As the war of words between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the west intensifies, the Iranian community feels unease over the likelihood of military action against Iran and its consequences. Apart from the main worries about the unimaginable human, economic, social and political costs of such an operation, it is also a main concern of the Iranian people of what is going to happen to the integrity of Iran as a nation. Iran has a large population of non-Persian ethnic groups who are concentrated along most of its land borders and who have major grievances against the central government. Reports that the Americans are trying to exploit these grievances have led to fears that they may encourage separatism in those areas.
The ethnic groups in Iran have suffered consistently under successive governments, both before and after the 1979 revolution, and most of them have been subjected to various cultural or religious discriminations and economic depravation. These have created a reservoir of resentment and mistrust against the central government, which can be tapped by extremist groups for political ends. Though the overwhelming majority of these ethnic groups identify themselves as Iranian and want to live in a single country as they have done since the ancient times, and though their mainstream political groups are committed to the integrity of Iran, a small number of extremist groups entertain secessionist tendencies and are fighting for “independence”. It is these latter groups being feted by the US Administration officials which is the cause of worry for many Iranians.
What adds to this suspicion is the report that certain strategists in the Neocon camp view Iran as being too big for its neighbours. They tend to favour a Middle East consisting of small countries, and regard this as a best guarantee for the long-term security of their main ally in the area, Israel. This suspicion has also been strengthened by allegations that the Americans are not doing much to prevent civil conflicts in Iraq which may eventually lead to its disintegration. After all, the allegations go, the Americans are in the Middle East mainly for oil, and that can be secured much easier if they had to deal with small nations. So, it is argued, Balkanisation of the Middle East is beneficial for both Israel and America – and that’s good enough reason for Americans to support separatism in the area.
Of course, there are strong arguments against this. One is that such a policy may lead to more instability in the area. The bitter experience of disintegration of former Yugoslavia (as yet unfinished) must have provided good lessons in international diplomacy. Moreover, Turkey a NATO member and staunch ally of the Americans in the area with a large Kurdish minority on its South/Eastern borders view any secession by Kurds in neighbouring countries with great alarm. This is one reason why the Americans are not too ready to support Kurdish independence in Iraq. For similar reasons, they may not be too keen to lend such a support to Kurdish secessionists in Iran either. However, the story may be different for areas that no such sensitivity exists on the part of American allies in the neighbourhood.
One such area is Khuzestan, the “oil province” and the home of (mainly) Iranian Arab population. Here the incentives for both local secessionists and any foreign supporter are huge. The sentiments of the Arab population whose lot have benefited very little from the oil boom can be easily exploited by the secessionists. For the Americans too, this area with huge oil reserves is very tempting, and having to deal with a second Kuwait in the Persian Gulf would be far much easier for them than dealing with a big local power like Iran. At the same time, for the Iranians any attempt to separate Khuzestan from the country would be opposed most fiercely. Once Saddam Hussein tried it in 1980, and he had to pay a heavy price for it when thousands of Iranian volunteers fought tooth and nail for nearly two years to liberate it.
Nobody knows what the Americans are contemplating about Iran, and if ever they decide to attack Iran militarily what form it would take. The general view is that such an attack would most likely be in the form of aerial bombardments. A full invasion is being ruled out on the grounds that it is both unfeasible (“Iran is completely a different fish than Iraq” being the overall consensus) and undesirable for US (after the wholly disastrous experience of Iraq). However, partial invasion is being muted – with the most likely candidate being Khuzestan. This may be contemplated as a means to starve the Iranian government of the much needed oil cash. But this will also open the Americans to the accusations that they intend to separate this oil rich province from Iran.
It is upon the Americans to refute such allegations and dispel any suspicions in that respect. They can (and should) do it by ruling out any military option against Iran – something that the administration has continuously refused to do. Failing that, they can guarantee the integrity of Iran by giving a public undertaking that they would never support any secessionist movement in Iran. They need to do so now, and accordingly cut all contacts with the secessionist groups in Iran. Without such public statement, if the Americans engage in any form of military action against Iran, the public would draw their own conclusions, and then the Americans will not face only the fighting forces of the Iranian regime but the bulk of population of the country who regard the integrity of Iran as being the most sacrosanct.
Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.