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Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions
Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions
Ayatollah Khamenei receives Iranian officials, ambassadors of Muslim countries, on 18 May 2015. khamenei.ir
Report 166 / Middle East & North Africa

Iran After the Nuclear Deal

Some in the West hope the nuclear deal with Iran will empower the country’s moderates. But playing Iranian domestic politics directly could backfire. The West should recognise that any change will be gradual, best supported by implementing the nuclear accord, resuming trade, and diplomacy that balances Iranian and Arab interests in the Middle East.

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Executive Summary

With the nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers in force, a chief question is what it means for Iran. The clash between competing visions of the country’s future has heightened since the deal. Many, there and abroad, believe it could rebalance domestic politics. It not only has boosted the profile of those who promoted it, but, more fundamentally, it has opened space for new debates in a domestic sphere that was dominated by the nuclear issue for more than a decade. Yet, the political system, with its multiple power centres and tutelary bodies, inherently favours continuity. As its guardians try to quell the deal’s reverberations and preserve the balance of power, any attempt by Western countries to play politics within the Iranian system – for instance by trying to push it in a “moderate” direction – could well backfire. If world powers hope to progress on areas of concern and common interest, they must engage Iran as it is, not the Iran they wish to see. To start, all sides should fulfil their commitments under the nuclear deal.

The accord comes at a sensitive moment. Over eighteen months, three pivotal elections are scheduled. February 2016 will see polls for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, whose key mandate is to choose the next supreme leader; in June 2017, there will be a presidential poll. With the supreme leader aging, many wonder if the next Assembly (during its eight-year term) will choose his successor, who could reshape the Islamic Republic’s course. President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Tensions within the Islamic Republic stem in no small part from its blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority. Theocratic forces seek to maintain the dominance of the supreme leader and other tutelary bodies, while republican forces advocate more clout for popularly-elected institutions. Each camp is further split between pragmatists who seek incremental political evolution and radicals who either resist any change or promote revolutionary transformation. The supreme leader – powerful but not omnipotent – maintains stability by accommodating both theocratic and republican trends. But his affiliation with the former makes for a balancing act that is as complex as it is imperfect.

The precariousness of this equilibrium means that policy shifts when pressure from below is accompanied by substantial consensus at the top. The nuclear talks illustrate this. Rouhani’s election and the sanctions-battered public’s demand for normalcy catalysed the process, but the agreement was not a single man’s achievement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had endorsed bilateral negotiations with the U.S. before Rouhani ran for office. He then supported the new president’s diplomatic push and kept his opponents at bay. But given the leader’s aversion to risk, his support was qualified and did not obviate Rouhani’s need for a coalition with other power centres.

The president, who is from the republican camp, brought on board the most important allies: the pragmatic theocrats, who control the unelected institutions. Almost every powerful group had a say in the accord, which reflected a national, strategic decision to turn the page on the nuclear crisis even as concern remains over the world powers’ commitment. The establishment appears as determined to implement the deal as it was to seeing the negotiations through – and largely for the same reason: to resuscitate the economy by removing sanctions, either as envisioned in the accord or by showing that Iran is not to blame for failure.

Rouhani has encountered difficulties in other spheres. He was forced to freeze priorities behind which he could not generate sufficient consensus, including social and political liberalisation. But his economic agenda, aimed at stimulating growth after several years of recession, is likely to move forward, even though it damages entrenched interests that have profited under the sanctions regime.

Everything suggests Rouhani will continue with a prudent approach, and change is likely to be arduous, slow and modest. Though the U.S. and its European allies might nudge him to move faster, there is no way to speed the reform process and many ways to undermine it. Seeking to empower republicans – touted in certain quarters as a potential by-product of the nuclear deal – will not work, as many theocrats view that tactic as a stalking horse for regime change.

This does not mean giving Tehran carte blanche, domestically or regionally, but issues of concern will need to be addressed judiciously, taking account of Tehran’s legitimate concerns no less than its adversaries’. It also means Iranians – notwithstanding the imperfection of their governance system, which many are the first to acknowledge – should determine their country’s positions without undue external interference. Trying to shape Tehran’s regional calculus through a variety of carrots and sticks is standard foreign policy practice, but trying to shape or short-circuit the decision-making process itself is another matter. As seen in the nuclear deal and now in the economic realm, internal consensus, reached through a credible domestic process, is the only stable basis for progress.

The best option for Western states and Iran is to continue reversing the negative narratives from decades of suspicion and hostility by fully implementing the nuclear accord; creating discrete and non-politicised channels to address other issues of concern or common interest; and, eventually, pushing for regional security architecture that takes account of both Iranian and Arab interests. In the end, Iran and the West may not be able to agree on a range of issues, but trying to game the Iranian system will ensure that they will not.

Tehran/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 December 2015

People gather in Ahvaz for the funeral of those killed during an attack on a military parade in the city, on 24 September, 2018. ATTA KENARE / AFP

Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions

An attack on a military parade in Iran is raising tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Four Crisis Group analysts give a 360-degree view of perspectives in Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington and warn that a single attack can trigger further escalation.

An attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on 22 September, 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.

One Shock Away from Conflagration
By Joost Hiltermann

Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point
By Ali Vaez

More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf
By Elizabeth Dickinson

No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran
By Daniel Schneiderman

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 harbouring 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.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Program Director

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.

The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move [...] could set the region aflame.

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 fuelled more radical separatist movements and are exploited by regional and extra-regional powers hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran

The Ahvaz National Resistance Front is an umbrella organisation for several separatist groups, one of which, Nezal ( حركة النضال العربي لتحرير الأحواز or 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 fuelling tensions. Iran has been largely shielded from this plague so far; if that changes, regional turmoil will doubtless escalate further.

The attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart.

The Ahvaz attack, however, could also play in the Iranian leaders’ favour. 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-cisation” – 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 manoeuvring 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.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Elizabeth Dickinson, Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula

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 Huthi rebels fire ballistic missiles at the kingdom. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are also keen to keep the Trump administration’s attention focused on Iran, realising they may not always have a sympathetic ear in the White House.

There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault.

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 theatres 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.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Daniel Schneiderman, Deputy U.S. Program Director

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 destabilising 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.