London's Financial Times has reported that the US Marines Corps Intelligence has launched a probe into unrest in Ahwaz with fears heightening that increased ethnic oppression by the Iranian could lead to the country's fragmentation.
The Iranian regime has already accused the British government of responsibility for bomb attacks in Ahwaz, although it has failed to produce any evidence to back up its claims. There is no suggestion as yet that the US's interest in the Ahwazi issue is anything but an attempt to better understand the ethnic composition and commonalities between Iran and Iraq. The FT states that Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Long, a marines spokesman, confirmed that the marines had commissioned Hicks and Associates, a defence contractor, to conduct two research projects into Iraqi and Iranian ethnic groups. Hicks and Associates is a subsidiary of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).
The FT reports that: "US intelligence experts suggested the marines' effort could indicate early stages of contingency plans for a ground assault on Iran. Or it could be an attempt to evaluate the implications of the unrest in Iranian border regions for marines stationed in Iraq, as well as Iranian infiltration.
"Other experts affiliated to the Pentagon suggest the investigation merely underlines that diverse intelligence wings of the US military were seeking to justify their existence at a time of plentiful funding."
Karim Abdian, head of the Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation, participated in the research on the understanding that the results would be made public, but did not know the motives behind the research. Hicks and Associates was referred to him by the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) several months ago after it was approached to give evidence. BAFS did not participate in the research and has had no further contacts with the US government or its contractors.
Abdian told the FT that the SAIC researcher had asked him questions relating to "the ethnic breakdown of Khuzestan province on the Iraq border, populations in cities, the level of discontent, the percentage of Arabs working in the oil industry, how they were represented in the central government, and their relations and kinship with Iraqi Arabs next door." He speculated that the Marines were probably seeking a better understanding of the region that directly affects them or formulating contingency plans.
The FT said analysts believed that the upsurge in ethnic unrest in Iran was related to the adoption of a federal constitution in Iraq, which has served as a catalyst for a politicisation of economic and cultural grievances.
Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA specialist on the Middle East, told the FT that the State Department, not the Pentagon, is running Iran policy. He said the State Department was was "nowhere near the point" of trying to use separatist tendencies among minorities to undermine the regime's authority, adding that they were unsure that such a move would work.
BAFS spokesman Nasser Bani Assad: "US interest in Ahwaz appears to have been generated by the intifada last April, when Iran lost control over parts of Khuzestan province. It is natural that the US authorities would want to commission their own research on the unstable situation in Ahwaz and its effects on Iraq. From what we understand, the Pentagon is gathering its own information separate from the State Department.
"BAFS does not support any invasion of Iran and cautions against government funding for separatist groups. We support the Democratic Solidarity Party of Ahwaz's platform of non-violent direct action, a federal Iranian state and opposition to separatism.
"We believe the international community should regard the Ahwazi issue as a human rights and humanitarian crisis, rather than an issue of military strategy. Ahwazis need land, jobs and democratic freedoms, not bullets and bombs. The UN and its agencies need to be more proactive on the Ahwazi issue to prevent ethnic cleansing."
Click here for the Financial Times report "US marines probe tensions among Iran's ethnic minorities", by Guy Dinmore, 23 February