Separatist Sentiment In Iran Is Rising
Lessons for Western leaders to never capituate to the regime.
The street protests that have taken place in Iran this summer are of two kinds. First, there are continued protests against the mismanagement of the economy, the corruption of the Islamic Republic’s leaders, and the continued transfer of Iranian wealth to support such proxies and allies as the Houthis in Yemen, Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, and especially, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the terror group supported by $700 million transferred annually from Iran. Second, there are the demonstrations by ethnic minorities, who make up 50% of Iran’s population, and bristle under the continued dominance of the Persians.
A report on the recent displays of separatist sentiment, focusing on Arab-populated Ahwaz Province, is here: “Dismantle the Islamic Republic,” by Mordechai Kedar, Algemeiner, August 12, 2021:
In recent weeks, mass demonstrations have taken place in three peripheral provinces of Iran populated by non-Persian ethnic groups. The most prominent is the Arab-inhabited Ahwaz province, located on the banks of the Persian Gulf. Mass demonstrations were also conducted in the Kurdish and Azeri regions in the north of the country.
Iran’s economic crisis has resulted in a lack of investment in, among other things, water infrastructure. The Persian region of Iran has suffered severe drought for years. To address that problem, the Islamic regime diverted streams from the province of Ahwaz to the Persian region. This resulted in thousands of cows, sheep, and goats in Ahwaz dying of thirst. Because those animals are the source of many of their livelihoods, the people of Ahwaz consider the water diversion a theft….
Iranian leaders made their choice: they have spent, and continue to spend, billions of dollars on their nuclear project, the care and feeding of the IRGC, and on proxies and allies from Yemen to Lebanon — money that has not been spent on infrastructure to conserve water resources, on desalination plants, on the production of water from the air (a method now perfected by Israel’s Watergen company), and on drip irrigation.
During the last few years, there has been a severe drought in the Persian-populated parts of central Iran. In response, the government has chosen to divert water from Arab-populated Ahwaz in the south to central Iran. Ahwaz farmers paid the price: their livestock – cows, sheep, and goats – have died of thirst, impoverishing many of the Arab farmers. They naturally have been angered by Teheran’s water policy, its diversion of water to the north seen as one more example of the Persian-dominated central government’s inattention to their plight.
The Iranian government has not invested in “smokestack scrubbers” that could greatly decrease the amount of toxic emissions; it appears indifferent to the health of the Ahwazi Arabs. Since all the oil and gas in Iran comes from the Ahwaz region, it is the Ahwazi Arabs alone who continue to suffer the consequences of the toxic substances emitted by the oil and gas industry. The “uncaptured” toxic substances enter the soil, where they the poison the fruits and vegetables that the Ahwazis produce, and poison, too, the waters of the Gulf, and thus the fish that the Ahwazis rely on for food. This exposure to such poisons through their diet causes many Ahwazi women to give birth to deformed babies. Yet the Tehran government continues to ignore the need to clean up the oil-and-gas toxins emitted into the atmosphere that could be “captured” at the source through a “ smokestack scrubbers” policy.
The Ahwazi charge – that the Persian rulers wanted to situate the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Ahwaz, where in case of any accident or meltdown, it will not be Persians but the local Arabs who will be harmed – is entirely consonant with Persian policy toward the Ahwazi Arabs, one of criminal indifference to their health and wellbeing.
The Ahwazis began protesting over the issue of water being “stolen” by the Persians – i.e., diverted from Ahwaz to the north – and metamorphosed into a demand that Ahwaz become independent from “Iranian occupation.” The Iranian government will never agree to that, for it would mean losing all of its oil-and-gas production, but the very fact that such a demand for Ahwazi independence is now being made is terrifying to Tehran. It must wonder who else is behind that demand? Is it Sunni Arab states in the Gulf, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who want to tear away from Iran its main source of wealth, and are offering Ahwazi separatists financial and military support? Or could Israel itself be promising to supply the Ahwazis with weaponry and training to help them withstand, by force, any attempt by Tehran to crush the Arab separatists? Most likely, both the Sunni Arab states and Israel will be offering support, should the Ahwazi Arabs manage to break out in a large-scale open revolt that the Iranians are unable to suppress, for Israel and its Gulf allies want to encourage the Ahwazi separatist movement, as a simple way to threaten the economy, and undermine the security, of the Iranian state, and to keep it preoccupied with suppressing that revolt in the country’s oil-and-gas bearing south. It’s not only the Ahwazi revolt that in itself threatens the security of the state, but the effect of such a revolt on other ethnic minorities, including the Azeris, the Kurds, and the Balochis, who would be heartened by, and want to emulate, the Ahwazi example.
In response to the Ahwazis’ demand for independence, the regime cut off the Internet in the province. People from the area now have to film events in Ahwaz and travel to other areas to get the images out to the world.
Concurrently with the outbreak of demonstrations in Ahwaz, demonstrations broke out in support of the Kurdish and Azeri regions in northern Iran, as well as in Tehran, where slogans like “Death to the dictator” [the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei] and “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, the money for Iranians” were chanted.
The 20 million Azeris in Iran constitute about one-quarter of the country’s population, and right next door to the Azeri-populated parts of western Iran is the state of Azerbaijan, which has 10 million Azeris and a well-trained and well-supplied army. Azerbaijan could serve as a conduit for arms and money to the Azeri separatists – whose goal is not a separate state, like that desired by the Ahwazi Arabs — but rather, the incorporation of the Azeri-populated areas of Iran into an enlarged Azerbaijan. Were that effort to succeed, it would dramatically decrease Iran’s size, and strengthen its neighbor Azerbaijan, which just happens to be a close ally of Israel. Israel has long been a major supplier of weaponry to Azerbaijan. And Azerbaijan, in turn, has been mentioned as a possible site for an Israeli forward operating base in any future conflict with Iran. It’s a lot easier to bomb Iranian sites from Azerbaijan than from Israel. No wonder the Iranians will move heaven and earth to keep the Azeri separatist effort from succeeding.
It is important to note that despite widespread opposition to the Islamist regime among Iranians of Persian descent, they oppose the demand of ethnic minorities for disengagement from Iran. Indeed, when I [the author and former IDF intelligence analyst, Mordechai Kedar] raised in meetings with Persian-Iranian exiles the possibility that Iran would be partitioned into ethnic/national states (Persians, Arabs, Baluchs, Kurds, Turkmen, etc.) similar to what happened in the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, their response was always completely negative. They aspire to remove the ayatollahs from power, and some even speak of the return of the Shah’s son and the renewal of the monarchy, but they unequivocally support Iran’s continued existence in its current form, which perpetuates Persian control of the country’s many ethnic minorities….
Persian Iranians in exile, though ferocious enemies of the Islamic regime, are also, however, proud Persian nationalists, who oppose the separatist movements – by Arabs, Azeris, Kurds, and Balochis – that would reduce Persia’s power and size. They want a change of regime, not a much diminished homeland.
Arabs, Azeris, Kurds, and Balochis, who for years have been conducting their own unconnected campaigns for greater rights, have been — according to the senior Israeli intelligence analyst Mordechai Kedar — more recently collaborating with each other, keenly aware that if they were to simultaneously rise in revolt, the Iranian army would have a hard time suppressing four distinct separatist groups “on the edges of Iran.” These include the two million Ahwazi Arabs in the south, on the Gulf, whom Sunni Arabs might be eager to aid, not just out of ethnic solidarity, but to deprive the Islamic Republic of the oil and gas production on which its wellbeing is completely dependent; the three million Balochis – Sunnis persecuted by the Shi’a Persians — in the far east, who could obtain reinforcements and weapons from the eight million Balochis right across the border in Pakistan; the 20 million Azeris in Iran who can count on the support of the 10 million of their fellows in Azerbaijan, well-armed and battle-hardened from the war in Nagorno-Karabakh; and the twelve million Kurds in northwestern Iraq, who can receive various kinds of aid (weapons, money, and volunteers) from the twenty-five million Kurds who live in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
An end to the current Iranian regime, and the replacement of the ruling Islamists by secular democrats, would put an end to Iran’s regional aggression, that had been undertaken by the Islamic Republic to help other Islamist groups, from the Houthis to Hezbollah, in order to spread the Iranian revolution, and Iran’s power, across the Middle East.
Along with a change in its regime, the disintegration of Iran, through the success of separatist movements among the Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, and Balochis, would ensure that even were Iran, most implausibly, to again revert to Islamism, it would be so reduced in size and wealth as to no longer constitute a threat to Israel, or to the Sunni states of the Gulf, or to the mullahs’ “Great Satan,” America.
The international community must therefore vigorously support the struggle of the ethnic/national minorities in Iran against the Islamist regime (as well as the struggle of the Persian majority against this regime) and their efforts to dismantle the Iranian state. President Biden must immediately abandon any intention to return to the nuclear deal or to remove sanctions from the regime, and instead invest significant resources — overt and covert, civilian and military — in helping the Iranian minorities free themselves from Persian suffocation.
An excellent idea from Mordechai Kedar, with his 25 years of experience as a senior intelligence officer for the IDF. The Bidenites should stop their policy of capitulation to the Iranians, forget about a return to the disastrous 2015 Iran deal that Iran, whatever it promises, has no intention of observing, keep in place those most effective sanctions, that have been wreaking havoc with Iran’s economy, and instead, direct American efforts to supporting the various separatist movements inside Iran – with weapons, with training, with money — whose success will put paid to any further dreams of geopolitical glory by a diminished, even dimidiated, Iran.