Terrorist Attack On Ahvaz Adds To Rising Regional Tensions

 The terrorist attack on Ahvaz in Khuzestan province of Iran has further escalated the already volatile situation in the Gulf region. Armed terrorists had opened fire during a military parade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and killed at least 24 people including children and wounded 60 others. The attack came at a time when the region is witnessing unprecedented conflicting situation due to the twin factors of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and rifts within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) due to Iran’s regional role in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Ahvaz is the capital of Khuzestan province in western Iran and, like few other frontier provinces such as Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Sistan-Balochistan, is politically sensitive as a majority of Iran’s ethnic and sectarian minorities reside in these provinces. These ethnic minorities are historically restive due to a relative lack of economic development in their provinces as compared to other parts of Iran. Despite Khuzestan’s vast reservoir of oil and gas, the province remains under-developed, leading to its people expressing grievances against the Iranian central government.

The responsibility of this terrorist attack was claimed by a local insurgent group of Iran called the ‘Ahvaz National Resistance Front’ as well as the ‘Daesh’ (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), though neither group has furnished any evidence to their claims. On the other hand, Iran while accusing the local insurgent groups, also pointed fingers on the US and some Gulf States which it considers as the sponsors or enablers of these groups. While the terrorist attack in Ahvaz is a clear blow to the perceived strength of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, this has also been viewed by Iran as an attack on its territorial integrity by its adversaries. And, it is this factor which makes the Ahvaz terrorist attack a potential trigger for a more serious conflict in the region.

The Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had last year threatened Iran in unequivocal terms that he would ensure that the battle goes inside the Iranian territory. Soon after this threat, terrorists had carried out attacks on the Iranian Parliament and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini. Seen in this perspective, the Ahvaz attack now makes such terrorist attacks within the Iranian territory look more like a trend rather than an exception for Iran.

What could further worsen the situation was the response on the attack by the US and key regional players. Although the US State Department did express a muted condemnation, the White House and the two regional adversaries of Iran; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates largely remained silent. In an environment where US President Donald Trump has been pursuing a policy of maximum pressure on Iran and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has publicly articulated his hostility towards Iran due to Tehran’s regional role, these kind of responses could further create suspicion and potentially escalate the current rift between Iran and its regional adversaries.

Notwithstanding the silence of Iran’s regional and global adversaries, the Ahvaz terrorist attack was largely condemned by the world with the United Nations Security Council condemning it in the strongest of terms. The UNSC observed terrorist attack in Ahvaz as  ‘heinous and cowardly’. The Security Council also urged all States to cooperate with Iran in bringing the perpetrators of this terrorist act to justice.

India has expressed its strong condemnation for the dastardly terrorist attack in Ahvaz and conveyed its heartfelt condolences to Iran. Close on the heels of this attack, India’s National Security Advisor Mr. Ajit Doval visited Iran this week and participated in a meeting which focussed on terrorism including those emanating from ISIS. India’s response to the Ahvaz attack has been in tune with its stated policy of promotion of regional peace and countering all kinds of terrorism.

Script: Dr. Asif Shuja, Strategic Analyst On Iranian Affairs