Year 3 - Week 39.2

ISSN 2603 - 9931

 

Iran is a traditional crossroads of different civilizations which hosts nowadays an ethnic mosaic intertwined in the territory. Main ethnic groups have settled in the country: Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Loris, Arabs, Baluchs, Turkmans, Mazanis and Gilaks, divided along linguistic, cultural, and territorial lines[1].

  • Persians represent more than a fifty percent of the total population, although Persian language, as the official one, is spoken by more than the ninety percent of population.

  • Azeris is the second largest group, of Turkic roots and language, settled in Iran since the 11th century and with a strong role in the shaping of the economic, social and political background of the country. They are mostly settled in the north and north-western Iran, in the provinces of Qazvin, Zanjan, Ardebil and Iranian province of Azerbaijan.

  • Kurds, an old ethnic group of Iranian origin, are settled in different countries from Turkey to Iran. Inside Iran, they are settled in the north and north-western provinces of Kurdistan, Kermanshah and part of west Azerbaijan, with smaller communities in Golestan and Khorasan -bordering with Afghanistan. Most of them are Sunni Muslims.

  • Luris are settled in western Iran provinces, sharing borders with Kurds in the north, Arabs in the south and Persians in the center and East. Their language comes from archaic Persian.

  • Arabs are settled mostly in Khuzestan and Hormozgan, both southern provinces. They are Sunni Muslims.

  • Baluchs speak Baluchi, an Iranian-root language, they are settled at the south-East in Sistan and Baluchestan, and they are Sunni muslims.

  • Finally, Turkmans are settled too in Golestan, they speak Turkmani, a turkic-root language, and they are too Sunni muslims.

This ethnic mosaic divided following linguistic and religious lines, despite the fact of national cohesion based on Iranian (farsi or Persian) and Shiite Islam under the banner of the 1979 Revolution, provides an idea of the fragmentation in Iranian society and, although the aforementioned cohesion, the existence of contestant groups to the central Ayatollah authority is present and shows presence from time to time. Likewise, regional and local non-State actors are also having an impact on the Islamic Republic, in many cases also following the same fault lines that ethnic division presents.

 

Iran suffered during president Ahmadinejah government a drift towards praetorianism, defined in political sciences as a government where the army, although not de facto governing, set the basis for political life in a country. As defined by Hen-Tov and González[2], the Iranian army and especially the IRGC have provided the system with a high level of stability and in parallel, with a shortcut in civilian liberties which have lead, after nine years, to the emergence of an increasing contestant movement, far of cohesive, following also different ethnic and religious lines, as well as different operational approaches going from civil resistance to the use of violence.

The Iranian Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) were founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, right after the Iranian Revolution, tasked with the protection of the regime from its new foes. Their members were chosen from volunteers of proven loyalty to the Revolution, whereas the army is formed by conscripted soldiers. The volunteer and elitist nature of the IRGC allows a higher level of training and skills, along with a stronger ideological background, that makes its members more suitable to play different roles in the political and economic leadership of the country, a key responsibility performed during 1980 and 1981 internally against the opposition to the new regime and externally during the Iraqi invasion, eventually concluded thanks to the IRGC military actions[3]. These two facts put in place they are today to the Corps and granted them their decision-making role. And probably they also explain why the IRGC have become a target. The advent of the Iranian Revolution imposed a Shiite theocratic government over an ethnically and politically fragmented society, using the IRGC as clash force against dissidents. But almost forty years later both internal and external threats have changed and they show up as the use of non-State illegal violence and civil unrest in different parts of the country.

 

Despite the existence of a strong security system based on the intelligence services or Mukhabarat and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as elite forces in the Iranian army, the Islamic Republic has faced in just one year a wave of popular unrest, the emergence of a civil disobedience movement and two terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic State, the last of them last Saturday, September 22, also claimed by a small regional Arab nationalist group self-called “Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz – ASMLA”. This uncertainty about the authors of the most lethal terrorist attack suffered by the Islamic Republic since its institution in 1979 has caused 29 deaths and around 70 injured, among them soldiers, civilians and even children gathered around the military parade site.

 

 

Al-Ahwaz terrorist attack: what we know insofar.

  1. The place. The city of Ahwaz is the main port city in the southern Iranian province of Khuzestan, an ethnically mainly Arab, Sunni Muslim area. Once the Islamic Republic was declared in 1979 and especially during the Iran-Iraqi war (1980-1988) the region was a hotbed for ethnic unrest due to the Arab rejection of the war against Iraqi Arab brothers. The harassment to Iranian military convoys became a common pattern, with occasionally shoot outs along Ahwaz roads against the army, in what was perceived as an act of oppression by the newly created Shiite theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran; little time afterwards a national Arab liberation movement, ASMLA, emerged in the area as resistance against the Ayatollah regime basing their activity on terrorism and an economic supporting network abroad. Much closer in time, the Islamic State statement refers to the area as part of Wilayat Khurasan, all the region connecting Afghanistan, part of Pakistan and the south of Iran, allegedly under its control as one of the southern provinces integrating the Caliphate. In these two aspects we find the ideological justification for carrying out an attack in Khuzestan province, as national liberation following ethnic fault lines and as part of the jihad against infidels and apostates.

  2. The target. It is possible to consider the target as a dual one. As we have mentioned, the IRGC are an elitist corps whose main duties are the suppression of internal opposition and the protection of the Republic from external threats. But they also represent the praetorian guard of the regime and consequently part of the political and economic establishment. Put in other words, targeting the IRGC the underlying target is also the Ayatollah’s regime. Two possible interpretations come from this notion: the attack against of the repressive force acting on an ethnically segregated territory -meaning a prone to national liberation attack- and the attack against a religious and ideological model -that we could translate into the framework of Sunni jihadism against heresy, as Shiism is considered.

  3. The attack and the terrorists. The attack falls inside the category of inghimazi or commando operations. The four terrorists, driving motorbikes[4], opened fire from behind the stage where the main echelons of the army and the IRGC were placed, during a military parade in the anniversary celebrations of the beginning of the Iranian-Iraqi war, injuring a number of officers who were quickly put at safe and killing 29 people between soldiers, civilians and journalists covering the event. The use of automatic weapons and the active shooting tactic suggests they were looking for the maximization of the number of random victims located in the parade and pre-identified as members of the IRGC and supporters both of the Corps and the regime, attacked on its very same military and ideological core. This might be also translated in terrorist discourse analysis as a threat multiplier since the victim is the symbol of Iranian military strength.

  4. The terrorist group claiming responsibility. As we have previously mentioned, paradoxically two different groups have claimed responsibility for the attack, a splinter faction of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), and the Islamic State. While the ASMLA faction -according to the Movement official website, expelled in 2015 and operating independently since then- was the first one in claiming their responsibility[5], along the Saturday evening also the Islamic State started to broadcast at its news agency Amaq communiques about the attack without providing further proves than a video with three individuals announcing they were going to carry out an attack in Iran, again without further proves of it. The ASMLA has traditionally carried out attacks on critical infrastructures as oil pipes, whereas on the other hand the Islamic State launched an attack against Tehran’s Majlis (Parliament) and the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, also using the same inghimazi modus operandi, in June 2017. Based on the target -the mushrik or heretic Iranian elite troops of the IRGC, as a symbol of the Shiite control over Dar al-Islam or Muslim lands- and the modus operandi -an inghimazi operation, one of the preferred tactics used by the movement-, the hypothesis of the Islamic State seems reinforced, although the location of the target -the military parade in Ahwaz, the classical national liberation terrorist target of members of the oppressor security sector- could also point out to the nationalist terrorist movement operating in the area, despite the fact that in previous claimed attacks the splinter group never showed such a level of sophistication and precision in causing and maximizing the number of victims.

Independently from the origin and motivation of the attack, the pattern emerging from the last months shows an increasing level of internal stability following religious -and laicist-, ethnic lines of contesting the regime, opening new vacuums to be coopted by non-S

 

 

 

[1] Fesharaki, S., Majbouri, M. (2016). Iran’s multi-ethnic mosaic. A 23-year perspective. WIDER Working paper 2016/117. United Nations University. Retrieved from https://www.wider.unu.edu/sites/default/files/wp2016-117.pdf

[2] Hen-Tov, E., González, N. (2011). The militarization of post-Khomeini Iran: praetorianism 2.0. The Washington Quaterly, vol. 34, issue 1, pp. 45-59.

[3] Fesharaki and Majbouri, Op. Cit., p. 48.

[4] Pieters, J. (2018). Attack in Iran; militant group traced to Delft. NLTimes, September 24, 2018. Retrieved from https://nltimes.nl/2018/09/24/attack-iran-militant-group-traced-delft

[5] Ahwazona (2018). ASMLA’S Official Statement regarding Military Parade Attack. Retrieved from http://ahwazona.net/new/s/1808/ASMLA%E2%80%99S-OFFICIAL-STATEMENT-REGARDING-MILITARY-PARADE-ATTACK

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