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Op Ed - Iranian Affairs

Are Iraqi Militias in Ahwaz a Sign of IRGC’s Growing Strength or Weakness?

The recent flash floods in Khuzestan and Lorestan provinces in Iran, overwhelmingly populated by Ahwazi Arabs, has put millions of lives at risk of devastation – yet appear to be more than just an incident of a catastrophic act of nature. The Islamic Republic has a long history of using droughts, damming up rivers, and creating flooding situations as a method of oppressing its ethnic minorities. Ahwazi Arabs, who reside in the oil-rich lands of the previously semi-autonomous emirate also known as  “Arabistan” in the 1920s, have suffered from Iran’s displacement policies, which strive to drive out recalcitrant Arabs out of these lands and repopulate them with ethnic Persian citizens.

Repression of local culture and language has intensified after the Islamic Revolution. Mass arrests of Ahwazi activists on trumped-up national security charges, disproportional executions, and job-related discrimination have turned the region into a bleak version of its formerly vibrant self.  When living together, Ahwazis strive to study Arabic, preserve indigenous culture, and in the past have had uprising which threatened the regime’s hold over the country. Ethnic cleansing of this population would allow Tehran to disperse the Arabs, who present serious opposition to Iran’s exploitative ambitions, around the country and to succeed in “dividing and conquering” blocs that would otherwise threaten its colonialist plans.

The instant devastation in that region seems yet another illustration of Iran’s plans to gain dominion and control of those territories.  The regime took at least a week before it started responding to the needs of the population; European and Gulf countries provided ample aid, but according to numerous reports from the Ahwazi community leaders, none has reached its intended recipients. Indeed, at least 25 Ahwazi activists have been arrested, protesting the lack of access to aid. 16 of the names of the detainees in Al-Malashia have been released:

1- Rasul Fartoussi 2- Poet Ibrahim Badawi 3- Hassan Sahaki 4- Poet Amin Abu-Karar Silawi 5- Emad Haideri 6- Ali Nasseri 7- Hatem Dahimi 8- Ahmed Fenjan Badawi 9- Hassan Hamudi, aka al-Kuwaiti 10- Mahdi Sharifi, aka Matta 11- Qassem Hardani 12- Aref Sarkhi 13- Poet Sayed Ali al-Bukdemi 14- Fouad Badawi 15- Kazem al-Mashari Marwani 16- Mohsen Zwaydat

However,  what was initially attributed to poor planning, incompetence, and corruption has soon become increasingly opportunistic and deliberate in furthering the agenda of driving out the Ahwazis.  Multiple incidents which involved deliberate unleashing of the flood waters on Ahwazi farmlands were followed by the IRGC attacks on villagers who refused to comply with the orders to evacuate, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries. How could a country which has suffered from devastating droughts suddenly accumulate such amounts of waters that it would threaten the breaking of the dams unless it was immediately released?

The cataclysmic flooding may indeed be at least in part a by-product of mismanagement, through the program of deliberate diversion of rivers away from the Ahwazi territory, which once made it a breadbasket of the region. Unable to export dates, fruit, and other products, the residents now live mired in poverty. After over 10 days of flooding, and up to 2 million families having lost their farms and their homes, the mainstream, as well as Iranian media, has been largely silent about this disaster – and to the extent it is mentioned at all, the claims are that the flooding affected all of the country. In reality, the regime has appeared to make a strategic decision to release the waters that would devastate the farmlands in order to save the nearby oilfields from the flooding.  Iran’s Fars News admitted that Iran’s National Oil Company acted in concert with the authorities in releasing the waters in order to protect the Hur Alazim Marshland which contains its oil facilities and sites.  The destruction has been devastating: Director of Department of Agriculture in #Ahwazflood said: 170 thousand hectares of agricultural land (wheat, barley, beetroot …) damaged by flood, 30 thousand hectares of orchards, 1200 hectares of fish ponds completely destroyed and nearly 3,000 head of livestock have died.  Iran claims that it has incurred $2.5 billion in damages.

The mishandling of the disaster has led to demonstrations, which threaten to turn into another uprising. With the rise of the discontent, the Iraqi militia Hashd al-Sha’abi and Harakat Hezbullah al-Nujaba entered Ahwaz with tanks, allegedly bearing humanitarian aid.  “Aid convoy sent has arrived in Iran. It comprised of 100 vehicles carrying food aid. They will be sent to flood-affected areas. The aid entered Iran through Mehran border crossing. Heads of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba’s offices across Iraq accompany the aid convoy. Several officials received the aid convoy such as Tehran Friday prayer leader Abdullah Amini along with other IRGC and military officials.

A few days ago, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashad al-Sha’bi), announced in a statement that the engineering unit and some of its heavy machinery were to enter the territory of Iran to prevent flood water flow and prevent its entry into Iraq.” However, none of the local activists benefited from this alleged aid. On the contrary, the regime authorities forbid South Azerbaijani counterparts from raising money to help the Ahwazis.  Rather, it appears that the militias are there to help subdue the demonstrators, which only fuels popular anger. Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi human rights activist based in Virginia, proposed several different possible (and not mutually exclusive) scenarios for the presence of the militias: “The PMU’s infiltration in bulk to the Ahwazi flood-hit areas with aims beyond offering humanitarian aid leads to several scenarios: The first scenario: allowing some banned materials into the country under the guise of offering aid.

The second scenario: the PMU’s entry into the region one week after the visit of Gen. Suleimani, the tense comments among the senior leaders within the regime and the dissatisfaction by the Arab community due to the government’s lack of support and fear from the rising popular anger, the scene of the woman shouting at Ayatollah Hayari, refuting claims of the ministry of petroleum and publishing this in the media, exposing the IRGC’s refraining from helping the people by preventing the entry of waters to the village These issues inspired Suleimani to maneuver using the PMU to appear as a hero.

The third scenario is part of a comprehensive and future program in Iran given the US threat through securing control over Ahwaz when security chaos happens with the aid of the PMU as a ready force.

The strong fourth scenario is that Iran will likely use these militias to suppress and crack down on Ahwazi upcoming protests to lead Ahwazis to get disappointed from their national struggle of clinging to their Arab culture, identity and their Arabism, indirectly telling Ahwazis while you are fighting against Iran and seeking to enhance Ahwazi Arab struggle, now you Ahwazis are oppressed by an Arab armed militia, and causing deep hostility between Ahwazis and Iraqis as Iraq used to be a strong and conducive place for Ahwazis to fight against Iranian occupation. I don’t know which scenario is more realistic. Maybe all of them, relatively, could happen. But the particular issue is that the impact of the Iraqi culture in the south on the Ahwazi society, the absence of hate, satisfaction, and aid by Mullah regime to deepen this culture. ”

Iranians of various backgrounds have condemned the presence of these militias on social media; however, their reactions were not widely reported in the Iranian or international media. Iran has heavily recruited foreigners to fight in its foreign wars, such as Syria. It has also employed the Lebanese, Palestinians, and others as part of its local Basiji militias, mostly to go after opposition and dissidents. These foreign thugs have generated a great deal of resentment among the local population all over the country. However, during the Ahwazi uprising in 2005, as well as during the Green Movement uprising in 2009, Tehran relied on local forces and militias to suppress dissent.  Does the presence of the Iraqi groups on the ground signal that the recent sanctions against the IRGC by the United States are taking a toll and the regime can no longer afford to rely on its own fighters and is now calling in favors from its allies? Or has IRGC simply been spread too thin carrying out the regime’s agenda all over the world – from its presence in Iraq and Syria, to espionage and terrorist activity in Europe?

To understand the situation better, it is worth recognizing the situation on the ground in Iraq. Hashd al-Sha’abi, part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, was once created to counter the ISIS insurgency in Iraq in 2014. It enjoyed the Obama administration’s backing; however, following the cessation of main hostilities these Iran-backed Shi’a militias have turned against the Kurds, who were seeking to declare independence, and soon became agents of advancing Iran’s agenda throughout Iraq. The Iraqi government has worked to integrate the PMUs into the main military forces; however, Hashd Al’-Shaabi while benefiting from Baghdad’s legitimization of its status, has nevertheless maintained a great degree of independence.  Indeed, it has grown so powerful that portions of its forces have now engaged in clashes with the Iraqi federal police. It has become a cause for concern for both Iraqis themselves and for Washington, especially in light of the growing Iranian pressure to expel the US military from Iraq altogether – despite the continuous presence of ISIS, and possibly as a way to facilitate Iran’s work on the land bridge from Iran through Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean.

Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba, the other Iraqi Shi’a militia noted in Ahwaz, has been recently sanctioned by the United States. It is openly loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, and fully supports the exportation of the Islamic Revolution. It is not merely a tool of enforcement for the Iranian regime, but part of its ideological vanguard. Its original purpose was to engage the Iraqi militants to fight in Syria.  It participated in the reconquest of Aleppo in 2016.  Later, it fought in Damascus and in Hama, and was involved in fighting ISIS in Iraq.  It also announced the creation of the Golan Liberation Brigade and announced its support for Hizbullah in future wars with Israel.  Its leader Akram al-Kaabi even stated that he would be willing to overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to do so by Khamenei. In essence, this means that Baghdad tolerates an Iranian fifth column within its borders; and despite US move to sanction this group has done nothing to curb its influence. By definition, then, the US ability to curb al-Nujaba power is limited.

Furthermore, its continuous presence and brazen support for the Iranian hegemony challenges US influence in Iraq and makes it increasingly likely that US forces will be asked to leave sooner rather than later by Baghdad, not just the militias themselves.  Importantly, al-Kaabi was among the legislators who won in the Iraqi elections in 2018. He was one of over a dozen people who was chosen in the Iraqi elections because of his ties to Iran, not despite them. Despite the fact that the Iraqi president and prime minister favor the long-term presence of US troops in Iraq, al-Kaabi also enjoys the support of Assad government, which, by extension means, he will be supported, or at least, tolerated by Russia, which has played an increasing role in Iraq and Syria.

Saudi Arabia has sought to challenge the influence and appeal of these groups by a generous $1 billion contribution to Baghdad for the constructions of a sports city; only time will tell whether the appeal to self-interest of the governing groups will prevail over the military-backed power of the militias.  It is also seeking greater presence on the ground through the opening of multiple consulates. Saudi move will surely be seen as a threat by these militias; however, the use of soft power is likely less of an immediate concern to these groups than the US troops; besides, Iraq has moved with assertiveness to open Shi’a schools and universities in various places in Iraq, likely to be more of an immediate ideological influence than the diplomatic outreach from a few consulates.

The militia commanders are playing an increasing role in Iraqi politics; they can challenge the President and Prime Minister – if the US plays a decreasing role in Syria, they, not just Assad himself, will be the likely long-term beneficiaries. Despite the importance of these factions, public discussion of their role has been limited.

Worth noting, however, is that neither group is known for its humanitarian contributions. The recent clashes in Mosul, for instance,  have occurred precisely because the locals felt the deterioration in basic services under al-Nujaba, and the Iraqi police blocked the groups’ entry into the neighborhood. For that reason, its sudden role in humanitarian operations in Ahwaz is highly dubious. Unlike Hezbullah’s “social justice” jihad, al-Nujaba is known as a paramilitary force, not a full-blown political party which exerts influence through both military and soft power; its focus up until this point has been squarely on military operations; likely it would not have the equipment necessary for rescue missions and cataclysmic events. At the same time, Iran has rejected the offers from the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations, which do have such expertise and equipment; Western organizations have been banned from entering Ahwaz. From this we can surmise the following:

First, Iran is far more concerned about the pursuit of its economic and political agenda, particularly in light of the recent sanctions, than about the appearance of inhumanity in the way it deals with its oppressed non-Persian populations. Thus far, the regime has suffered no consequence whatsoever from the mistreatment of the Ahwazis and others; on the contrary, it has successfully weaponized differences between the Persian opposition and the “minorities” (some, like Azerbaijanis, number 30 million people, and in totality, non-Persians comprise over 50% of Iranian population) to portray the latter, particularly the Arabs as “separatists” and even “terrorists”. The Ahwazis have enjoyed little coverage and attention in the international media; their human rights claims have been largely dismissed. Even the United States has not gone farther than a few statements; there has been no move to sanction the regime by the US, the UN, or any portion of the international community on the basis of human rights abuses against the Ahwazis. Whether the hijacking of the humanitarian aid and possibly corrupt process involving its reception (no doubt at least the European organizations involved in the distribution were fully aware that Iran is unlikely to utilize the aid packages to their purpose, yet went along with the scheme) will receive the legal attention that it deserves, remains to be seen. For now, the regime has managed to portray itself as the victim of natural tragedies, which allows it to escape accountability for its human rights violations, and to distract from the ongoing wrongdoings elsewhere.

Second, it appears that Iran has been strategic in cultivating these militias. Sooner or later, IRGC would generate the level of scrutiny that would make some of its activities a liability. The Iraqi militias can do what the IRGC, associated with espionage, terrorism, and special operations, cannot. They maintain some level of plausible deniability for the regime where IRGC would simply attract too much attention. At the same time, the IRGC may not be “available” not because the numbers are too small or because the regime can no longer provide for its vanguard, but rather because Iran has delineated IRGC role to other priorities, and this operation was an opportunity to bring in the militias and to integrate it into functions internal to Iran itself. Tehran has no great love for Arabs, even Shi’as, however loyal. It likely views these militias as more expendable as IRGC, and will use them for dealing with violent riots, where IRGC is likely to be utilized for more sophisticated high-level operations abroad.

Third, the level of influence these groups exercise in Iraq, despite the growing level of popular dissatisfaction shows that Iran has not been weakened. Its economy has suffered; its people have suffered; it has become limited in terms of open oil trade and other matters. However, as with any totalitarian regime, the ayatollah’s priority has never been the well being of its population, but rather the advance of its hegemonic agenda and the exportation of the revolution. The spread and growing political power of its militias in Iraq, as well as the renewed legitimacy of Assad in Syria,  shows that it is succeeding despite initial difficulties. Clashes with Israel in Syria have not deterred Iran; one would question the rationality of expanding operations in Syria if they are destroyed by Israeli airstrikes almost as soon as they are created. What is clear from these observations is that the regime clearly believes it has sufficient resources to continue in its plans, and that Israel’s power against it is limited. In other words, Israeli airstrikes are merely “business expenses” of sort, and overall, the regime believes it is prevailing. It’s not that it doesn’t have enough of its own people but that it is increasingly able to integrate its foreign agents into other types of operations; that means, that despite the apparent public discreditation of its many unsavory activities, Tehran continues to be successful in recruiting, maintaining ideological loyalty, and expanding its reach.

These developments should not assuage, but rather alarm the United States and her allies. The developments in Ahwaz show that Iran is increasingly less concerned about public opinion; it hardly bothers with the doublespeak or the elaborate deception of the bygone years. Having realized that the international community’s lip service to human rights is n match for its self-interest, Iran has correctly interpreted the impunity in the way it deals with its targets, whether in the peripheral regions of Iran, the Gulf,  or Yemen, as a tacit green light to move forward with greater alacrity, scale, and aggression – which is exactly what it is doing.. In the future, Iran will likely take further steps to ensure that Ahwazis and other groups cannot be easily accessed, trained, or co-opted by Western intelligence services; it will entrust its foreign militias with additional tasks and more advanced operations, and it will work to integrate the operations of its various agent groups across the region to ensure a stronger network and better coordination in pursuit of its geopolitical agenda – land grab across the Levant and restoration of the borders of the Persian empire at its height.

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