Military parade attack in Ahwaz, Iran

The Islamic Republic reels

Following this weekendʹs attack on a military parade in the southern Iranian city of Ahwaz, fears that the United States, Saudi Arabia and others may seek to destabilise the country by instigating ethnic unrest are rife, writes James M. Dorsey, raising the likelihood of a clampdown against opposition groups at home and abroad

With competing claims of responsibility by the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance for the attack that killed 29 people and wounded 70 others in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which borders on Iraq and is home to Iran’s ethnic Arab community, it is hard to determine with certainty the affiliation of the four perpetrators, all of whom were killed in the incident.

Statements by Iranian officials, however, accusing the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, suggest that they see the Ahvaz group rather than the Islamic State as responsible for the incident, the worst since the Islamic State attacked the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2017.

Iran’s summoning, in the wake of the attack, of the ambassadors of Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark, countries from which Iranian opposition groups operate, comes at an awkward moment for Tehran. It complicates Iranian efforts to ensure that European measures effectively neutralise potentially crippling U.S. sanctions that are being imposed as a result of the U.S. withdrawal in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.

Ahvaz-related violence last year spilled on to the street of The Hague when unidentified gunmen killed Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi. Mr. Nissi was shot dead days before he was scheduled to launch a Saudi-funded television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel that would target Khuzestan, according to Ahwazi activists.

Pressure on regime growing

This week, a group of exiled Iranian academics and political activists, led by The Hague-based social scientist Damon Golriz, announced the creation of a group that intends to campaign for a liberal democracy in Iran under the auspices of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran who lives in the United States.

Infographic showing the different ethnic groups in Iran (source: Wikimedia)
An emerging pattern: "if the terrorist attack in Ahvaz was part of a larger Saudi and UAE escalation in Iran, their goal is likely to goad Iran to retaliate, using Tehran’s reaction to spark a larger war and force the U.S. to enter… The terrorist attack is as much about trapping Iran into war as it is about trapping the U.S. into a war of choice," said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council

While Iran appears to be targeting exile groups in the wake of the Ahvaz attack, Iran itself has witnessed in recent years stepped up activity by various insurgent groups amid indications of Saudi support, leading to repeated clashes and interception of Kurdish, Baloch and other ethnic insurgents. Last month, Azeri and Iranian Arab protests erupted in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned at the time in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into "incendiary calls for regime change" by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

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