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Iran: political rows erupt over AFZ

A major political row has erupted over the military-industrial Arvand Free Zone following the sacking of its chairman Dr Mohammed Reza Abbasi, according to a report by the semi-official Iranian Labour News Agency.

The AFZ has been created from land confiscated from indigenous Arabs living along the Shatt al-Arab in a 155 sq km area. It is the latest development in Iran's campaign of ethnic cleansing of its restive Arab population from the border with Iraq. The focus of the row is the four billion rials (US$435,000) earned every day by the AFZO from activities from the port of Khorramshahr. Dr Abbasi stood in the way of those who wished to transfer this income to Anzali, a port on the Caspian Sea in the northern Gilan province.

Dr Abbasi, a supporter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was dismissed from his job by Arvand Free Zone Organisation (AFZO) managers connected to a top official in the Iranian government who wanted full control over the zone and its income. He was appointed chair of the AFZO on 16 August 2006 under a three year contract, but was replaced by Ramazan Ahmadi.

Syed Baheralolum, the chief inspector of the AFZ, lent his support to Abbasi, saying "a high-ranking government manager disliked Dr Abbasi from the beginning. This high-positional manager had previously vetoed the order appointing Dr Abbasi as AFZO chair and appointed someone else. The President intervened to ensure that Abbasi's position was secured."

Abbasi claimed he was sacked because he was not part of a corrupt and politically well-connected clique running the AFZO, accusing local members of parliament of bribing the organisation's officials. In an interview with ILNA, he said: "My aim was to implement a management based on [Islamic] revolutionary principles. As such, I refused to provide benefits to certain groups and I resisted their demands to share profits. Consequently, they discharged me using calumny, fiction and sedition."

According to ILNA, Abbasi's supporters are holding a hunger strike in Jame'a mosque in Khorramshahr (Mohammerah) until he is reinstated and they have received a response from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Abbasi claimed his term as AFZO chairman saw a number of investment projects, with 100 projects to be started in 2007. However, according to Abbasi, corruption has upset efforts to lure more foreign investment.

Abbasi claimed that "some people do not want Khorramshahr and Abadan to be developed." He accused those who undermined his work of "obstructionism" and counter to Iran's revolutionary ideals.

Baheralolum claims that poor results for President Ahmadinejad's supporters in recent municipal elections prompted some political opportunists to move against Abbasi. He accused the free zones Secretariat High Council, provincial and municipal authorities and members of parliament of obstructionism and claimed that "officials in the province and cities were working in a way that made it impossible for the chair of AFZO to carry out his job." He added that "on one occasion I witnessed one of the board members ask for bribes. This person has instated his nephews to monitor Dr Abbasi and issue false reports against him."

Baheralolum stated that an MP gathered a petition against him for backing Abbasi and that an arrest warrant has now been issued against him. In his interview with ILNA, Baheralolum claimed that tribal leaders and the families of war martyrs had joined the protest over Abbasi's sacking and stated that up to 3,000 riot police had been sent to Abadan to prevent demonstrations.

Nasser Bani Assad, a spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS), said: "The struggle over the AFZO is a consequence of the struggle between Iranian hardliners and so-called reformists. It seems that opponents of President Ahmadinejad within the establishment have used underhand tactics against Dr Abbasi.

"While Abbasi is portraying himself as a 'man of the people', there is no evidence that he has done anything to redistribute wealth from the AFZ to the local population. Abbasi has not stopped the mass land confiscation effort conducted by AFZO officials, which is leading to the ethnic cleansing of local Arab inhabitants.

"The Abbasi affair demonstrates that sections of the establishment are prepared to play on local grievances to undermine their rivals. Baheralolum's statements are close to incitement to riot, suggesting the President's own supporters are prepared to provoke ethnic unrest for their own ends. The result will be arrests, torture and executions. Not one Iranian government official or Iranian politician cares what happens to the indigenous Arab population that has suffered decades of neglect, poverty and displacement. The current row is no exception.

"BAFS calls on Ahwazi Arabs not to become pawns in Tehran's internal political battles and to assert their own political agenda. Ahwazis have heard many empty promises from those who pretend to be on their side, but have later been betrayed. Neither Abbasi nor his opponents have done anything to stop the criminal land confiscation campaign along the Shatt al-Arab, conducted for control of the profits of the Arvand Free Zone Organisation. This row is about greed, not ideals."