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Iran's oil exports in danger due to rising Ahwaz unrest

Oil pipelines supplying Abadan with crude caught fire on Tuesday night in what some believe was an act of sabotage coinciding with weeks of unrest among Ahwazi Arabs.

Abdolreza Asadi, head of the state-owned Karoun oil company, said that the fires near Ahwaz City were possibly the result of sabotage, although the fire service later reported that they were caused by a leak. The Abadan refinery has a capacity of 450,000 barrels per day, around 30 per cent of Iran's total refining capacity. Al-Ahwaz produces around 80-90 per cent of Iran's total crude output, representing at least 10 per cent of OPEC's output.

Pipelines in Al-Ahwaz (Khuzestan) were previously bombed in September 2005, temporarily disrupting supplies (click here for story). The regime also claimed in October that it had foiled an attempt to bomb Abadan refinery following major bomb attacks on Ahwaz City (click for story).

Al-Ahwaz has witnessed rising anger and despair among Ahwazi Arabs, who are being subjected to a large-scale land confiscation programme accompanied by violent repression, which many regard as a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Ahwazi tribal leaders, journalists, businessmen, opposition activists, imams, teachers and even a mayor are among those being rounded up and imprisoned and executions have increased dramatically as the regime attempts to stamp out dissent. This has led to a climate of confrontation between the Ahwazis and the regime, with anti-government demonstrations and rioting regularly breaking out in Arab districts and city slums.

Nasser Bani Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, said: "We know that certain Ahwazi Arab tribal leaders have been politically co-opted and armed by the regime to help guard oil installations. Consequently, they have an in-depth knowledge of the pipeline infrastructure. If the current ethnic repression continues, it is possible that some members of these tribes will attack the installations they were meant to be guarding.

"Disruptions to oil supply in Ahwaz on a scale seen in the Niger Delta will have global economic and political implications. Any major attack on Abadan refinery, which represents over a quarter of Iran's refining capacity, or export pipelines from Al-Ahwaz's massive oilfields will hit the country's oil exports as well as its own fuel supplies. Oil prices will shoot through the roof if the Ahwazi intifada begins to strike at Iran's oil industry.

"In their desperation, the Ahwazi Arabs are beginning to realise that regime could to be brought to its knees if oil supplies are disrupted by a relentless Ahwazi intifada, but the rest of the world will also feel the heat. The question is, will the international community intervene to stabilise the situation in Al-Ahwaz or will it wait until the problems have a direct impact on world oil supply?"