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Iran's Militarisation of the Shatt Al-Arab

The Iranian regime is preparing to expel thousands of Ahwazi Arabs to create an exclusive military-industrial zone along the Shatt Al-Arab, which marks its southern border with Iraq's Basra province.

The government's official plans for the Arvand Free Zone, along with a translation, are contained in a document published today by the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS). The document can be downloaded here. The Arvand Free Zone will stretch 30km from Abadan along the Shatt Al-Arab to the land border between Basra and Khuzestan. This is in two segments: an island and adjacent land measuring 30 square km and a strip of land north of Khorramshahr measuring 25 square km. There is also an in-land eastern segment measuring around 100 square km in area. The total land area of the Arvand Free Zone is around 155 square km and includes Arab towns and villages. At certain points, the zone is literally within a stone's throw of Basra.

Strategic importance

The satellite photo (above) shows a section of the proposed Arvand Free Zone around Khorramshahr. The port city was the scene of some of the most intense fighting during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is regarded as one of the Middle East's most strategic points.

The narrowness of the Shatt Al-Arab enabled Iran and Iraq to stage large-scale amphibious assaults during the war. In February 1986, 30,000 Iranian troops crossed the Shatt Al-Arab in a surprise attack to invade and occupy Iraq's Al-Faw peninsula and create a bridgehead for further advances into Iraq. The militarisation of the river and the creation of the military-industrial Arvand Free Zone will give Iran the capacity to carry out similar attacks in the future.

Land confiscation and the military

Over recent years, the Iranian regime has confiscated large tracts of land from local Arabs and transferred ownership to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and state-owned enterprises. Around 47,000 hectares of Ahwazi Arab farmland in the Jofir area near the Ahwazi city of Abadan has been transferred members of the security forces and government enterprises. More than 6,000 hectares of Ahwazi farmland north of Shush (Susa) has been taken to "resettle" the faithful non-indigenous Persians, according to directives by the Ministry of Agricultures and the Revolutionary Corp Command. These policies have forced Ahwazi Arabs into poor shanty towns.

The Arvand Free Zone will involve the mass expulsion of Arabs, the destruction of their villages and the creation of an exclusive military-industrial zone. In all, up to 500,000 Ahwazi Arabs could be displaced by the creation of a 5,000 square km security zone along the Shatt Al-Arab. The zone's industrial enterprises focus on creating strong economic links between Khuzestan and Basra, representing an opportunity to bring Basra's authorities and businesses under Iranian influence and draw them away from Baghdad's control.

The zone's security element will strengthen covert operations inside Iraq, with the objectives of securing an early exit of Coalition troops, influencing Iraq's political system and using patronage to control local authorities in Basra. The zone could also be used to train, fund and organise militias loyal to Tehran. Among the most well-known Iranian-backed groups is the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) which had a strong presence in Khuzestan before the fall of Saddam Hussein. Another is the Lebanese Hezbollah, which has long enjoyed Iranian patronage. Both the Badr Corps and the Hezbollah have been implicated in human rights abuses against Ahwazi Arabs.

Current threats to Basra

Documents from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Fajr Garrison in Khuzestan, which serves as the organisation's main headquarters for southern Iran, show that Tehran is employing up to 40,000 agents in Iraq. The information was revealed in March 2005 by former Iranian agents who defected due to pay cuts. Fajr Garrison hosts the IRGC's Qods Force, which runs the vast underground network in Iraq. Agents are paid by middle-men, who carry out regular visits to Ahwaz City to obtain payments and be debriefed by Qods commanders.

The regime's activities in Khuzestan are linked to the rise of militias in Basra and the British government's discovery that weapons used by insurgents were likely to have originated from the IRGC via the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah. It is no coincidence that attacks on British troops and a sudden upsurge in militia activity in Basra province have occurred at the same time discussions are being held on the issue of Iran's nuclear fuel cycle and its potential use in the construction of nuclear warheads.

Ethnic cleansing

The Arvand Free Zone is not set up to benefit the Ahwazi Arab population living in the area. Following a visit to Khuzestan in July, the UN's Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing Miloon Kothari commented: "In Khuzestan, you notice that we drove outside Ahvaz about 20 km and we visited the areas where large development projects are coming up - sugar cane plantations and other projects along the river - and the estimate we received is that between 200,000-250,000 Arab people are being displaced from their villages because of these projects.

"And the question that comes up in my mind is, why is it that these projects are placed directly on the lands that have been homes for these people for generations? I asked the officials, I asked the people we were with. And there is other land in Khuzestan where projects could have been placed which would have minimised the displacement."

BAFS spokesman Nasser Ban Assad said: "Land confiscation is being implemented to ethnically cleanse Ahwazi Arabs from their homeland in order to exploit its economic resources and to use the area for extra-territorial military ventures. The international community should call a halt to the Arvand Free Zone and impose the demilitarisation of the Ahwazi homeland, for the sake of security in the Middle East and human rights in Iran.

"We also warn those thinking of investing in the Arvand Free Zone that when the regime is toppled by the oppressed people of Iran, those displaced through land confiscation will demand the return of their land and compensation from those who profited from the ethnic cleansing programme. Investing in the free zone is neither wise nor ethical."