In an era when citizens throughout the MENA region are asking for political change, Iran’s systematic oppression and discrimination against an estimated eight million Ahwazi Arabs should not be allowed to continue unchallenged.
The territory of Al Ahwaz - known as Khuzestan in Iran - encompasses almost 72,000 square miles, stretching between the Zagros Mountains to the north and the east, Iraq to the west and Kuwait to the south. Its main cities are the capital Al Ahwaz, Abadan and Mohammera. Al Ahwaz is blessed with vast deposits of oil and gas as well as fertile agricultural land, yet its Arab population is overwhelmingly poor and illiterate, lacking modern educational and medical facilities.
Tehran has discriminated against the Arabs of Al Ahwaz since their homeland’s occupation and annexation by the Shah Reza Shah in 1925; they are being treated as thirdclass citizens, who endure primitive living standards without even the basic political rights enjoyed by the Persian relocated minority who refer to the indigenous Ahwazis as ‘gypsies’.
In June 2005, the Director of the Ahwaz Education and Human Rights Foundation, Karim Abdia spelled out the Ahwazi plight before the United Nations in Geneva, explaining that the Ahwazi population suffers from a shortage of drinking water; electricity; plumbing; telephones, and sewage. Fifty per cent of these people live in absolute poverty, he said, while 80 per cent of their children are malnourished.
The dispossessed Ahwazi Arabs are grossly underrepresented in parliament and rarely are posted to government positions. They accuse the Iranian government of having racially-based political and economic prejudice, which is why some groups are calling for Al Ahwaz to be liberated from Iran and for the United Nations to recognise them as an independent Arab group with their own state.
However, the government is attempting to pull the rug from their demands by settingup self-contained farming settlements and bringing in Persians to work with them as part of a planned strategy to alter the area’s demographics.
According to Amnesty International, “Land expropriation by the Iranian authorities is reportedly so widespread that it appears to amount to a policy aimed at dispossessing Arabs of their traditional lands. This is apparently part of a strategy aimed at the forcible relocation of Arabs to other areas while facilitating the transfer of non- Arabs into Khuzestan…” It’s believed that the government is pursuing a strategy of enforced assimilation by trying to eradicate the Ahwazi Arab culture. For instance, the Iranian authorities will not register birth certificates for Arab newborns unless they assume Persian names. Schools in Al Ahwaz have been instructed not to teach Arabic, which is also banned from being spoken in parliament and government ministries. An Arabic media is forbidden in the territory. The Ahwazi consider their Mesopotamian Arabic dialect, shared with southern Iraqis, to be their mother tongue. However journalists who write against this cultural barbarism are routinely imprisoned.
In 2007, six Ahwazi Arabs were subjected to kangaroo courts and put on death row on charges of converting to Sunni Islam, giving their children Sunni names, flying the allwhite Ahwazi Arab flag, and as “enemies of God”, constituting a threat to national security. Those and other similarly rigged trials, resulting in executions and summary executions, have been condemned by the European Council, the EU Parliament, the UN and numerous human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Besides their very real human rights and economic grievances, the historic claim of the Ahwazi Arabs to their Arab homeland is rock solid. Al Ahwaz was a thriving province of Mesopotamia for centuries, rich from sugarcane plantations. It also proved fertile ground for Muslim scholars, poets and artists.
From the mid-7th century until the mid 13th century its people were ruled variously by Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, their numbers swelled by itinerant Arab tribes from the Arabian Peninsula. A Mongolinvasion led by Genghis Khan devastated most of Al Ahwaz that was later occupied by the founder of the Timurid Empire Tamerlane and his successors until the early 16th century, when it fell under the domination of the Persian Safavid Dynasty.
Al Ahwaz came to be known as the semiautonomous region of ‘Arabistan’ towards the end of the 16th century, when it received an influx of Arab tribes from southern Iraq, as well as a clan of the powerful Bani Kaab whose origins lie in Central Arabia. Under the leadership of Sheikh Jabir Al-Kaabi the Bani Kaab fought to stave-off British and Ottoman invasions. Sheikh Jabir was a wise governor of the province who established law and order and turned the coastal city of Mohammerah into a bustling free port. At the cusp of the 20th century, oil was discovered around Mohammerah and the British wasted no time in founding the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and entering into an oil exploration treaty with the late Sheikh Jabir’s son Khaz’al. The UK guaranteed Arabistan’ssecurity and agreed payments to both Sheikh Khaz’al and the Shah of Iran.
What should have been a blessing for the Ahwaz Arabs was, in fact, a curse. When Sheikh Khaz’al realised that Reza Shah’s ambitions extended to Arabistan and its oil wealth, he allied himself with the Shah’s opposition and asked the British to defend the Ahwazi people and back the area’s rightful separation and independence from Persia as an Arab state.
Forced to choose between Arabistan and Tehran, Britain reneged on its treaty with Khaz’al and supported the Shah, mainly because London wanted Iran on-side as a pro-Western bulwark against the spread of Soviet communism. Betrayed by duplicitous Albion, in 1924 Khaz’al put his case before the League of Nations but without the UK’s support it was rejected. Given that Persia’s membership of the League of Nations was prior to its annexation of Arabistan and Tehran was, therefore, bound by that body’s rules prohibiting invasion, that unfair decision should be reconsidered.
A year later, the Shah ordered Sheikh Khaz’al abducted, imprisoned and killed. With Britain’s help Reza Shah gained absolute control over the oil-wealthy territory when he changed the five-centuryold name ‘Arabistan’ to ‘Khuzistan’. The period between 1928 and 1946 witnessed nine unsuccessful uprisings by the Ahwaz and since numerous secessionist groups have emerged, written-off by the Iranian government as troublemakers or stooges of foreign countries.
Today, Al Ahwaz produces four million barrels a day - 87 per cent of Iran’s oil production - but the indigenous population profits little from its revenue in terms of employment, infrastructure and welfare. Only 15-20 per cent of workers in the petroleum industry are Arabs holding mainly blue collar jobs.
Eight million Ahwaz Arabs may have been issued with Iranian documents but they are not Persians. They have as much Arab blood flowing through their veins as those of us privileged to live in GCC states. I would, therefore, request Arab countries to call upon the Arab League to study their case and put their right of self-determination before the United Nations Security Council. Their abandonment is nothing less than a stain upon the Arab Nation to which the Arabs of Arabistan proudly belong