Arab terrorists have long been active throughout the Middle East, including some places where you wouldn’t expect it, like Iran. Over the last decade there have been a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands (Khuzestan) of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little for all that oil. Although Arabs comprise only about three percent of Iran’s population, they constitute much of the population in an area that produces 70 percent of the nations’ oil. Arabs used to be the majority in this area, but in the last 80 years, more ethnic Iranians (an Indo-European people related to Indians and Europeans) have moved into the oil territories and are now the majority. While the Iranian Arabs fought bravely against the Iraqis in the 1980s, suffering, per capita, four times as many casualties as the rest of Iran, they did this because they despised Saddam more than they disliked the ethnic Iranians that ruled them. This hatred is well deserved, as the government has responded to the Arab unrest with heavy handed police state tactics. Not surprisingly, the Iranians don’t trust their Arabs and keep lots of secret police and Revolutionary Guards in the area, with orders to be active in the pursuit of real or imagined traitors.
Iraqi Arabs see the Iranians doing the same thing with Iraqi oil if Iran ever managed to carry out their ancient, and often foiled, expansion plans. Iran has, for thousands of years, been trying to annex southern Iraq. In the past it was just about owning the fertile Tigris-Euphrates river valley (central and southern Iraq). But now the focus is on southern Iraq, which is over 80 percent Shia and contains the major Shia holy places. More importantly, this area has most Iraqi oil fields that would increase Iranian oil exports by over 50 percent. Iraqis, particularly Shia Iraqis, note that Iranian Arabs, living just across the border in Iran's oil producing region, are not treated well, never have been, and probably never will be. Ethnic Iranians have a low opinion of Arabs and do little to hide it.
The Iranian Arabs are despised by ethnic Iranians, and the current generation of Iranian Arabs are fed up with the discrimination they suffer. Their fathers fought bravely for Iran when Iraq invaded in the 1980s, and all the government gave in return was more abuse. There's more anger than organization and violence. The anti-government Arab terrorist movement in southwest Iran has been growing rapidly since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. The government blames it all on American and British agents, who are widely believed to be helping to organize armed resistance. There's never been any proof. Those rumors have been an Iranian staple for over a century. The local Arab rebels blame the non-Arab Iranians and say nothing about foreign assistance.
Saddam was overthrown in 2003, and soon the Shia Arabs of Iraq were in charge. Okay, the Sunni Arab minority that propped up Saddam were still killing people, particularly Shia Arabs. But the Iraqi Shia Arabs were fighting back and the Iranian Arabs (who were also Shia) noticed. Suddenly the fact that most Iraqis were Arab, Shia, and in charge meant a whole lot to Iranian Arabs. New political parties and pressure groups began to form among the Iranian Arabs. But asking the Iranian government for better treatment only unleashed the secret police and thousands of Iranian Arabs were arrested, many never to be seen again. Thus, for the last decade there's been a growing rebellion in southwest Iran. All the rebels down there have been Arabs, and the Iranian government is in no mood to talk with the local Arabs, much less negotiate anything. The government blames America and keeps arresting and killing Arabs. Iraqi Arabs are apparently providing some aid, if only because several Shia tribes still have branches on both sides of the border. The Iranian Arab rebels are not numerous but they aren't going away.
Meanwhile, the Sunni Arabs in the region are increasingly at war with Iran but don’t want open warfare. As weak as conventional Iranian forces are, the Iranians have been defeating Arabs for thousands of years and are currently calling for Shia (Iranian) control of the Moslem holy places in Saudi Arabia. This has caused a growing animosity between Iran and the Gulf Arabs. The Sunni Arabs stick it to the Iranians by encouraging Iranian Arabs and Sunnis (the Indo-European Baluchis in the southeast) to rebel. The Gulf Arabs also provide more cash and weapons support for the local opponents of pro-Iranian groups throughout the region.
The conflict between Sunni and Shia has been going on for over a thousand years. While some 88 percent of the 1.3 billion Moslems on the planet are Sunni, about 11 percent are Shia. While most other Islamic sects just represent religious differences, many Shia believe they should be running the Islamic world and that all Moslems should be Shia. The Sunnis disagree, often violently.
What has kept the Shia cause alive all these centuries is the fact that some 90 percent of Iranians are Shia. Iran (also known as Persia or Parthia) has been the major power in the region for over 3,000 years. For example, the Parthians were the one group the ancient Romans could not defeat. While Persia was overrun by the initial wave of Islamic conquest in the 7th century, the Iranians soon developed their own distinct form of Islam and eventually became Shia. So did many others in the region. Today, Bahrain and Azerbaijan are two-thirds Shia. Iraq is 60 percent Shia. There are many countries with a Shia minority. In Lebanon the Shia are about 35 percent of the population. In Saudi Arabia the ten percent of the population that are Shia are concentrated in the eastern part of the kingdom, where the oil is. There are many other Moslem nations with Shia minorities, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and India (where about ten percent of the 145 million Moslems are Shia).
While the Arabs take great pride in the fact that Islam originated, and spread, from Arabia, there has always been an uneasy feeling that the Iranians would one day take over. When the original Arab Caliphate (ruler of all Moslems) began falling apart a thousand years ago, Shia Iran became relatively stronger. But then a series of external events saved the Arabs from Iranian domination. The Mongols smashed the Iranians up real good. A few centuries later, as the Iranians recovered, the Turks moved in to protect the Arabs. When the Turkish Empire fell apart a century ago, Europeans and Americans arrived to keep the Iranians from taking care of their "Arab problem".
After World War II, all seemed well in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians were ruled by a monarchy, which recognized Arab control of Islam's holy places in Saudi Arabia. Then, in the late 1970s, the Iranian monarchy was overthrown. The revolt was supported by the Shia clergy, which was always more politically active, and better organized, than the Sunni clergy in Arabia and elsewhere. The Iranian rebels had planned to establish a democracy but then Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein) invaded Iran in 1980, hoping to grab Iranian oil while the Iranians were disorganized from their revolution. That changed everything. The Iranians got organized quickly, the Shia clergy took over “temporarily” and democracy got put on hold. “Temporary” turned into permanent as the clergy turned Iran into a theocracy, run by the senior clergy. Worse yet, the clergy called for a world-wide religious revolution. The world was to be converted to Islam, Shia Islam. But because most Moslems are Sunni, the Iranian religious revolution didn't get very far. It wasn't for want of trying. The Iranian Shia sent money and guns to Shia revolutionaries all over the region. This caused some noise, and death, but never really gained much traction. The Sunnis fought back. The hard core Sunni clerics had always considered the Shia to be heretics, and this business of Shia religious revolution just made the Sunni fanatics madder.
Even before the radical Shia clergy took over in Iran, radical Sunni clergy were preaching Islamic world conquest. That slowly grew, until it became al Qaeda, and other like-minded groups, in the 1990s. But it got worse. Even before the "Islamic Republic of Iran" appeared in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was funding religious schools all over the Islamic world, and encouraging the persecution of Shias. But while the Iranian theocracy was getting itself established, the Saudis, and other wealthy Sunni Arabs in the Persian Gulf, were funding Sunni radicalism and encouraging anti-Shia violence. The Shia must not be allowed to spread their heretical teachings. This battle has largely been ignored in the West but it has been going on for decades, and thousands die each year because of it.
As bad as Saddam Hussein was, the Sunni world saw him as their defender against Shia Iran. When Saddam fell, Sunnis, especially Sunni Arabs in the Persian Gulf, saw Iran taking over Iraq, because 60 percent of Iraqis are Shia, and then taking over the Persian Gulf. While the West just saw Saddam as a nasty tyrant, the Sunni world saw him as someone who knew how to handle Shia scum. Again, this aspect of Saddam's popularity in the Moslem world went largely unreported.
But the Shia angle is key. A major component of al Qaeda's attraction is its willingness to go after Shia. This is why Iran never provided much support for al Qaeda. That Iran provided any at all merely demonstrates how eager rabid Iranian religious radicals were to strike a blow at the unbelievers (the West). But most Iranians hate al Qaeda and Sunni radicals in general. Again, it doesn't get reported much in the West but in Iran, and Shia areas elsewhere, the latest terrorist attack against Shia anywhere is always big news.
Can the Iranians "control" the Iraqi Shia and form a more powerful Shia alliance that could threaten Sunni control of the Persian Gulf? As a practical matter, no. For one thing, most Shia Arabs are Arabs first and Shia second. Iranian Arabs get treated the way Iranians treat all Arabs, poorly.
Secondly, the Western nations are not going to allow Iran to build a Shia empire. It's simply not going to happen. Even most Iranians don't want any part of this world conquest fantasy, which is only embraced by a rabid religious minority within Iran. A more likely conflict is one within Iran, between the radical religious minority and the majority of Iranians who are tired of being ruled by a clerical dictatorship.
Within Iraq, there are many Shia factions. The more determined ones (and there are more than one) are willing to use terror and violence to establish a religious dictatorship in Iraq. But they are only factions and the main ones (mainly the Badr and Sadr groups) were crushed by Iraqi security forces in 2008. Iraq, as a whole, is not tolerant of more dictatorship. Iraqis have seen what a religious dictatorship has done to Iran, don't want Iranians telling them what to do, and don't want another Sunni Arab dictator either.