The southern Iranian city of Ahvaz that is just under two and a half hours away from the southern Iraqi city of Basra by car, recently witnessed a terror attack on a patriotic parade which resulted in the death of 29 and the wounding of 70. Among the casualties are both civilians and military men who took part in the parade. The fact that the terrorists, an Arab separatist group called Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz took responsibility for the attack on a group of Iranian patriots and soldiers makes it clear that the incident was a deliberate attempt to provoke hostility between the Arabic speaking Iranians of the region and ethnic Iranians (Persians).
Even before examining the recent events in neighbouring Arab majority Iraq, the motive of the terrorists is self-evidently clear. While Iran has positioned itself as a champion of the broadly Shi’a Muslim Arab Resistance which stretches from Iraq to Lebanon via Syria, the influential Iraqi politician Muqtada al-Sadr has been busy leading an anti-Iranian insurgency in Basra that has seen his followers set fire to Iran’s consulate in the southern Iraqi city while Sadarists also set fire to a hospital that treats veterans of the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces of Sadr’s domestic political rival Hadi Al-Amiri. In other words, Iran now has a clearly defined rival in Iraq and unlike under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, this time the main anti-Iranian momentum in Iraq is being generated not by a secularist who happened to be a Sunni Muslim by but an anti-Tehran Shi’a cleric with a long history of staging provocations.
There is little question that the US is keen to see Sadr succeed in his anti-Iranian campaign in Iraq. The fact that Sadr has developed warm public relations with America’s top Arab ally Saudi Arabia while calling for the ouster of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (a strong Iranian ally) makes it all the more clear that while Sadr has a history of waging war against Americans, he has sensed an opportunity to enrich himself through loyalty to Saudi Arabia (and by extrapolation the United States) and is fast becoming America’s top man in Basra, assuming the favour that Riyadh is bestowing upon him can keep the firebrand on something of a short leash.
The United States appears so hellbent on waging various forms of hybrid war against Iran that Washington is now happy to ally itself with a variety of terror groups and long time anti-American leaders in the region so long as their short term commitment to topple the Iranian government aligns with the clearly defined goal of the US to do the same.
The US alliance with the The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is stark reminder that when it comes to launching proxy threats against Iran, there is no group to unseemly for the US to ally with in order to attempt and achieve the goal of de-stabilising Iran. The MEK is not only a violent terrorist organisation but a downright bizarre one. Its ideology seeks to combine a heterodox version of Shi’a Islam with the kind of jihadism practised by Takfiri groups such as al-Qaeda and then seeks to combine this with hard-left Communism. It can therefore hardly be surprising that the group which many have also described as a terrorist sex cult is generally condemned by all genuine Shi’a groups, Takfiri jihadists and the majority of the world’s leftists.
The group’s primarily declared objective is to take over Iran but this has not stopped the group from committing multiple terror attacks on non-Iranian targets, including American ones. The terrorist organisation also has a history of seeking shelter from whatever state patron is willing to accommodate the group. While the MEK’s ideology represented the antithesis of Arab Socialist Ba’athism, in 1986 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein welcomed the group to Iraq where he kept them on a short leash but encouraged the group to wage attacks on The Islamic Republic of Iran with which Iraq was at war throughout the 1980s.
After the US and UK illegally overthrew Saddam and his party in 2003, the MEK was finally unleashed and began waging multiple terrorist atrocities in Iraq. In 2013, the largely pro-Iran government of Iraq finally kicked the MEK out of the country after many years of trying to do so.
Today, the terrorist group receives shelter in Albania, the impoverished west Balkan nation that can also be described as a de-facto NATO client state. Additionally, under the Trump administration the MEK is being actively supported by the US for essentially the same reasons Saddam Hussein supported them in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s. Put simply, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
After fading somewhat from the political limelight in Iraq after conducting a blood-soaked insurgency against US troops, Muqtada al-Sadr is once again at the forefront of Iraqi politics as his Saairun Alliance won a plurality of parliamentary seats in this year’s contentious Iraqi elections. While al-Sadr comes from a long line of powerful Shi’a clerics, his coalition is anything but a theocratic one. It includes the Iraqi Communist Party as well as other radical youth and feminist groups.
This coalition demonstrates that al-Sadr is nothing if not a political gambler who sought to unify disparate and cognitively dissonant groups who share in common only their general discontent at the current state of Iraqi socio-politics. In the short term, his gamble appears to have paid off.
Of course, the other note worthy aspect of al-Sadr’s politics in the context of Iraqi politics is that in spite of being a Shi’a Muslim whose family were arch enemies of Saddam Hussein, al-Sadr has always had substantial doctrinal disagreements with the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolution while today, his political coalition is decidedly anti-Tehran.
Long running riots in the southern Iraqi city of Basra have become ever more aggravated in recent weeks. In addition to the Iraqi army (which happens to be mostly Shi’a) firing on protesters (in the overwhelmingly Shi’a city of Basra) the protesters recently burnt down the Iranian consulate in the city while also burning down a hospital which served those who fought Daesh (aka ISIS) as part of the Iran backed, virtually all Shi’a Popular Mobilisation Units.
Given the fact that of all the political offices and other buildings being attacked, pro-Iranian sites are being hit the hardest while Sadarist offices have uniquely not been touched, makes it self-evident that Muqtada al-Sadr is up to his old tricks but this time with the support of his recently secured Saudi allies and his silent but obvious American patrons.
The fact that the US is backing al-Sadr via Riyadh may come as a shock to the families of Americans killed by al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, but it is no more shocking than Rudolph Giuliani or John Bolton giving gushing speeches before leaders of the MEK, a terrorist group that has American blood on its hands.
In this sense, while neither Sadr’s factions nor the MEK took credit for the terror attack in Ahvaz, it is becoming increasingly clear that an otherwise ideologically disparate anti-Tehran coalition is being formed under US patronage with a geographical base in Basra and nearby regions of south-western Iran. Basra has now become a swamp that is being filled with US and Saudi money in order to turn the Shi’a majority city into ground zero for future provocations against Iranian targets. Crucially, these provocations will not be directly carried out by Americans but by Iraqis, other Arabs and traitorous Iranians who as they were in the era of Saddam, appear to be once again welcome in Iraq. It is only a matter of time before such groups become more emboldened in respect of flying their various anti-Iranian banners openly in Basra. In many respects, such a phenomenon has already begun to unfold in public view. Whether this swamp of previous unrelated anti-Iranian groups eventually begin to fight among themselves for local influence within Basra remains to be seen. In many respects, this may be the only development that could retard the progress of America’s plans for turning Basra into the global destination for all anti-Tehran militants.
Against this background, while the US pulling out of Basra is a public admission that the city is no longer a safe place for such officials, the wider subtext can be read as an admission of guilt as the US continues to ever more intensely weaponise various groups who previously had little in common, but now all share either an enemy or rival in the form of the Iranian government.
In this sense, while the optics would indicate that the US is quitting Basra, in reality it appears that the exact opposite is happening. Basra is now the official base from which US proxies will plan and launch provocations against Iranian targets – both those in Iraq and more worryingly, those in Iran.
The question that then naturally arises is as follows: what better way to disguise one’s presence in a conflict riddled region than to remove one’s flag and withdraw one’s men? This appears to be exactly what the US has done in Basra. To put it bluntly, this is not the end of US meddling in southern Iraq and neighbouring Iran, but instead a new chapter in a far more hands on ‘lead from behind” approach to fomenting provocations.