Saturday, February 25, 2006

US Marines Probe Tensions Among Iran's Ethnic Minorities

By Guy Dinmore
Financial Times (UK)
February 23, 2006

Washington -- The intelligence wing of the US marines has launched a probe into Iran's ethnic minorities at a time of heightened tensions along the border with Iraq and friction between capitals.

Iranian activists involved in a classified research project for the marines told the FT the Pentagon was examining the depth and nature of grievances against the Islamic government, and appeared to be studying whether Iran would be prone to a violent fragmentation along the same kind of fault lines that are splitting Iraq.

The research effort comes at a critical moment between Iran and the US. Last week the Bush administration asked Congress for $75m to promote democratic change within Iran, having already mustered diplomatic support at the UN to counter Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme.

At the same time, Iran has demanded that the UK withdraw its troops from the southern Iraqi city of Basra which lies close to its border. Iran has repeatedly accused both the US and UK of inciting explosions and sabotage in oil-rich frontier regions where Arab and Kurdish minorities predominate. The US and UK accuse Iran of meddling in Iraq and supplying weapons to insurgents.

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.

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.

The purpose was "so that we and our troops would have a better understanding of and respect for the various aspects of culture in those countries", he said. He would not provide details, saying the projects were for official use only.

Marine Corps Intelligence defines its role as focusing "on crises and predeployment support to expeditionary warfare". It also provides threat and technical intelligence assessments for the Marines.

The first study, on Iraq, was completed in late 2003, more than six months after marines spearheaded the US invasion. About 23,000 marines are still in Iraq. The Iran study was finished late last year.

Hicks and Associates is a wholly owned subsidiary of Science Applications International Corp, one of the biggest US defence contractors and deeply involved in the prewar planning for Iraq.

The Strategic Assessment Center of Hicks and Associates advertises one of its current projects as the "Impact of Foreign Cultures on Military Operations". SAIC confirmed it completed the confidential studies for the Marine Corps.

While most analysts would agree that Iran has a far stronger sense of national identity than Iraq, its ethnic mix is even more complex than its neighbour.

Different in language and divided between followers of Sunni and Shia Islam, the ethnic minorities have little coherence. At times tensions among themselves are greater than with Tehran. Iran's strongly centralised government does not release statistics on the ethnic groups that mainly inhabit sensitive border regions with Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Farsi-speaking Persians who dominate the central government are generally believed to make up a slim majority, followed by Azeris and Kurds in the north and west, Arabs in the oil-rich southwest and Baluch in the southeast.

A patchwork of Turkmen, Christian Armenians and Assyrians, Jews and tribal nomads are among many groups scattered across a country of some 68m people.

Diplomats in Washington expressed shock at the possible implications of the Marine Corps research.

The Financial Times interviewed several Iranians in the US who were invited to help. Some refused, seeing it as part of an effort to break up Iran. However several exiled politicians representing minority groups opposed to the Islamic regime did agree to take part, although they said they wanted a peaceful transition to a democratic, federal Iran and were opposed to any US military action.

Mauri Esfandiari, US representative of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan which ended its armed struggle in 1997 and is based mostly in northern Iraq, said he believed the Pentagon was acting on its long-standing distrust of CIA and State Department analysis. He thought the Pentagon was looking to counter the prevailing administration view that US support for Iran's minorities would create a disastrous backlash.

"They want to study and see if the State Department's chaos theory is a valid hypothesis," he told the FT. The US could not look to the Kurds to support an invasion as they did in Iraq, he said. "Iran will become democratic only if it is built by the Iranians. The democracy movement is strong enough to find its way without military struggle," he said.

Karim Abdian, head of the Ahvaz Human Rights Organisation which campaigns on behalf of Iranian Arabs in the south-west, said his meeting with SAIC was video-taped. He was told the report would be made public.

Questions put to him were wide-ranging -- on 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.

Mr Abdian said he did not know the motives behind the survey, whether the Marines were seeking a better understanding of the region that directly affects them, or were forming a contingency plan in case they had to "enter" Iran. They were learning from the lessons of Iraq where they had not understood the ethnic dynamics, he suggested.

Mr Abdian, who says his organisation has no government funding, accused Iran of using the threat of a US invasion as a pretext to suppress ethnic grievances rather than address what he called the root causes of land confiscation and discrimination.

Exiled Iranians from various ethnic groups held a "Congress" of nationalities in London a year ago. They issued a "manifesto" for a federal, democratic Iran with separation of mosque and state. Seven organizations included Baluch, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

Iran has recently experienced some of the worst unrest and violence among its Kurdish and Arab populations in recent years.

Although the root causes of the unrest -- economic and cultural grievances -- are long standing, analysts in the US believe that events in Iraq -- where the new constitution has embraced the concept of federalism and a Kurd has become president -- are serving as a catalyst.

Last month two bombs exploded in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province close to Iraq. Eight people were killed on the same day that President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad had been due to visit. Six people were killed in bombings last October. Oil installations have been attacked. Iran has repeatedly accused the UK and US of being behind the violence, using separatist Arab groups in southern Iraq to foment instability inside Iran.

"We are very suspicious of British forces' involvement in terrorist activities," Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was quoted as saying last October. He accused British troops in Iraq of "hiring terrorists for sabotage".

London and Washington have strongly denied Iran's allegations.

Tehran cannot afford to dismiss minority grievances out of hand and seeks to blame the violence on outside forces, says Bill Samii, an Iran analyst with Radio Free Europe.

"The regime can crush dissent when it is localised and relatively small," he commented."But if sporadic incidents of ethnic unrest occurred across the country simultaneously, or if such troubles coincided with labour troubles and student demonstrations then the regime would have its hands full." Given these developments, the question of Iran's minorities has aroused interest across Washington.

State Department officials met representatives of the London "Congress" in the first such talks between the Bush administration and a coalition claiming to represent Iran's minorities, participants told the FT.

Last October, the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) held a conference chaired by Michael Ledeen, a proponent of regime change in Iran. It triggered uproar among exiled opposition groups, especially Persian nationalists. Mr Ledeen called the conference "Another case for Federalism?" and denied that AEI was seeking to foment separatism.

Reuel Gerecht, also with AEI and a former CIA specialist on the Middle East, says the State Department under Condoleezza Rice, and not the Pentagon, is running Iran policy. He said State was "several steps removed" from discussing covert action and "nowhere near the point" of trying to use separatist tendencies among minorities as traction against the Tehran regime. No one knew whether that would work, he added.

However, he complimented the Pentagon for "looking down the road".

A former intelligence officer said the Marines' probe reflected the "contingency planning" mindset of the US military. Nonetheless, he said, it was important to note that the ultimate purpose of the intelligence wing was "to support effective ground military operations by the Marine Corps".

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