Unrest among ethnic Arabs in this remote capital of oil-rich Khuzestan province bordering southern Iraq presents Iran with its most serious domestic security threat since the 1979 Islamic revolution, just as discussion in Washington about Iran’s myriad internal ethnic and religious divisions reaches fever pitch.
Two men found guilty of bombing a bank here in January, killing six persons, were publicly hanged from a crane this month. Both were ethnic Arabs, who are a slim majority in the province and have close ties to Iraqi Arabs across the border. A day earlier, three other Iranian Arabs reportedly were executed in a local prison. Three more face imminent death, opposition groups say.
About 50 Arabs have been identified as being behind bombings that killed 21 persons after anti-government riots in April last year, officials say. The rioters were furious at the leak of a letter attributed to former Vice President Muhammad Ali Abtahi, which he denounced as a forgery, that disclosed “official plans” to expel Arabs from the province, and replace them with ethnic Persians.
At least 20 persons were reported killed and hundreds were injured in the riots. Amnesty International said security forces summarily executed many of those arrested, but Tehran dismissed the charge as false.
The scale of the riots probably would have escaped attention outside Iran if Arabic Al Jazeera television had not managed to get a video crew into Khuzestan. It subsequently was barred from reporting from the province.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has since canceled three trips to Ahvaz at the last minute. The official reason each time was “bad weather,” but it was more likely security threats. One of the worst bombings took place just hours before the president was to address a rally.
Repression ‘wrong policy’
“Geographically, the unrest in Khuzestan has turned into a very great threat,” said Ibrahim Yazdi, a former Iranian foreign minister who now heads the opposition Freedom Movement in Iran.
“It is true that some of the ethnic Arabs there are in favor of independence for Khuzestan, and in the  Persian Gulf War many of them went into the street in support of Saddam,” he added. “But the way the Iranian government is handling the current crisis, with further repression, is the wrong policy to adopt.”
The vast, arid plains in Khuzestan are punctuated by the flaring of gas fires at dozens of oil drilling rigs, which provide Tehran with about 80 percent of its revenue from crude oil production.
Before the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the province was among Iran’s most developed. When Iraq invaded in 1980, hoping to take advantage of the chaos after the 1979 revolution and seize the oil fields, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein portrayed himself as the “liberator” of the Khuzistan Arabs.
Although many Iranian Arabs in border towns openly backed Iraq, the majority elsewhere did not, perhaps because they were mostly Shi’ite Muslims, persecuted under Saddam’s rule.
Saddam’s rhetoric ultimately backfired. Rather than divide Iran, he helped unify it.
Relentlessly bombed by Iraq for eight years, the main cities of Khuzestan were decimated, and the province now ranks among Iran’s poorest and least developed. The capital, Ahvaz, lacks a decent hotel, and visitors to the city center are greeted with the stench of an open sewer near the main hospital.
Drug addiction is a major local problem. In the evenings, the riverbank is dotted with groups of addicts, who discuss among themselves their progress toward rehabilitation under the supervision of social workers.
Ethnic Arabs complain that, as a result of their divided loyalties during the Iran-Iraq war, they are viewed more than ever by the clerical regime in Tehran as a potential fifth column, and suffer from a policy of discrimination.
In an impoverished Arab village about three miles from Ahvaz, a dozen young men point to the oil pipelines that run among their homes, carrying oil from the nearby drilling rigs to refineries near the Persian Gulf.
“We don’t have any freedom here,” said one, who works as an engineer at a drilling rig. “We are standing on all of the country’s wealth, and yet we get no benefit from it,” he complained, asking not to be identified for fear of government reprisals.
The men said that only Farsi is taught in their village school, although all the students are Arab, and that no Arabic-language newspapers are allowed to be published in the province. They said they also suffer much higher levels of unemployment and poverty than do Persians.
Arabs refused equality
“The government says we are traitors,” said a man who said that, like most members of his family, he is unemployed. “But we are Iranians. It is the government in Tehran that is treacherous, because it refuses us equal rights.”
Major oil pipelines supplying crude oil to the Abadan refinery on the shore of the Persian Gulf caught fire a few days after the two Arab men were publicly hanged in Ahvaz, and Iranian officials said they could not rule out sabotage.
The Abadan refinery has a capacity of 450,000 barrels per day, about 30 percent of Iran’s total refining capacity.
Pipelines in Khuzestan were bombed in September, temporarily disrupting supply. In October, Tehran said it also foiled an attempt to bomb the Abadan refinery with five Katyusha rockets.
“We know that certain Ahwazi Arab tribal leaders have been armed by the regime to help guard oil installations. Consequently, they have in-depth knowledge of the pipeline infrastructure,” said Nasser Bani Assad, a spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, which lobbies on behalf Iran’s ethnic Arabs and uses the Arabic name for Ahvaz.
“If the current ethnic repression continues, it is possible that some members of these tribes will attack the installations they were meant to be guarding,” he predicted.
Oil becomes target
Disruptions to oil supply in Ahvaz on a scale seen in Africa’s Niger Delta would have global economic and political implications.
As the latest attacks erupted, al Qaeda was shifting the focus of its campaign in the Persian Gulf region to sabotaging oil facilities.
A major attack on the Abadan refinery, which represents more than a quarter of Iran’s refining capacity, or even on the export pipelines from Ahvaz’s massive oil fields, would severely disrupt both Iran’s oil exports and domestic fuel supplies, Mr. Assad said.
He said global oil prices would “shoot through the roof” if what he called “the Ahwazi intifada” strikes Iran’s oil industry with any degree of success.
Iranian officials have blamed the rise in violence on exiled separatist groups operating from Iraq, and are furious that Britain, Canada and the United States allow opposition groups based there to operate freely. Britain denies offering support to the Arab rebels.
At least 60 Arabic-language opposition radio and satellite television stations are beamed into the province from around the globe.
“These groups incite terrorist acts and inflame the situation by spreading false reports,” said Khuzestan’s deputy governor, Mohsen Farokhnejad.
“Why do these Western governments allow them to do this when they claim to be fighting terrorism?” he asked. He dismissed accusations of discrimination, pointing out that nine of the province’s 17 members of parliament are ethnic Arabs and that Arabs hold many senior government positions both in the local government and in Tehran.
All the main overseas-based opposition groups have denounced the terrorist attacks, but a liberal analyst based in Tehran who asked not to be identified said the most popular group operating from Canada, the National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz, which runs the satellite Ahwaz TV station, does seem to advocate armed resistance.
A multinational empire
Slightly more than half of Iran’s 69 million people are ethnic Persians. The rest are Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Baluchis and Lors. That makes Iran, in the eyes of many observers, not so much a nation state as a multinational empire dominated by Persians, much as the Soviet Union once was dominated by Russians.
The Islamic Majlis Center for Research, an Iranian government think tank, has warned in a report that the country faces serious internal conflict and unrest unless the government addresses the needs of its ethnic minorities. The report cited two key challenges: poverty among non-Persian ethnic groups living in border areas, and unemployment among youths.
In addition to Khuzestan, two remote Iranian provinces — Balochistan and Kurdistan — have witnessed serious unrest among ethnic and religious minorities.
About 2.1 million Iranian Balochis reside here and have long resented the regime in Tehran, saying the government brutally oppresses and neglects the Balochi population, 35 percent to 50 percent of whom are unemployed and most of whom are Sunni.
The province of Kurdistan in the northeast, bordering Iraq, has been a scene of sporadic anti-government demonstrations since June. At least 40 persons reportedly have died in clashes with the security forces, and more than 700 have been arrested.
Iranian activists involved in a classified research project for the U.S. Marines told the Financial Times last month that the Pentagon was examining the depth and nature of grievances against the Islamic government, and appeared to be studying whether Iran would be prone to a violent fragmentation along the same kinds of fault lines that are splitting Iraq.
The Bush administration, having mustered diplomatic support at the United Nations to counter Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program, asked Congress last month for $75 million to promote democratic change in Iran.
“It would be a very grave mistake for the West to try and interfere in Iran’s ethnic tensions,” said Nasser Hadian, who teaches political philosophy at Tehran University. “It would unleash a wave of Iranian nationalism, and a massive backlash against any minority group seen as colluding with the West.”