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Ahmadinejad's Ahwaz sermon - no answers for local problems

By Abu Mousa Zafrani, British Ahwazi Friendship Society

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tour of the Arab majority province of Khuzestan was portrayed by the official media as an opportunity to listen to local people's concerns and problems. But he used his speech to a crowd of Bassij loyalists in the restive Ahwaz City as an opportunity to grandstand Iran's foreign policies amid the country's growing international isolation.

During Ahmadinejad's speech in Ahwaz, one brave demonstrator held up a placard which read: "Inflation, unemployment, insecurity, drug addiction have desiccated the tree of the revolution." The protestor was reminding the President that the monarchist regime was overthrown on the issue of social justice, suggesting that his conflict with the UN Security Council has little relationship with the desire of the population to rid itself of poverty.

Ahmadinejad's Ahwaz lecture on Tuesday showed that the Iranian regime believes that it can convince the masses to forget their suffering and rally in to its defence in the face of supposed Western aggression. His strategy is to use the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip in international affairs while instilling fear in the Iranian population of foreign aggression to quash internal dissent.

Ahmadinejad told his followers: "The Iranian nation is wise and will stick to its nuclear work and is ready to defend it completely." Whether or not the nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, the Ahwazi Arabs are convinced that they will be denied any benefits of the nuclear programme, just as the regime denies them a share in the revenues generated by the oil extracted from land that was confiscated from them.

No Ahwazi is prepared to defend the nuclear programme, which is not going to provide them with any material benefits. Many see the construction of nuclear plants on their land as just another industry that excludes them from employment. Some fear that the government's reckless attitude towards safety - Khuzestan's oil pipelines are notoriously unsafe while industrial pollution in the province is causing birth defects and contributing to low life expectancy - puts them at immediate risk of a Chernobyl-style disaster.

The nuclear programme involves the construction of Russian-designed nuclear power plants on their homeland - a region that experiences frequent earthquakes, with tremours measuring 3.7 on the Richter scale reported just days ago.

Most Ahwazis question the need for expensive nuclear power stations when their homeland's oil resources are more than enough to cater for power needs. Rather than spend oil revenue on social development in Khuzestan, the Iranian regime is sinking it into an unnecessary nuclear programme that is leading to international isolation that benefits no-one.

Ahmadinejad's speech made no reference to growing unrest among local Ahwazi Arabs who face an aggressive campaign of land confiscation that many human rights observers have termed "ethnic cleansing". Nor did it address endemic poverty among Arabs, whose homeland contains more oil reserves than Kuwait and the UAE combined - over 100 billion barrels. The response of the Ahmadinejad administration to those who have highlighted the suffering of Ahwazi Arabs is to ignore, silence, intimidate, arrest, torture and execute them.

In his Ahwaz lecture, Ahmadinejad insists that his priority is the humiliation of the West and that the British and Americans are responsible for all of humanity's problems. Are the British responsible for the 80 per cent child malnutrition rate in Khuzestan's Arab populated district of Dasht-e-Azadegan? Are the British driving Ahwazi Arabs off their farms into city slums and a life of unemployment and poverty and drug addiction? Are the British diverting Khuzestan's rivers, causing ecological devastation in the marshlands along the Shatt Al-Arab? Are the British jailing the young children of Ahwazi Arab opposition leaders to pressure them into confessing to crimes they did not commit? The suffering of the Ahwazi Arabs and other minorities in Iran has nothing to do with the British - it is the responsibility of the regime itself.

The subtext of Ahmadinejad's Ahwaz speech was a demand that Ahwazi Arabs abandon all opposition activism for the sake of the nuclear programme. Or they will face serious consequences. It is no coincidence that three Ahwazi activists were sentenced to death on the eve of the President's visit to the provincial capital. He was sending a message - put up and shut up, or you and your families will suffer.

The Lejnat Al-Wefaq - a reformist Arab group that sought constitutional means to advance Arab minority rights - was banned after its candidates won all but one seat on Ahwaz City Council in 2003. Its members were rounded up and imprisoned and last month a leading founding member, Ali Matouri Zadeh, was executed in Karoun Prison - just a day after pro-Ahmadinejad candidates faced a severe drubbing in the local elections. His wife Fahima and baby daughter Salma, who was born in prison in March 2006, remain in prison. A further three Ahwazis were sentenced to death on Monday as a prelude to Ahmadinejad's visit.

Ahmadinejad has not even listened to calls from Khuzestan's elected representatives. The conservative-dominated Majlis (parliament) has voted down on three occasions proposals by Khuzestan's MPs for a modest 1.5 per cent of oil revenues to be redirected to assist poverty alleviation and employment generation in the province.

Ahmadinejad portrays Iran as a model for the Muslim world, but Ahwazi Arabs are comparing themselves to the lifestyles enjoyed by their Arab brothers on the other side of the Gulf. And they are thinking to themselves, is the loss of their dignity a price worth paying for Tehran's confrontation with the international community?

In his speech, Ahmadinejad said without any sense of irony that "rulers who stand against their nation ... will face similar fate" as Saddam Hussein. Last month, students staged demonstrations at Amir Kabir University of Technology while Ahmadinejad was lecturing to them. They chanted their verdict on his rule: "Death to the Dictator." And the whole of Iran was behind them, delivering an astounding defeat for Ahmadinejad at the recent elections to the Assembly of Experts. If Ahmadinejad continues down the path of international isolation, economic austerity and political authoritarianism, he will indeed meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein.