Saudi Arabia supported anti-government militants in Iran

Saudi Arabia supported the ASMLA group which in 2018 carried an attack against a military parade in Ahvaz (Credits: Fars Media Corporation, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 16 Issue 2
Author: Silva Boltuc

The trial of Habib Farajollah Chaab, Iranian-Swedish ringleader of Al-Ahwaziah, revealed that Saudi Arabia financially supported the Arab separatist movement, which carried out attacks in Iran and several European countries.

The third court hearing of the trial of Habib Farajollah Chaab, also known as Habib Asyud, took place in Iran.[1] Chaab is the ringleader of Al-Ahwaziah, an Arab separatist movement active since 1999 that advocates for the separation of Khuzestan Province from Iran, seeking an independent state for ethnic Arabs. The so-called Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ḥarakat an-nidhāl al-Arabi litaħriːr al-aḥwāz – ASMLA ) is classified as a terrorist group by the Iranian government, as they carried out several attacks, most notably on 22nd, September 2018 when they attacked a military parade in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz and killed 25 people and wounded 70 others. He is also accused of carrying out explosions at the Housing and Urban Development Authority, the Planning and Budgeting Organisation and the Department of Environmental Protection in Ahvaz, terrorist attacks in Dezful and Abadan provinces and on oil pipelines in the cities of Abadan, Ahwaz and Mahshar, as well as planning a terrorist attack against Ahvaz’s judicial office.[2]

The prosecutor presented evidence revealing his ties to Riyadh and Tel Aviv during the trial. As confirmed by the prosecutor’s spokesman Amin Waziri, Chaab is charged with corruption on the ground through the formation, management, and leadership of the ASMLA and planning and conducting terrorist operations and destroying state property. Furthermore, several members of the terrorist group seem to have visited Saudi Arabia under the guise of hajj to plan actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran backed by Saudi intelligence.  

The trial followed the detainment of three men in February 2020 by Danish police members of the ASMLA Movement. A Danish court has found them guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia and promoting terrorism by supporting its armed wing in Iran, called the Mohiuddin Nasser Martyrs Brigade, and moreover, of supporting militant group Jaish al-Adl, a Salafi jihadist militant organisation that operates mainly in south-eastern Iran and is listed as a terrorist organisation in the US.[3]

The ASMLA members face sentencing next month for passing information to Saudi intelligence officers in exchange for payment between 2012 and 2020, payments used to finance the Mohiuddin Nasser Martyrs Brigade, with possible prison terms of up to 12 years and deportation.

As revealed by Amin Waziri, during the trial of Chaab, several photos and documents were shown, proving the involvement of both the Saudi and the Israeli intelligence agencies: a photo of a meeting between the Saudi Culture Minister and an ASMLA member who was arrested in the Netherlands for terrorist acts and sentenced to four years in prison, an invitation sent to the militant by the King of Saudi Arabia and a photo of a meeting with him of the ASMLA representatives, written documents that showed that Chaab had a relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office who pointed to links between the ASMLA and Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

Khuzestan province in Iranian domestic politics

Despite being rich in oil, the Khuzestan province where Iran’s Arab minority predominantly live has remained deeply undeveloped and faced economic and political struggling exacerbated by the water crisis.[4]

The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz has infiltrated non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and has organised ASMLA members who participated in terrorist acts in Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Iran. The movement is sponsored by the Saudis who financed the Mohiuddin Nasser Martyrs Brigade, its armed wing in Iran and seemed, as shown during the trial, to have links to Israel and its intelligence agency too.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been competing for regional dominance for yearsThe clash is military and ideological, being Iran Shiite and Saudi Arabia Sunni. Iraq gives a clear example of sectarian influence. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein has led Baghdad to open up to a Shiite leadership close to the Iranian clergy, increasing Iranian influence over Iraq, even if the government still cooperates with the United States in support of the fight against ISIS. 

The confrontation between the two superpowers also concerns other scenarios, such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. In Syria, the Russia-Iran-Bashar al-Assad bloc prevailed over rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s Shiite militias are gaining ground and power.[5]

In Yemen, the war against the Houthi rebel movement that Riyadh accuses of being funded by Tehran is more complex and costly than Saudi Arabia expected.

In addition, there is the nuclear deal issue. With the help of Beijing, Riyadh is allegedly developing nuclear weapons and rejects a non-proliferation agreement with Washington, justifying its nuclear program as necessary to defend itself from the Iranian threat, suspected of doing the same.[6]

Conclusions

The Saudi-sponsored organisation carried out attacks in Iran and several European countries and showed a vacuum in international legislation for the extradition of terrorists between Europe, Arab countries and Iran. Movement members use their social media accounts to pursue their propaganda and call to armed struggle, underlying how the internet has become an essential tool for terrorist groups.

The ASMLA movement arises from the claims of the Arab minority present in southwestern Iran, highlighting how the internal forces of the ethnic minorities inherited from the Persian past and from the migrations that have affected the continent over the centuries, are something with which Iran must do accounts for maintaining the stability of the country. Hostile foreign forces, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, might use the discontent of ethnic minorities within Iran to destabilise the government in charge.

Proxy wars characterised by military confrontation and espionage, difficulties in sharing the strategic Persian Gulf gateway, ideological competition and the Iranian nuclear program perceived as a threat are some of the issues that contrast Saudi Arabia with Iran. 

Nevertheless, according to various experts, the shared war scenarios and the attacks on each other’s infrastructures have shown the vulnerability of Riyadh, which has led to trying the diplomatic path. The fifth round of talks is scheduled soon, and the Yemeni situation and the nuclear deal will be some of the issues addressed. A positive signal is the trade amount between the two actors. Iran’s trade with the Gulf countries reached 22,8 billion dollars in the first and third quarters, and Saudi Arabia is one of the leading trading partners in the region. Trade, the need for safe economic corridors, and stabilisation of the region might be the mutual benefits that can bring Tehran and Riyadh closer.

Sources

[1] Terror Group Ringleader Stands Trial in Iran (2022), Tasnim News Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2022/01/18/2646647/terror-group-ringleader-stands-trial-in-iran.

[2] Chis Zambelis (2014) The Struggle for Arabistan: Tensions and Militancy in Iran’s Khuzestan Province, Terrorism Monitor Vol. 12 (2), The Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved from: https://jamestown.org/program/the-struggle-for-arabistan-tensions-and-militancy-in-irans-khuzestan-province/; Saeed Kamali Dehghan (2018) Terrorists kill Iranian children and soldiers in military parade attack, The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/22/elite-iranian-soldiers-killed-in-attack-on-military-parade-revolutionary-guard-ahvaz; Ringleader of the group behind Ahvaz terror attack arrested (2020) Tehran Times. Retrieved from: https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/454606/Ringleader-of-the-group-behind-Ahvaz-terror-attack-arrested.

[3] Iranian separatists found guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia (2022) Euronews. Retrieved from: https://www.euronews.com/2022/02/04/iranian-separatists-found-guilty-of-spying-for-saudi-arabia.

[4] The Cube (2021) Iran water crisis: Internet shutdowns observed amid protests in Khuzestan, Euronews. Retrieved from: https://www.euronews.com/2021/07/22/iran-water-crisis-internet-shutdowns-observed-amid-protests-in-khuzestan.

[5] Najat Al Saied (2021) Sectarianism and ideology: The cases of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Middle East Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.mei.edu/publications/sectarianism-and-ideology-cases-iran-and-saudi-arabia.

[6] Silvia Boltuc (2021) Geopolitics of the Saudi Nuclear program, Geopolitical Report Vol.6, ASRIE Analytica. Retrieved from: http://www.asrie.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Geopolitical-Report-Vol.5_Geopolitis-of-Saudi-Nuclear-program.pdf.


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