someone hold me
This moment makes Aiwei a terribly interesting character to me.
Not only is he in direct contact (psychically?) with the Red Lotus, he gives every indication of being a True Believer in their cause—something we didn’t know existed outside the Foursome. His threat doesn’t sound like the sort of bluff Unalaq pulled in “Civil Wars, Part 2” when he told Korra he didn’t need her to carry out his plans, and his reason for betrayal runs deeper than the shallow “bribery” he gives while framing the young guard. Aiwei honestly believes Zaheer and the others will succeed, even though they’ve been defeated and driven off, and it’s a conviction that must be older than the thirteen years the Foursome spent in prison.
Where could that conviction come from? I think our always-clever writers have dropped a few more clues in “The Terror Within.” For one thing, Aiwei has a “desert on a jar” (commented on by Bolin) that appears to be significant to him, considering the way he handles it. And the Red Lotus shoot Korra with shirshu venom; although the shirshu we see in AtLA goes everywhere, the only place we see its venom used as a weapon is in the Si Wong Desert, during “Appa’s Lost Days.” (In fact, I would’ve used shirshu venom in my desert fic if I hadn’t needed the buzzard wasps instead.)
Based on those clues, I’d speculate that Aiwei’s connection with Zaheer’s gang is closer to being familial or cultural (maybe tribal?) than just an association of ideas. Maybe his name doesn’t exactly scream “sandbender,” but his skin is significantly darker than most of the rest of Zaofu’s inhabitants, and he seems to have escaped to the desert at the first opportunity. All those clues suggest that the desert is where he originally comes from. (He’s a metalbender too, of course, but the Metal Clan is a relatively recent invention.)
He’s definitely interesting, alright!
There are too many desert references for it to be a coincidence at this point, I think. Even apart from the things you mentioned, you’ve got the names “Zaheer” (from the Arabic “Zahir”) and “Ghazan” (which sounds sandbender-y) to consider. It’s not that hard to imagine the Si Wong Desert being the Red Lotus’ base of operations considering everything.
I’m not entirely sold on the familial/cultural/tribal thing, though, because Zaheer isn’t dark skinned, unlike both Ghazan and Aiwei, and Ming-Hua seems unlikely to have any desert connections.
One thing I did see brought up once the Red Lotus-desert connection became clear was that the Misty Palms Oasis was the location where Iroh met his White Lotus contact back in A:tLA. The Red Lotus appears to operate a lot more like the oldschool A:tLA White Lotus than the current White Lotus does, so it seems plausible that the Red Lotus could have evolved out of the White Lotus’ original network of connections. That would explain the diversity of Zaheer’s team more than it being a familial or cultural thing, I think.