What the Ahvaz attack means for Iran's domestic politics and foreign policy

What the Ahvaz attack means for Iran's domestic politics and foreign policy
Comment: The deadliest attack in Iran in nearly a decade has fuelled nationalist sentiments among Iranians and will tilt the country's politics right-ward, writes Maysam Behravesh.
5 min read
24 Sep, 2018
Musicians dived for cover as the Ahvaz attack targeted a military parade [Getty]
The 22 September terror attacks on a Sacred Defense Week military parade in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, has been the largest such attack in terms of scale and significance since June 2017, when the Islamic State group targeted the Iranian parliament building and Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum, killing 17 and wounding 43 people.

The Ahvaz assault this weekend left 29 dead and 70 others wounded.  

Iran's Revolutionary Guards attributed the deadly shooting to the separatist outfit Al-Ahvaziya - also known as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) - a branch of the Ahvaz National Resistance (ANR) umbrella group - while top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed Gulf Arab allies of the United States, particularly Saudi Arabia.

It should be noted that ASMLA's founder, Ahmad Mola Nissi, was shot dead in the Hague, the Netherlands, in November 2017.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson of another Arab secessionist organisation named Al-Ahwazi Democratic Popular Front (ADPF), reportedly another subgroup within ANR, and the Islamic State group both claimed responsibility for the Saturday morning attack.

Regardless of who perpetrated the assault, it immediately produced a rally-around-the-flag effect and fuelled nationalist sentiment among Iranians, as could be clearly seen on Persian-language social media.

Equally importantly, the incident will also have serious implications for Iran's domestic politics and foreign policy, probably serving to consolidate a right-ward swing towards more hardline policies that has started to take form since US President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the multilateral nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in May 2018.  

Over the past few months, the ideological gap and political space dividing the moderate pro-diplomacy camp headed by President Hassan Rouhani and more hawkish hardliners, including Khamenei and powerful elements within the Revolutionary Guards, has been ostensibly dwindling.

The increasing homogenisation of Iran's political system at the decision-making and policy-planning level comes at a critical time when the Islamic Republic is experiencing an unprecedented fall in the value of its national currency and internal dissent is rapidly growing.

Regardless of who perpetrated the assault, it immediately produced a rally-around-the-flag effect

An immediate corollary of this gradual right-ward shift is further "securitisation" of dissent in the Iranian polity and civil society and consequently more systematic suppression of opposition activists, political critics and street protesters in the name of protecting "national security".

The apex of this in recent months was perhaps the execution of three known Kurdish prisoners - Loqman Moradi, Zanyar Moradi, and Ramin Hossein Panahi - in the name of fighting terrorism and establishing security in the homeland.

Loqman and Zanyar had been accused by the Iranian judiciary of conducting a militant attack in the western Kurdish town of Marivan in July 2009 that killed three people, including the son of the city's Friday prayers imam.

In a similar vein, Panahi's alleged crime was participating in an assault against security forces in the western city of Sanandaj, the provincial centre of Iranian Kurdistan, in July 2017.

The executions provoked a public outcry, having been pushed through despite repeated appeals for a halt by UN human rights special rapporteurs Javaid Rehman and Agnes Callamard, who stressed that the suspects had been tortured into confessions and denied a fair trial.

Less than two weeks earlier, on 18 June, the Islamic Republic hanged Mohammad Salas, a member of the pacifist Sufi order Gonabadi Dervishes, on similar charges of staging a terrorist bus-ramming attack against security forces during street protests in Tehran in February.

Yet, this swing to more radical and "revolutionary" actions is not limited to the domestic sphere and internal political scene. The Islamic Republic's foreign policy is taking a more offensive-aggressive turn as well, which seems to be primarily driven by a growing threat perception among top Iranian leaders, as Iran-backed forces in the region face mounting military pressure and the likelihood of military conflict between Tehran and its regional nemeses gradually rises.

On the same day as the executions of the Kurdish dissidents, the Revolutionary Guards fired seven short-range ballistic missiles at a number of opposition Kurdish bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing at least 11 people and wounding many more. Such a measure to target armed opponents based outside of Iran's territorial borders with missiles was nearly unprecedented in the life of the Islamic Republic.

In June 2017, Iran had responded to the IS terror assaults in Tehran with missile strikes against its bases in Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zour.

Less than two weeks earlier, Reuters claimed in an exclusive report that Iran had transferred ballistic missiles to its non-state Shia allies in neighboring Iraq and was planning to develop a missile production capacity there.   

As controversial as they are, in current circumstances such bold moves make complete strategic sense from a "realist" perspective. In fact, Tehran seems to be deterring potential foreign aggression in the future, but also bracing itself for the rainy day when its possible withdrawal from the nuclear deal and resumption of nuclear activities might prompt Israel and its allies to take military action.

In a landmark speech after his appointment as the head of the newly formed Iran Action Group in the US State Department, Brian Hook recently announced that the Trump administration was seeking to negotiate a broad "treaty" with the Islamic Republic. The US goal is "a comprehensive deal with Iran that addresses the full scope of its destabilising behaviour", he said, stressing that "Iran's nuclear proliferation and development of ballistic missiles must be addressed together, not separately".

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quick to dismiss the US offer of talks on the grounds that Washington had already violated the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

Now, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made a similar call, highlighting President Donald Trump's willingness to meet with his Iranian counterpart President Rouhani  - and even with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei - at the United Nations this week.

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Negotiations between Tehran and Washington, however, are very unlikely at the moment. The rapidly growing economic pressure - following the US reinstating of nuclear sanctions - along with increasing domestic instability and insecurity have paved the way for the resurgence of a hardline politics in Iran, which keeps bringing moderates closer to hardliners.

Under such escalatory circumstances, the window for diplomacy will be closing and military conflict will become a more serious possibility. 

Maysam Behravesh is a multimedia journalist at the TV channel, Iran International. He is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and an affiliated researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden.

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