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Assassination of an Ahwazi: Iran’s proxy war moves to Europe .

The assassination of an Ahwazi: Iran’s proxy war moves to Europe.

A chill wind blew through the Iranian expatriate community when Ahmad Molla Nissi, leader of a faction of Ahwazi Arab separatists, was shot dead outside his home in The Hague on Wednesday night.
While many in the Iranian opposition – particularly those with Persian chauvinist attitudes – eschew his politics and violent tactics against the regime, there is fear that this assassination could be part of a campaign of killings similar to the ‘chain murders’ that targeted leading activists during the 1990s. These killings, carried out in Iran and Europe, included the infamous Mykonos restaurant assassinations that wiped out the leadership of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, the largest Kurdish party fighting the regime. However, most killings were members of the intelligentsia who questioned the regime’s theocratic premise.
What does the murder say about Iran’s attitude towards the opposition, its methods and how it sees itself in the world?

Ahwazi militancy: no existential threat to the regime

Although some sudden deaths of Ahwazi leaders in Europe were seen as suspicious in the past, Molla is the first victim of murder. His death comes 12 years after the group he founded, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz (ASMLA) came to prominence for its association with a bombing campaign in Ahwaz, which followed a brutal crackdown on Ahwazi Arab civil unrest. This occurred in the final weeks of the Khatami administration, which enjoyed positive relations with the West and before the nuclear-related sanctions.
Since then, ASMLA’s armed group, the Brigades of the Martyr Mohieldain al-Naser – a loosely organized collection of small, transient and informal cells – has failed to build a credible guerrilla campaign with a command and control structure. Its initial terrorist attacks, which included the killing of civilians in a bomb attack on a bank, alienated it from many Ahwazi Arabs and undermined broader sympathy within and outside Iran.
The group has since produced a succession of videos of gas canister explosions, which it has cast as attacks on Iran’s oil pipeline infrastructure, with the objective of garnering financial support from sympathetic Arab businessmen. These staged explosions represent, at best, a minor irritation to the regime. Yet, the group’s tactics have been used to justify repression against Ahwazi Arab activists, many of whom are committed to non-violent means.
The group is little more than a public relations campaign for a cause without rebels, generating funds to keep its leaders fed in the West while they exhort the poor to lay down their lives. After many years of trying, ASMLA has not developed the capacity of its Jaish al-Adl allies in Balochistan. As such, the assassination was not intended to remove an immediate existential threat to the regime.

Molla: a marginal player

Molla himself was a waning character within the Ahwazi movement, reduced to a talking head in the Arabic media after his party split in 2015 over an argument over finances. Many of ASMLA’s followers aligned with his rival in the party, the Denmark-based former teacher Habib Jabor who cuts a more charismatic figure within the community, as well as one who is unafraid to engage in virulent anti-Shia, anti-Persian discourse. A diminished figurehead, Molla was reduced to commanding a rump faction, one of the many micro-parties that characterize the fractious, internecine and testy expatriate Ahwazi political scene.
Yet, there is little evidence that either Molla or Jabor have any significant traction with the Ahwazi community inside Iran. Ahwazi protest movements inside Iran have largely focused on labor and land rights, racial discrimination and environmental protection. Years of ASMLA’s vanguardist agitation from outside has not cohered into a mass Arab nationalist movement. This is partly because Majlis members representing Arab-majority constituencies have been willing to vocalize their concerns within the system, albeit to little effect. By enabling that limited ability to petition the regime while intensively securitizing Ahwazi Arab areas, the appeal of violent separatism inside Iran has been neutered. ASMLA’s sectarian discourse also has little interest in a nominally majority Shia but strongly culturally tribal Ahwazi Arab population.

Assassination is a communication to the world

The killing is more likely to be a message to Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, as the two countries continue their proxy war. Following the Arab Spring, ASMLA had sought alliances with anti-Iranian Sunni Islamist groups. Before ASMLA’s split, Molla met with the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and at one point there was some vocal support within the Free Syrian Army for the group’s aims, including the creation of an ‘Ahwaz Batallion’. But it was a succession of well-publicized meetings ASMLA had in the Gulf states that possibly prompted the Iranian regime to consider taking drastic action.
In response to the assassination, one prominent opposition activist told me: “Times have changed with a new administration in Washington, an alliance of Gulf countries in the region and all the additional sanctions. This has made them desperate and encouraged them to resort to their old ways. It is something the regime resorts to when it feels isolated and cornered. It is definitely related to the geopolitical developments against Iran. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) knows this kind of action comes with a heavy price, so when they decide to do it, it usually means they are desperate.”
The killing was a warning, not only to Ahwazis but to the wider Iranian opposition, to stay out of the conflict that is sweeping through the Middle East. It communicated that the intelligence services can work with impunity within West and could target activists on their doorsteps. They are right to feel confident. Past assassinations in Europe have not had any impact on EU-Iran relations as European governments have placed commercial interests ahead of domestic security. 
While Iran may be seeking to demonstrate strength by killing Molla, it is a sign of the Iranian regime’s weaknesses, particularly considering President Trump’s pledge to designate the IRGC a terrorist organization. The IRGC is principally behind the Iranian proxy war and may have had a hand in the Molla assassination.
In the context of mounting regional rivalries in the Middle East and an IRGC that is both more assertive and feeling more vulnerable, there is a sense within the expatriate Iranian opposition that Molla’s assassination may be part of a pattern and more killings in Europe are likely.
If a relatively minor character like Molla can be gunned down in cold blood, then anyone can be a target. The failure of European security services to take this threat seriously or put it ahead of economic interests in Iran only adds to the sense of terror that is gripping critics of the regime.

by: Daniel Brett
Daniel is 
a consultant specializing in emerging markets, defense, counter-terrorism and foreign policy issues