Ahvaz Attack Signals New Phase of Middle Eastern Conflict

The terrorist attack on the Iranian city of Ahvaz in September may deepen the divide in the Middle East and have devastating implications for the proxy wars being fought in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. But the question remains: what does the attack, and its aftermath, reveal about the aspirations of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and the U.S. in the region?
Ahvaz Attack Signals New Phase of Middle Eastern Conflict
Photo Credit: Fatemeh Rahimavian

On September 22, Iran threatened to launch rocket attacks on Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Israel three days after an attack by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (a group which seeks to topple the regime in Iran through armed attacks) on the city of Ahvaz led to the death of 29 people. Iran blamed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the attack.

During the attack, unidentified gunmen opened fire for ten minutes on participants and spectators who were gathered in the city to watch a military parade commemorating the Iran-Iraq war. The victims of the attack included members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iranian armed forces, and spectators.

Fars News Agency, a media outlet close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, published a video that “showed file footage of previous ballistic missiles launched by the Guard, then a graphic of a sniper rifle scope trained on Abu Dhabi . . . and Riyadh . . . .” It is believed that the video, which was later deleted, featured threats to Israel, according to the Associated Press.

Three days later, Iran’s Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, Mohsen Rezaee, announced the “beginning of revenge” for the Ahvaz victims. However, he did not clarify what this meant; he simply noted that the U.S., the UAE, and Saudi Arabia were exploiting what he called the “hypocrite people’s terrorist group.” Rezaee used this term to refer to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

The terrorist attack on Ahvaz, which took place in the Arab-minority homeland in Iran, may indicate a strategic change in the nature of conflict in the Arab region and the Middle East in the future. The “traditional approach” to fighting wars by proxy may be shifting to a more direct form of confrontation.

It may also be heightening the possibility of an upcoming Arab-Iranian conflict, which will not only be limited to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition that is in favor of confrontation with Iran, but it will also potentially involve the U.S. Such a conflict would almost certainly implicate Israel, which has already entered the conflict through its operations against Iranian forces in Syria.

In September, Washington promised to continue exerting pressure on Iran, stating that it would impose new sanctions on Tehran, which will go into effect in November. Nevertheless, the U.S. administration emphasized that it was not seeking to change the Iranian regime.

“As I have said repeatedly, regime change in Iran is not the administration’s policy,” U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in September.

The calm reaction of the Saudis and Emiratis to Iran’s serious accusations of their involvement in the attack cannot be explained without considering the recent developments in the region’s geopolitical situation and both countries’ attempts to garner support for the war they are fighting in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has most notably succeeded in using the “Houthi missile crisis” of 2017 to re-establish Iran as an international enemy so that its coalition can continue its proxy war in Yemen. In addition to receiving the support of Western allies, the kingdom has also received approval from Arab allies to confront Iran, even if doing so could fuel other conflicts in the region.

The U.S. administration has been a major champion of the Saudi-UAE coalition and an influential supporter of its impunity. But will Washington risk going to war with Iran only for the sake of the Gulf States? While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been wanting to “fight Iran to the last American,” this is unlikely to happen, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in 2010 that it was “time for [the Gulf States] to get in the game” if they really wanted to limit the growth of Iran’s sphere of influence in the region.

The current US administration is repeating the same strategy that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in 2003. U.S. President Donald Trump effectively launched the “first strike” against Iran by imposing a blockade that is part of a larger plan to overthrow the Iranian regime.

Past experience in Iraq indicates that an economic blockade will require military intervention in order to initiate a regime change. In an interview on the Al Saudiya TV channel last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised  to move the battle [against Iran] “inside Iran.”

“We know that reaching Mecca is a key goal of the Iranian regime, but that will not happen.”

“We know that reaching Mecca is a key goal of the Iranian regime, but that will not happen.” The crown prince’s remarks were widely interpreted as a sign that Riyadh was seeking to escalate the conflict with Iran by arming and financially supporting militant groups to fight against the Iranian regime.

Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an adviser to the Abu Dhabi government, described the Ahvaz attack in a tweet, saying it was “not a terrorist attack” and added that “taking the battle inside Iran is a stated choice.” He warned that such attacks “will increase during the next stage” of a strategy that has yet to be disclosed to the international community.

Will Iran take the bait and respond or retaliate militarily against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, as recent reports have suggested? The Ahvaz attack might be a deliberate provocation designed to force Iran to act militarily, which could be used to justify a response from the U.S. and Israel.

In order to avoid what Iran claims to be “American traps,” it has carefully observed American political positions and based its foreign policy on them. Although Iran has threatened those behind the Ahvaz attack with “severe retaliation,” it is unlikely to make any risky moves to act on these claims.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the Senior Adviser to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution in International Affairs, said on September 25, that the attack on Ahvaz was an indication of the failure of Saudi and the UAE’s policies in the region. It also demonstrates the U.S.’s interference in the region.

The Ahvaz attack was retaliation for Saudi and the UAE’s defeat “in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and an attempt to avenge Iran; the base of Islam.” Velayati made this statement in reference to the proxy wars being waged by Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Iran’s allies in the Arab world.

So far, Iran is still denying any interference in Yemen. Iran links the terrorist attack in Ahvaz to the failure of its enemies in Yemen and Syria, and that can be interpreted as a hint that Iran will increase its role in these proxy wars to defeat its opponents.

If the U.S. does not intervene directly, waging a proxy war will remain the most strategic choice for the countries participating in the Saudi-led coalition. “Yemen is the most logical and easy place to confront Tehran,” said Yusuf Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to Washington at the “United Against Nuclear Iran” conference in New York on September 25.

He added that “the Gulf Countries and Israel have a common interest in confronting Iran’s threats.” Such conferences are aimed at building international consensus against Iran, similar to the U.S. propaganda campaign that was used to legitimize the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

When it comes to proxy wars or direct wars, Iran’s intentions are not all that different from Saudi Arabia’s or the UAE’s. The collusion of regional and international players with Iran and the Saudi-led coalition has only escalated the tragedy of the conflict’s loss. At the end of the day, Arabs still remain the fodder of the war in Yemen and their countries the battlefields.