Iran’s conflicting narrative over Ahvaz attack
On September 22, the anniversary of the beginning of Iran-Iraq war, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) parade was attacked by gunmen in what Iranian Arabs call “Ahwaz” but what is officially referred to by Iran as “Ahvaz.”
Within hours, an IRGC commander stated that members of “Alahwazieh terrorist group stood behind the attack.” Here it is essential to note that there is no movement or resistance under the name “Alahwazieh” inside or outside of Ahvaz. This word simply means “the Ahwazi” and using the Arabic name of the region was a way for the Iranian authorities to announce that Arab resistance is behind the attack.
In the same interview, the commander of IRGC in Khuzestan confirmed the death of all four attackers, adding that the weapons used had been hidden in the area from which the attack took place.
There are reasonable doubts over the source and the accuracy of the information presented by the IRGC commander. The question that rose among the Iranian public was: Who provided this detailed information about the attack when the attackers were killed during fire exchange and none of the four survived to be interrogated?
Iranian authorities accused Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia of supporting Ahwazi groups to destabilise Iran. It started a mass arrest against Ahwazi Arabs. Local human rights organisations said some 300 people were arrested.
Later, by publishing a video showing three young men, two of whom spoke Arabic and one Farsi, the Islamic State (ISIS) took responsibility for the attack. Days later, Iran fired rockets into Syria, claiming to hit ISIS targets as revenge.
The time and the place of this event are important aspects to consider when grasping its significance. The city of Ahvaz is in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan in south-western Iran where Ahwazi Arab residents of the region call it Al-Ahwaz.
Ahwazi Arabs are an ethnolinguistic minority in Iran. The region accounts for 80% of Iran’s GDP, standing as the backbone of Iran’s economy. Yet it is one of Iran’s most underdeveloped border regions and among the world’s most polluted areas.
Bordering Iraq, the region witnessed great destruction during and after the 8-year Iran-Iraq war because the central government failed to attend to its reconstruction and development.
The extent of destruction is such that cities of the province are used for locations for movies with war themes. The Arab residents of the cities have not yet returned to their homes 30 years after the end of the war and reside in other cities away from Ahvaz.
Ahwazi Arabs have a long history of conflicts with the central government over their national demands, both during the rule of the shah and after the Islamic Revolution. The region has witnessed protests by locals over air pollution, water shortages and unemployment.
Consequently, it is highly militarised, like Kurdistan, Baluchistan and other border regions where minorities reside. Throughout the modern history of Iran, Ahwazi Arab movements struggled to achieve self-determination in various ways; however, the response of the central government always remained aggressive.
Arab cultural and environmental activists and protesters have been accused of receiving support from foreign countries and fundamental terrorist groups. The Ahwazi question in Iran is one of national rights and demands and has never been a sectarian Sunni versus Shia conflict with the central government.
First, most Ahwazi Arabs are Shia and ISIS does not have supporters among the community. Having said that, I do not claim that only the Sunni sect of Islam can be radicalised because we are witnessing Shia fanatic groups in the region.
For years the Iranian government accused Arabs and other ethnic minorities, such as Kurds and Baluchi, of being infiltrated by ISIS to legitimise executions and long prison sentences for political prisoners belonging to those minorities.
Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups have a religious agenda and not a nationalist one and here is where doubts over the Iranian government’s narrative about the perpetrators of the Ahvaz attack are raised.
Second, the method in which ISIS operates is different than the method witnessed in Ahvaz. ISIS makes use of car bombs or suicide bombers in civilian populated areas, such as markets and schools, with the goal to create fear and claim as many lives as possible. By doing so, ISIS reaffirms its power and dominance over the population.
The third and most important factor is that the perpetrators were familiar with the area and knew which zone — the park behind the commander’s stand — was unattended.
Some refer to the video published by ISIS as the only legitimate piece of evidence that proves its involvement; however, there are elements in the video that raise doubts about the ISIS narrative. Nowhere in the video do the young men use the name of ISIS or use the literature that ISIS usually uses in its videos.
Taking this into account, another possible scenario is the involvement of an independent group that received intelligence and logistics from inside elements to undermine the IRGC narrative of total control over Iran’s security.
Ahwazi Arabs have legitimate grievances because they are subjected to systematic discrimination by the central government. Unequal distribution of wealth, systematic violation of human rights, destruction of the environment, ignoring social and cultural demands of national minorities reflect the extent and depth of Iran’s conflicts at home.
The Islamic Republic of Iran approaches its 40th anniversary experiencing existential threats and challenges domestically and internationally. Adopting conspiracy theories and scenarios of foreign plots underlines the detachment of Tehran from the reality in peripheral regions of the country.