Once again tensions between Iran and the US are growing after an attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on September 22, which killed 29 people. An armed separatist group called al-Ahvaziya and ISIS both claimed responsibility for the attack. Also, Habib Jaber, leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), said that the attack targeted the Revolutionary Guards in response to “measures against a terror militia classified globally.”
One way or another, the attack in Ahvaz comes at a moment of rising tensions throughout the Middle East after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May. It is interesting that while Saudi Arabia, UAE and some other Gulf states stayed silent and failed to condemn the attack, the Trump administration condemned the attack, accompanied with a hostile rhetoric toward Tehran.
Iranian authorities accused Saudi Arabia of financing military parade attackers with encouragement from Washington and the deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami, promised retaliation. “Let there be no doubt”, he said, “that we will take revenge for today’s attacks in Tehran, on terrorists, their affiliates and their supporters.” Consequently, last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threatened that Saudis “won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, [they] will work so that the battle is for them in Iran”. Such declaration was underlined previously by John Bolton, the US national security advisor, who a few months back 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. These declarations further confirm Iran’s suspicions.
It happens that the province of Khuzestan, where the attack took place, not only has the largest Arab minority in Iran, but is also the richest region of the country because of its oilfields. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein tried to destabilise the area with the help of Arab speaking separatists. Since that time the separatist movement has survived and Tehran blames Saudis and the Americans for supporting them. As a result, the Iranian politics has become intensely sectarianised, both domestically and internationally. On the one hand, we see here a will expressed by the Iranian regime to have a Shi’ite centred national narrative, and on the other, we have an Arab speaking minority which, because of being excluded from the Iranian national discourse, feels closer to the anti-Iranian Arab politics in the region.
It goes without saying that the Ahvaz attack is a cause of deep concern for the Iranian regime. The fact that Iranian militaries are targeted by armed groups on their soil is not an encouraging sign for the authorities in Tehran, who have repeated numerous times that they are ready for all kinds of dangers. The sense of fear caused by such terrorist attacks also adds to the present economic and political concerns and sufferings of the Iranian population.
This said, the Ahvaz attacks could play in favour of the Islamic republic, which is trying to give the image of a peaceful and innocent regime which is bullied by the “Great Satan”, the hostile Trump administration. As a matter of fact, while the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, are playing domestically the card of Iranian nationalism, Rouhani’s government is trying to use the charm offensive with the EU, India, Japan, China and Russia. The idea is also to change the drumbeat from an aggressive tone to a nationalistic rallying mood in order to preserve the country’s territorial integrity. As a result, we can be sure that the Iranian clergy will take advantage politically of these attacks. They will also present themselves as victims in the eyes of the international community. Because of all the threats and pressures, either political, economic or lethal, the Iranian regime will not accept any criticism, coming from South Asia, Europe or America, concerning the violations of human rights in Iran.
Last but not least, the US policy with regard to Iran will follow its confrontational track, especially after the spicy speech given by the American president, Donald Trump, at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, September 25. In his high-flown speech, Donald Trump denounced the Islamic Republic as “brutal,” “corrupt” and “dictatorial”. Speaking to the General Assembly just a few hours after Trump, President Rouhani invited the US to return to UN Security Council resolution 2231, which regulated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “We invite you to come back to the negotiating table you left,” he said. “We appreciate the efforts of the international community, the European Union, Russia, and China in supporting the implementation of the JCPOA and consider the full realisation of the commitments stipulated in it a precondition for the survival of this significant accomplishment of diplomacy.”
But, as the clash of words goes on between the US and Iran, Iranians sink back into economic depression as the US sanctions create panic and pushes the Iranian currency, the rial, into a bewildering plunge. So, what is next? Well, the one thing that everyone knows is that Iran is not North Korea and the Iranian regime will never negotiate on any point with the US until it has full assurance of its national sovereignty and survivability.