Iran is conflating rhetoric with reality
In the great Hollywood classic “Casablanca,” when a German officer is killed, the knee-jerk reaction from the prefect of police — despite having witnessed the killing and standing near the shooter — is: “Round up the usual suspects.”
Iranian authorities reacted in a similar manner following the September 22 attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, commemorating the Iraq-Iran 8-year war in which close to 250,000 Iranian combatants died. About the same number of Iraqi soldiers died in fighting reminiscent of the trench warfare of world war one.
In this latest attack, about 30 people were killed and many more wounded. Most casualties were members of Iran’s armed forces.
Even though the identity of the assailants remains unknown, the Iranian government lost no time in accusing what in Tehran are “the usual suspects.”
At the top of the list, of course, is the United States — “the Great Satan.” Next to the Americans comes the lesser devil, Israel, followed by the Arab Gulf states — the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They are close US allies. Never mind that the suspected ethnic Arabs are predominantly Shia and not Sunni as Gulf Arab countries predominantly are.
Although Tehran points an accusing finger at the Israeli-US-Saudi coalition, it is highly unlikely to send its fighter jets to take out targets in Israel, the United States or Saudi Arabia.
If previous events offer an indication of what action Iran is likely to take, then targeting minority groups at home or the assassination of opposition leaders abroad or perhaps even trying to take out one or more jihadist targets in Syria, where Iran has a considerable amount of men and resources, remain the most likely routes for revenge Iran is likely to follow.
What is significant is that Ahvaz is the capital of the south-western province of Khuzestan, home to large numbers of the country’s Sunni and Arab minorities. The region is where many of Iran’s oil fields are situated.
The ruling mullahs in Iran tend to believe in conspiracy theories. They are especially prone to passing along conspiracies involving the West, particularly anything to do with the US intelligence community, which many in the Middle East blame for much of what transpires in the region and beyond.
A report floated in Iran after the September 22 attack referred to a “Hebrew-Arab-Western” conspiracy.
As initial findings in the attack by Iranian investigators emerge, two local groups seemed to be at the centre of the investigation. They were identified as Al-Ahwaz Arab Popular Democratic Front and the Arab Resistance Movement for the Freedom of Ahwaz. Both groups claimed responsibility for the attack.
Even as the local ethnic Arab connection emerged with the names of the individual perpetrators given by the groups, the regime in Tehran continued to link the assault to training and support by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Historically Iran has experienced periodic tensions with some of its minority groups, especially the ethnic Arabs. Some of these groups have hit Iran where it would hurt the most — at its economic infrastructure, attacking oil installations.
In rounding up the usual (foreign) suspects, the Iranian government accomplishes two important things: It keeps whatever domestic problems it may have internally out of the limelight and out of the media. And, if arrests are made, it strengthens the government’s hand by demonstrating the efficiency of its counter-espionage capabilities while clouding the real reasons why these attacks take place.
There is another option to consider; that this was the work of the Islamic State (ISIS), which did claim responsibility for the attack. That ISIS would have operatives in the Ahvaz region is not out of the realm of possibility given that there is a heavy Sunni presence in the area. That one or more groups may have subcontracted to ISIS is feasible.
Yet going down the dual tracks by accusing the foreign interventionists while hunting down local opposition allows the regime to kill two oppositionists with one bullet.
By striking targets at home, Tehran will not change much of its domestic equation. Such narrow-minded policies will only continue a legacy of violence and counter-violence. An endless spiral that has to do with its shortsighted policy of oppressing minorities and of looking for scapegoats outside its borders when everything else fails.
The attacks have shown how precarious Iran’s domestic security is and how the disproportionate spending on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has not promoted peace and security at home and will not bolster the status of Iran abroad to that of a superpower capable of challenging the United States. So when it says the United States will meet the fate of Saddam, Iran is conflating rhetoric with reality.
Tehran is likely to continue rounding up the usual suspects for a while and blaming politically expedient scapegoats.