At least 24 people, including 12 Revolutionary Guards, were killed and more than 60 were wounded when gunmen attacked a military parade on at 9am Saturday, September 22 in the city of Ahvaz, the capital of the southwestern province of Khuzestan. According to Iranian media, the number of casualties is likely to increase.
General Abolfazl Shekarchi, a senior spokesman for the Iranian armed forces, said the attack was carried out by four terrorists, adding that security forces were in possession of the bodies of three of them and placed the fourth terrorist in custody. He also said that security officials were interrogating the detained man in order to determine the men’s affiliation and how they managed to gain access to the area behind the stand at the perimeter of the parade.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed "a foreign regime" backed by the United States for the attack, which left at least eight troops and several civilians dead. "Terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz," Zarif posted on Twitter, adding: "Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks."
But who were the assailants?
A few hours after the attack, Yaghoub Hor al-Tostary, a spokesman for the separatist Arab group Al-Ahwaz Arab Liberation Front, told the London-based Iran International TV that Ahwaz National Resistance, a coalition of separatist groups, was responsible for the attack [Persian video], but insisted that ordinary civilians were not the target of the attack.
The Al-Ahwaz group, also known as Hazm, advocates armed struggle against the Islamic Republic to establish an independent Arab state in Khuzestan and other parts of Iran. It operates a military wing called the Brigades of the Martyrs Al-Nasser Mohiuddin. Al-Tostary said that the group itself has not yet issued a formal statement taking responsibility for the incident.
Following the attack, IranWire spoke to people in the area. “When I heard the news I immediately went to the center of the city but when I got there I thought it had just been a rumor,” said one Ahvaz resident. “No police cars and no anti-riot police. Just ordinary people as though nothing had happened. Now imagine if people had protested or had a rally demanding their civil rights. The Basijis would have occupied the whole city. A few months back, when the people protested over the economic situation and the shortage of drinking water, you could find Basijis and anti-riot police everywhere. They use their forces only to suppress people.”
Al-Ahwaz began its activities in 1997 and the Iranian government regards it as a terrorist group. The height of its activities was in 2005 when it claimed responsibility for planting four bombs in various locations in Khuzestan that killed eight people and injured more than 70. In 2006, the Iranian government executed 11 people in Ahvaz in connection with the bombs.
Despite this punishment, Al-Ahwaz continued its campaign of violence, and between 2011 and 2012, the group detonated five bombs in the Khuzestani cities of Shush, Dezful and Ahvaz. According to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, 39 Iranian security and police agents were killed as a result of Al-Ahwaz attacks between 2005 and 2012. And according to international human rights organizations, during the same period, the Iranian government killed under torture or executed d at least 44 Khuzestanis on charges including separatism, involvement in bombings and activities against national security.
One relatively recent attack by the group, in spring 2015, resulted in the deaths of three military men. Later, Iranian authorities reported that they had arrested seven people in connection with the attack, and in spring 2016, they announced that three of them had been executed. At the time, the Al-Ahwaz group claimed that it had attacked a Revolutionary Guards’ station that it said was a training center for the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iraqi paramilitary supported by the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force. In a similar attack in spring 2017, the Iranian government also blamed Al-Ahwaz for the murders of two soldiers.
The "Occupied Land" of Khuzestan
On November 8, 2017 the suspected founder and leader of Al-Ahwaz, Ahmad Maula Abu Nahd, also known as Ahmad Nisi, was assassinated in the Hague in the Netherlands. People close to him accused the Islamic Republic of planning and carrying out the assassination. This claim gained some credence when, in July of this year, the Dutch Intelligence service AIVD reported that the Netherlands had expelled two Iranian embassy staff. The Dutch foreign ministry declined to comment on the matter, and it is not clear whether the expelled Iranians had anything to do with Ahmad Nisi’s assassination. At any rate, such reports have been used for propaganda purposes, and to boost the morale of Al-Ahvaz and its supporters.
In an interview with the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat in spring 2016, Habib Jabr al-Ka’abi, another leader of Al-Ahwaz, referred to the Islamic Republic as the “Persian government,” accused it of being an enemy of the “Arab nation” and called Khuzestan an “occupied land.” The group, which has connections to Arab states including Saudi Arabia, has proclaimed that it is at war with the Islamic Republic to liberate not only Khuzestan but also the provinces of Bushehr and Hormozgan and the Persian Gulf islands under Iran’s control. The group refers to these areas as “Occupied Al-Ahwaz” and calls for them to become an independent state.
Separatist activities in Khuzestan started about 60 years ago. The first organization, the Liberation Front, was formed in 1961 and was active both in Khuzestan and Iraq. In the early 1980s, when Iran and Iraq were at war, another separatist group was formed with the support of Saddam Hussein’s government, which gave the group the ability to conduct more effective operations inside Iran.
During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, both sides set up paramilitary and political organizations to deal with one other. But after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the majority of groups that Saddam Hussein had supported lost most of their ability to operate. At the same time, Al-Ahwaz became more active and it is now the most significant armed opposition to the Islamic Republic in southwestern Iran.
A taxi driver in Ahwaz told IranWire he thought Iranian officials were behind the September 22 attack. “They did it themselves to sow division. It is not farfetched. Have a look at Instagram to see how people are cursing Arabs. I am both an Arab and an Iranian but I would not like it if [other Iranians] come to any harm...I do not care whether Al-Ahwaz has done this or ISIS or another group but I do know that they humiliate us Arabs in their fight against Saudi Arabia."
The taxi driver also spoke of the rife discrimination against Arabs in the region, despite the fact that many Iranian Arabs fought in the eight-year war against Iraq. "Somebody from Tabriz or a Baluchi does not know how I, an Arab, think or whether I love my country or not, so the moment that they hear that the Arabs have done this, they curse the Arabs. Look, if they don’t want us they should tell us ‘you are Arabs and the Saudis speak Arabic so go there. You are our enemies because you speak the same language.’ Then we would know what to do. Swear to god, if I lived in Saudi Arabia and was born there, I would have a good life and good economic and social security. We don’t have Persians or Arabs in Khuzestan. We are both Khuzestani and Iranian. They want to say that the Arabs did it. Didn’t we Arabs defend our country [against Iraq] alongside other Iranians?”
Mohammad Tangestani conducted additional reporting for this article