Iranian pilgrims passing through the Shalamcheh border crossing at Khuzestan province into Iraq. Photo: IRNA
Iran recently announced it had broken up terror cells relating to the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist network. It's no surprise ISIS is attempting to get a foothold in Iran and would doubtlessly carry out terrorist attacks across that country if it could. Iran is a Shia-majority Islamic country. ISIS constantly tries to promote itself as the only true representatives of pure Sunni Islam. The groups pathological hatred for the Shia was evidenced by their mass slaughter of approximately 1,700 unarmed Shia Iraqi cadets they had taken prisoner in Camp Speicher, Tikrit in the summer of 2014.
Such a group would love to destabilize Iran's Arab-majority Khuzestan Province and disjoin it from Tehran and use it as a launchpad from which to launch terrorist attack other targets across Iran if it could.
Many of Iran's minorities live in border regions. The prospect of Azeri, Kurdish and Sunni Arab — not to mention the, predominantly Sunni, Baloch people in southeast Iran — separatism is something many Iranians are sensitive about. They remember the aftermath of the Second World War when the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin briefly, and successfully, sponsored separatist movements in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan (the short-lived Mahabad Republic). More recently they remember Saddam Hussein's attempt to annex Iran's western Arab majority province of Khuzestan in 1980 and the bloody eight-year long war which followed. More recently again, the 1990's, Iran backed the Christian nation of Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan which laid claim to Iran's Azeri region.
ISIS can be very calculating, even Machiavellian, when it comes to exposing sectarian tensions in areas they seek to conquer. In Iraq especially they shrewdly exploited the political tumult and upheavals in the Sunni-majority parts of the country and their distrust of the central government under then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Cunningly and masterfully exploiting these fissures in the society ISIS then moved in and violently consolidated its control and dominance. In Anbar in particular they have ruthlessly slaughtered any Sunni tribesmen who might pose a threat to them, most infamously the Albu Nimr tribesmen who were too ill-armed and ill-prepared to mount any resistance to their takeover.
When Saddam sent his army into Khuzestan in September 1980 he also sought to exploit ethno-sectarian tensions in Iran to undermine the fledgling regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Referring to the region as “Arabistan” he claimed he was liberating the Arabs there from an oppressive Persian regime. However shortly after the tanks rolled in his army was executing local Sunni Arabs who attempted to resist the invasion.
Despite the fact the Arabs of Khuzestan fought bravely in defense of Iran against the Iraqi invader they have felt neglected in the years since. Their outlying province, like Iranian Kurdistan, remained underdeveloped long after the cessation of hostilities. And there has always been the potential that a demonstration could get violent and quickly escalate into something much bigger. Something Tehran is doubtlessly wary of given the aforementioned history.
Like Saddam before them there is the eternal potential that, as long as it remains in existence, ISIS will seek to either stir-up sedition or exploit internal upheavals against Tehran in Khuzestan and then try to subjugate that province like they did Anbar. Or stir-up violence or an uprising in hopes it could spark a regional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia — a local uprising could have the regime come in to crush them and they would in turn call on the Saudis and the other Sunni Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf to intervene to support them either directly or indirectly.
In Mali a splinter group of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorist group similarly exploited an ethnic upheaval in order to seize territory. In 2012 Tuareg nationalists revolted against the central government seeking independence or at least some form of autonomy. AQIM moved in and hijacked that uprising successfully seizing two-thirds of Mali for themselves, which they held onto until the French came in and helped the central government kick them out of the major cities and towns.
How AQIM exploited those internal divides uncannily resembles how ISIS came to dominate Anbar amidst similar instability and widespread opposition to the central government there. Doubtlessly the group has at least tried to organize some cell in Iran to do the same in Khuzestan if there are more disturbances there or if tensions between Sunni Arab elements and the regime in Tehran devolved into destabilizing clashes. Protests in Iran's nearby Kurdish region earlier this year, along with armed attacks mounted by an Arab separatist group on police in Khuzestan, attest to just how volatile those areas can be and how ripe for exploitation by ISIS they could potentially become.
While such a transpiration is rendered less likely than it would have been in recent months the finding of these cells is an important reminder of the reach of this group and their ambition and why it's crucial that neither them, their reach nor their ability to exploit chaos and disorder to their advantage is ever underestimated.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and political writer who writes on Middle East affairs, politics, developments and history.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.