US marines probe tensions among Iran's ethnic minorities
By Guy Dinmore in Washington
Published: February 23 2006 19:07

The intelligence wing of the US marines has launched a probe into Iranıs
ethnic minorities at a time of heightened tensions along the border with
Iraq and friction between capitals.

Iranian activists involved in a classified research project for the marines
told the FT the Pentagon was examining the depth and nature of grievances
against the Islamic government, and appeared to be studying whether Iran
would be prone to a violent fragmentation along the same kind of fault lines
that are splitting Iraq.

The research effort comes at a critical moment between Iran and the US. Last
week the Bush administration asked Congress for $75m to promote democratic
change within Iran, having already mustered diplomatic support at the UN to
counter Iranıs alleged nuclear weapons programme.

At the same time, Iran has demanded that the UK withdraw its troops from the
southern Iraqi city of Basra which lies close to its border. Iran has
repeatedly accused both the US and UK of inciting explosions and sabotage in
oil-rich frontier regions where Arab and Kurdish minorities predominate. The
US and UK accuse Iran of meddling in Iraq and supplying weapons to

US intelligence experts suggested the marinesı effort could indicate early
stages of contingency plans for a ground assault on Iran. Or it could be an
attempt to evaluate the implications of the unrest in Iranian border regions
for marines stationed in Iraq, as well as Iranian infiltration...

Other experts affiliated to the Pentagon suggest the investigation merely
underlines that diverse intelligence wings of the US military were seeking
to justify their existence at a time of plentiful funding.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Long, a marines spokesman, confirmed that the
marines had commissioned Hicks and Associates, a defence contractor, to
conduct two research projects into Iraqi and Iranian ethnic groups.

The purpose was ³so that we and our troops would have a better understanding
of and respect for the various aspects of culture in those countries², he
said. He would not provide details, saying the projects were for official
use only.

Marine Corps Intelligence defines its role as focusing ³on crises and
predeployment support to expeditionary warfare². It also provides threat and
technical intelligence assessments for the Marines.

The first study, on Iraq, was completed in late 2003, more than six months
after marines spearheaded the US invasion. About 23,000 marines are still in
Iraq. The Iran study was finished late last year.

Hicks and Associates is a wholly owned subsidiary of Science Applications
International Corp, one of the biggest US defence contractors and deeply
involved in the prewar planning for Iraq.

The Strategic Assessment Center of Hicks and Associates advertises one of
its current projects as the ³Impact of Foreign Cultures on Military
Operations². SAIC confirmed it completed the confidential studies for the
Marine Corps...

Diplomats in Washington expressed shock [!!!]at the possible implications of
the Marine Corps research.

The Financial Times interviewed several Iranians in the US who were invited
to help. Some refused, seeing it as part of an effort to break up Iran.
However several exiled politicians representing minority groups opposed to
the Islamic regime did agree to take part, although they said they wanted a
peaceful transition to a democratic, federal Iran and were opposed to any US
military action.

Mauri Esfandiari, US representative of the Democratic Party of Iranian
Kurdistan which ended its armed struggle in 1997 and is based mostly in
northern Iraq, said he believed the Pentagon was acting on its long-standing
distrust of CIA and State Department analysis. He thought the Pentagon was
looking to counter the prevailing administration view that US support for
Iranıs minorities would create a disastrous backlash.

³They want to study and see if the State Departmentıs chaos theory is a
valid hypothesis,² he told the FT. The US could not look to the Kurds to
support an invasion as they did in Iraq, he said. ³Iran will become
democratic only if it is built by the Iranians. The democracy movement is
strong enough to find its way without military struggle,² he said.

Karim Abdian, head of the Ahvaz Human Rights Organisation which campaigns on
behalf of Iranian Arabs in the south-west, said his meeting with SAIC was
video-taped. He was told the report would be made public.

Questions put to him were wide-ranging -- on the ethnic breakdown of
Khuzestan province on the Iraq border, populations in cities, the level of
discontent, the percentage of Arabs working in the oil industry, how they
were represented in the central government, and their relations and kinship
with Iraqi Arabs next door.

Mr Abdian said he did not know the motives behind the survey, whether the
Marines were seeking a better understanding of the region that directly
affects them, or were forming a contingency plan in case they had to ³enter²
Iran. They were learning from the lessons of Iraq where they had not
understood the ethnic dynamics, he suggested.

Mr Abdian, who says his organisation has no government funding, accused Iran
of using the threat of a US invasion as a pretext to suppress ethnic
grievances rather than address what he called the root causes of land
confiscation and discrimination.

Exiled Iranians from various ethnic groups held a ³Congress² of
nationalities in London a year ago. They issued a ³manifesto² for a federal,
democratic Iran with separation of mosque and state. Seven organizations
included Baluch, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

Iran has recently experienced some of the worst unrest and violence among
its Kurdish and Arab populations in recent years.

Although the root causes of the unrest -- economic and cultural grievances
-- are long standing, analysts in the US believe that events in Iraq ­ where
the new constitution has embraced the concept of federalism and a Kurd has
become president -- are serving as a catalyst.

Last month two bombs exploded in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province
close to Iraq. Eight people were killed on the same day that President
Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad had been due to visit. Six people were killed in
bombings last October. Oil installations have been attacked. Iran has
repeatedly accused the UK and US of being behind the violence, using
separatist Arab groups in southern Iraq to foment instability inside Iran...

State Department officials met representatives of the London ³Congress² in
the first such talks between the Bush administration and a coalition
claiming to represent Iranıs minorities, participants told the FT.

Last October, the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) held a
conference chaired by Michael Ledeen, a proponent of regime change in Iran.
It triggered uproar among exiled opposition groups, especially Persian
nationalists. Mr Ledeen called the conference ³Another case for Federalism?²
and denied that AEI was seeking to foment separatism.

Reuel Gerecht, also with AEI and a former CIA specialist on the Middle East,
says the State Department under Condoleezza Rice, and not the Pentagon, is
running Iran policy. He said State was ³several steps removed² from
discussing covert action and ³nowhere near the point² of trying to use
separatist tendencies among minorities as traction against the Tehran
regime. No one knew whether that would work, he added.

However, he complimented the Pentagon for ³looking down the road²...