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EMPIRE OF THE MULLAHS: Iran's imperial project in the Shatt al-Arab

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Iran’s capture of 15 British navy personnel at gunpoint on the Shatt al-Arab, purportedly in Iraqi waters, is inextricably linked to the regime’s long-term ambition to impose its territorial control over the strategic waterway and hold Baghdad hostage to Iran’s interests.

The Iranian left bank of the Shatt al-Arab is undergoing a large-scale militarisation program conducted under the auspices of the Arvand Free Zone Organisation (AFZO), a state-run group that aims to extend the Iranian regime’s economic, political and military influence over the Shatt al-Arab and ultimately Iraq. The AFZO’s plans for the military-industrial zone were outlined in a letter issued to indigenous Ahwazi Arab residents living within the zone. This letter informed them that their land would be confiscated by the state. The confiscation program is nothing short of ethnic cleansing for the sake of Iran’s neo-imperialism.

Arab Shia tribes have populated regions on both sides of the Shatt al-Arab for centuries if not millennia. The leaders of the Bani Kaab tribe owned land on both banks of the waterway – most of it in Persia – giving them considerable influence and political autonomy. Any foreign power wishing to gain influence over trade along the Shatt al-Arab had to deal with the Bani Kaab leadership, which controlled the Sheikhdom of Mohammara under British protection.

The Ottomans confiscated assets belonging to the Bani Kaab and Reza Pahlavi deposed Sheikh Kazal, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich Arabistan region, following his military coup in 1925. Arabistan was renamed Khuzestan and Mohammara was renamed Khorramshahr. The area came to prominence in 1980, when Iraq invaded Khuzestan ostensibly to “liberate” the Ahwazi Arabs, although Saddam was no doubt taking advantage of Iran’s post-revolutionary turmoil to seize the region’s massive oilfields. The narrowness of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway also enabled Iran and Iraq to stage large-scale amphibious assaults during the war. In February 1986, 30,000 Iranian troops crossed the Shatt Al-Arab in a surprise attack to invade and occupy Iraq’s Al-Faw peninsula and create a bridgehead for further advances into Iraq.

The Marsh Arabs of Iraq’s Basra province suffered ethnic cleansing and repression under Saddam’s regime while in Iran the Ahwazi Arabs have endured violent persecution under the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic. On both sides of the waterway, the governments of Iran and Iraq have viewed the indigenous population as disloyal and a threat to their territorial claims. They were perceived as a threat by Saddam because they are predominantly Shia, while the Iranian regime sees them as having innate pan-Arab sympathies. Ethnic cleansing has been used by both countries as a method of securing control and territorial claims over the Shatt al-Arab.

Ali Afrawi, 17, executed in Khuzestan by Iran for “waging war on God.”

The AFZ is the latest development in the Iranian regime’s campaign to rid the left bank of Ahwazi Arabs and impose its complete control over the Shatt al-Arab. The latest seizure of British personnel is a symptom of this quiet militarisation programme. Land acquisition and ethnic cleansing are intimately bound up with militarisation.

Over recent years, the Iranian regime has confiscated large tracts of land from local Arabs and transferred ownership to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and state-owned enterprises. Around 47,000 hectares of Ahwazi Arab farmland in the Jofir area near the Ahwazi city of Abadan has been transferred members of the security forces and government enterprises. More than 6,000 hectares of Ahwazi farmland north of Shush (Susa) has been taken to “resettle” the faithful non-indigenous Persians, following directives issued by the Ministry of Agricultures and the Revolutionary Guards Corp Command. These policies have forced Ahwazi Arabs into poor shanty towns.

The AFZ is located along the narrowest and most strategically sensitive part of the Shatt al-Arab and includes a large number of Revolutionary Guards naval posts, which are used to patrol the waterway and protect Iranian arms smugglers entering Iraq. It stretches 30km from Abadan along the Shatt Al-Arab to the land border between Basra and Khuzestan. The zone is in three segments: an island and adjacent land measuring 30 square km, a strip of land north of Khorramshahr measuring 25 square km and an in-land eastern segment measuring around 100 square km in area. The total land area of the Arvand Free Zone is around 155 square km and includes Arab towns and villages. At certain points, the zone is literally within a stone’s throw of Basra.

The Shatt al-Arab is the most politically sensitive area of the Middle East. Whoever controls the waterway controls movements from Iraq to the Gulf, including oil shipments, as well as serving as an important trade route for the entire west of Iran. Control over the disputed waterway led to wars between the Persian and Ottoman empires in the 17th and 19th centuries and more recently Iraq and Iran.

The AFZ has seen the mass expulsion of Arabs, the destruction of their villages and the creation of an exclusive military-industrial zone. The expulsion campaign began with the Arab farmers located on Minoo Island, near Abadan. The islanders were bullied by AFZO officials into giving up their land before the official deadline, indicating an increasing sense of urgency associated with establishing the zone. In all, up to 500,000 indigenous Ahwazi Arabs are being displaced by the creation of a 5,000 square km security zone, of which the AFZ is just a part, along the Shatt al-Arab.

The zone’s security element has strengthened covert operations inside Iraq, with the objective of securing an early exit of Coalition troops, influencing Iraq’s political system and using patronage to control local authorities in Basra. The zone is also being used to train, fund and organise militias loyal to Tehran. Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr and several Iranian-backed politicians belonging to the ruling United Iraqi Alliance have recently visited the area.

Documents from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Fajr Garrison in Khuzestan, which serves as the organisation’s main headquarters for southern Iran, show that Tehran is employing up to 40,000 agents in Iraq. The information was first revealed in March 2005 by former Iranian agents who defected due to pay cuts and subsequently confirmed by Coalition troops in Iraq. Fajr Garrison hosts the IRGC’s Qods Force, which runs the vast underground network in Iraq. Agents are paid by middle-men, who carry out regular visits to Ahwaz City to obtain payments and be debriefed by Qods commanders.

The regime’s activities in Khuzestan and the left bank of the Shatt al-Arab are related to the rise of militias in Basra and the British government’s discovery that weapons used by insurgents were likely to have originated from the IRGC via the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah. It is no coincidence that attacks on British troops, a sudden upsurge in militia activity in Basra province and the seizing of British naval personnel on the Shatt al-Arab have occurred at the same time as Ahwazi Arabs are being removed from the area to make way for the AFZ. Greater international attention to the plight of the Ahwazi Arabs would hinder the pace of militarisation along the Shatt al-Arab and stymie Iranian efforts to control Iraq.