of contemporary Iran’s 30 provinces and provider of more than 80 percent of the three million barrels a day the country produces. Its main city Ahwaz, located in the south west on the borders of Iraq and the Persian Gulf, was called Shoosh (Susa) 6,000 years ago. It was then the capital of ancient Elam and became the foundation of the Persian Empire forged by Alexander the Great.
Its population of 3.5 to 5 million is mainly Arab Shiite Muslim. Some call the province Arabistan. Its conquest was Saddam Hussein’s strategic objective in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.
Complaining of decades-long discrimination, Khuzestani Arabs have since April 15 been waging a Spring Intifada against the Persian government in Tehran. While Iran claims only three fatalities, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that between 250 and 300 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in riots sweeping the region for almost a week.
Oil fields have been spared so far, but bridges, railway lines, power and water pumping stations and roads have been blown up in a well-laid guerrilla campaign aimed at paralyzing the province.
Wednesday, April 20, was the 80th anniversary of Khuzistan’s conquest by the Iranian army. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that the province’s Arab Shiites marked the day with a letter to Tehran listing their demands on behalf of all eight provincial Arab parties. The demands stunned the Iranian leaders and convinced them that the Americans were behind the violence as part of a conspiracy to seize control of the province’s abundant oil fields. They are also certain that the demands were interlocked with Washington’s future plans to penalize Iran for its nuclear aspirations. Tehran expects these penalties to hinge on an attempt to impose an embargo on Iranian oil exports, a measure that will focus world attention on the oil fields of Khuzestan.
The Iranian government acknowledges that poverty and discrimination were powerful spurs to the uprising. But officials in Tehran say they have intelligence pointing to external provocateurs. They accuse the US Central Intelligence Agency and Britain's MI6 of actively fomenting the Intifada, manipulating Khuzestan's Arabs from Washington, London and Iraqi Basra on the opposite bank of the Shaat al-Arab waterway.
The Islamic government in Tehran is convinced that the steps the Americans have set in motion in Khuzestan are part of a softening-up offensive prior to a political campaign to topple the regime.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has obtained the list of demands sent to Tehran:
1. A willingness to enter into negotiations on Arab autonomy in the province.
2. Failing such willingness, the Arabs of Khuzestan will resort to a land-for-oil formula which, according to our sources in the province, will leave them a free hand to turn to the “Western Powers” meaning the United States with the offer of a stake in the province’s oil resources in return for US recognition of Khuzestan as an independent Arab state.
For the present, the eight Arab parties lack the strength to threaten Iran’s ownership of the oil fields, but in the long term, they conceive of a spreading guerrilla war that will strike at wells, installations and pipelines.
They also foresee using a general strike to shut down oil production, forcing Iran either to break the stoppage by force or bring in the army to operate the fields, thus pinning down large Iranian army contingents.
Such a strike could be declared in the wake of a UN Security Council embargo resolution against Iranian oil exports. The strike would then be presented as a response to the UN measure and the Khuzestan population would claim UN protection against Tehran’s wrath.
The Khuzestanis do not see themselves fighting alone. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Iran’s secret services this week apprehended a number of Kurdish agents. When they and local guerrilla fighters were questioned, they revealed that Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani had sent them to organize networks for smuggling weapons, explosives, money and fighters into Khuzestan.
Tehran naturally suspects the Americans of being behind the Kurdish operation, but the Iranians also fear that Iraqi Kurds are building up ties with Khuzestani Arabs for a later claim to repay the debt by coordinating their uprising with demonstrations, riots and guerrilla operations staged by Iran’s 6-9 million Kurds.
Tehran fears three more uprisings in store
For Tehran, a synchronized Khuzestan Arab-Kurdish uprising is the stuff of nightmares.
3. Even if the government agrees to enter into negotiations with the leaders of Khuzestan, they will still ask the UN to set up a panel to determine what portion of oil revenues is due the autonomous province.
4. All Arab political prisoners, an estimated 2,000, must be released.
5. New accords for the redistribution of local water, especially from the Karoun River.
6. Recognition of Arabic as the official language of the province.
7. The freedom to use Arabic for TV, radio and the Internet.
8. Army and police officers in the main towns to be replaced by local Arabs.
9. A general amnesty for Arab political and underground activists in exile.
10. A halt to the Iranization of the province.
The fear of uprisings on three more ethnic fronts is therefore painfully present in Tehran as a result of the Khuzestan intifada. The most susceptible are the Kurdish tribes of western Iran right up against the Iraqi border and the Azeris in the northwest.
Iran's Kurds have been looking on enviously at the election of an Iraqi Kurd as Iraqi president and a semi-independent Kurdistan thriving in northern Iraq. As for the Azeri minority, the Central Asian republic of Azerbaijan is encouraging its ethnic brethren in Iran to seek independence.
The situation in the southeastern province of Balochistan is also deteriorating. Here too Iran claims American agents infiltrating from neighboring Pakistan are inciting the population to rise up against the Tehran government. US operatives, Tehran says, are also employing local residents to spy on Iran's nuclear program and military activities.
Iran has good reason to feel the United States is tightening the noose.
Washington recently approved a first allotment of $3 million to opposition groups and human rights organizations in Iran to fund their anti-government activities. That is quite a war chest in a country where the average annual salary is only $1,800.
Top officials rushed in from Tehran
On the face of it, the Spring Intifada was sparked by a rumor that Hojjat-Ol-Eslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former aide to president Mohammed Khatami, wrote a memo seven years ago recommending the Persian population of the province be increased to outnumber and assimilate the Arabs. The memo was distributed across Khuzestan and excerpts broadcast over Arab radio and television stations. Abtahi said it was forged.
Tehran contends the Americans, with the help of British and Israeli agents, operating from Basra, hatched the plot. Arab countries were accused of disseminating the forged paper and an al-Jazeera television correspondent expelled for helping stir up an Arab rebellion.
On the stages of the uprising, our sources report that Arab fighters broke out the largest amount of explosives they have used to date for attacks Tuesday, April 19. The insurgents blew their way into five banks in Khuzestan, robbing and destroying them. Railway tracks were also hit by a series of explosions.
Iranian forces swiftly seized the headquarters of the Islamic Popular Front of Ahwaz and took the group’s general secretary, Yunes Ansari, and several of his aides into custody.
The eruption of riots in several locations further fueled Iran’s suspicions of an outside choreographer. Disturbances broke out first in the Arab neighborhoods of Ahwaz, but spread within hours to the nearby Arab towns of Mah-Shahr, Hamidieh and Kut Abdallah. The fighting in Khorramshar resumed Tuesday and spilled over into the following day.
The Khuzestan Arab insurgents have throughout taken care not to shoot Iranian police or army units. But the government was so worried that the violence might spin out of control, that defense minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani was dispatched to the region Tuesday, April 19 along with three ethnic Arab parliament members led by Ahmed Masawi.
The next day, after he was virtually hounded out, another top gun stepped in, Hassan Rohani, head of the national security council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
Defense minister Shamkhani: I’m an Arab like you
Shamkhani did his best to reason with the restive Arab community by using his own Arab origin as a native Ahwazi.
“An Arab like you, I pulled myself up to the top of the Iranian government,” he told them. “It is the same government that you are attacking. You see? Every door in Tehran is open to the Arab community. No one is discriminating against you, no matter what you may think.”
Arab notables were buying none of it. They hurled “traitor” and “collaborator” at him and, in some places, Shamkhani needed his bodyguards to fend off angry mobs. He cut short his visit – but not before ordering troop reinforcements to Khuzestan.
As soon as he was gone, the Revolutionary Guards rushed special units to the province from the Bandar Abbas base on the Persian Gulf. They started out by arresting hundreds of Arab members of the 92nd Iranian division which guards Khuzestan's oil fields and maintains public order in the province, but not before hundreds had deserted and gone over to the rebels.
The mass desertions and arrests left a large gap that was filled by the 1,000 troops the Iranian defense ministry sent in to take their place. Wednesday, Tehran also dropped Arabic-language leaflets over the troubled province calling for an end to the violence as harmful to the Arab cause. They were purportedly signed by local Arab groups and distributed by the Iranian secret service.
On the same day, all Iran's presidential candidates announced appointments of ethnic Arab campaign managers in Khuzestan.
Khuzestan Fact Box:
Khuzestan is water-rich as well as sitting on an oil lake. The Karoun River flows through Ahwaz and empties into the Shaat al-Arab waterway to the south. Abundant water, fertile land and a warm climate make for intensive agriculture.
A large proportion of the population is ethnically Arab, speaks Arabic and finds Iranian culture and the Farsi language alien.
While sharing the Shiite Muslim faith of the revolutionary regime in Tehran, this community of ethnic Arabs has suffered official discrimination that has bred bitterness and anti-government violence.
In the early months of the Islamic revolution of 1979, Khuzestan's Arabs rose up in favor of secession from Iran. Government troops brutally suppressed the revolt, exiling the province’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Shobeir Khaghani to the Iranian holy city of Qom under arrest.
Arab rulers have for decades coveted Khuzestan, or Arabistan, and given its towns Arabic names. When pan-Arab nationalism was in its heyday in the 1960s, Egypt’s Gemal Abdul Nasser demanded it be snatched from Iran. In this period of high Iranian-Egyptian tension, the shah turned to Israel to combine forces against the Egyptian threat to both.
Egged on by the United States, Saddam Hussein in 1979 went to war against Ruhollah Khomeini‘s revolutionary regime, in the hope of grabbing Khuzestan and its riches. In the eight-year conflict, Iraqi forces captured Khorramshar and Abadan, across from Basra in Iraq, but failed to lay hands on the provincial capital, Ahwaz. Iraq did not keep Khorramshar and Abadan for long and it's army was driven back across the border into Iraq with the Iranian military on its heels.
Ethnic Arabs and West forge alliance in heat of 9/11
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the West began taking an interest in the Arabs of Khuzestan as a fresh club against the Iranian regime. Avowing its ambition to “export Islamic revolution,” the Islamic republic has always sponsored terrorists. It also maintained secret ties with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. These ties were consolidated as a result of the Afghan War when Tehran opened its borders and granted al Qaeda fugitives free passage to safety.
Khuzestan’s Shiite Arabs were reported by US intelligence operatives as perceiving 9/11 as a Sunni assault on America – and thus an opportunity to win Washington’s support for their cause in one of the world's richest oil regions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Islamic and counter-terrorism sources describe this coupling as one of the least expected byproducts of the Sept 11, 2001 atrocities. Since then, US and British agents have developed active relations with, and an overseas support system for, Khuzestan's Arab dissidents. In 2002 and 2003, Western operational centers were set up for Khuzestan’s eight political parties in Washington, London and Amsterdam.
The largest of the eight is the National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz (NLMA). Abdel Hamid Salah Nazari is the NLMA's liaison with the State Department, CIA and National Security Council; The Democratic Solidarity Party of Ahwaz (DSPA) comes next, led by Mansour Ahawazi.
The other six parties are the Islamic Conciliation Party, the Ahwazi National Democratic Movement, al-Miad, the Arabistan Liberation Front – whose ideology and structure mirror those of the Palestinian Liberation fronts – a-Nahada and the Arab Front for the Liberation of Ahwaz.
Our counter-terrorism sources note that the party leaders and activists all use false identities; their real names would give away their clan affiliations and bring their extended families into jeopardy at the hands of Iran's intelligence services.
Stronger Khuzestani ties with the West since 2003
The foreign operational centers have produced at least four Arabic-language radio stations which broadcast to Khuzestan via the Internet. A magazine, The Correspondent, is printed in Amsterdam and smuggled into the province. Another four short wave Arabic-language radio stations beam programs into the Iranian province from Abu Dhabi. All these projects are part of the expanding US and British involvement in Khuzestan’s Arabs.
Western governments and Arab nationalists have also prevailed on Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states to each adopt a Khuzestan Arab party.
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the entrenchment of British military rule in on the northern bank of the Shaat al-Arab, in Basra and along the Iraqi frontier with Khuzestan opened up the first direct contact between the West and Arab political leaders in the province.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, in June 2004, US and British intelligence engineered a change of NLMA leadership.
A young guard grabbed power, appointing Hazal al-Hashemi (a code name) the group’s leader and military chief and Said Taher Naama as his deputy, with responsibility for its political affairs. The move paved the way for unified operations with the Arab Front for the Liberation of Ahwaz. These two factions together spearheaded this week’s uprising in Khuzestan, including guerrilla attacks against Iranian institutions.
Between early 2004 and now, ties have grown stronger between Khuzestan’s ethnic Arabs and the three Western operations centers. Secret delegations visited Washington and London and met Congressmen and British members of parliament. Funds totaling several million dollars were funneled into Khuzestan.
Last month, a delegation representing the eight Arab parties met secretly in London with British foreign secretary Jack Straw, the first such contact with a high-ranking Western figure. The talks coincided with stepped-up activities in the field, including the distribution in Khuzestan of two books – National Arab Action, Arabism and the Invasion by Bakr Saraf and National Identity and the Enemies by Abdullah Saweidi.
Those books laid the groundwork for the spring rebellion.
Hidden between their pages was a list of Arab agents working undercover for the Iranian authorities. Recipients were warned to stay clear of those agents.
Kuwait has opened a second front against Iran. Wednesday, April 20, the Kuwait foreign minister was dispatched to Tehran to voice deep concern about a possible accident at the Bushehr nuclear reactor contaminating the entire Gulf region. Prior to his mission, another senior Kuwaiti official called on Mohamad ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to discuss the dangers posed by the Bushehr project. Other Gulf states are likely to follow Kuwait’s lead in the coming weeks.