Last year was a turbulent and violent year for Iran’s persecuted and impoverished Ahwazi Arab and Mandean communities who populate the oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan. The latest Ahwaz Human Rights Report, published this week, detailedan increase in violent repression by the Iranian regime against these ethnic groups amid the wave of unrest that gripped the Middle East.
Ahead of coordinated demonstrations held in Arab districts on April 15th, dubbed the ‘Day of Rage’, the regime rounded up cultural and human rights activists from the Ahwazi Arab community. Two of these prisoners of conscience were paraded on Press TV, the Iranian regime’s international propaganda arm, in December. Following months of incarceration in Ahwaz’s gruesome secret detention centre, run by the Ministry of Intelligence, the men “confessed” to a string of terrorist offences, claiming they were in the pay of Hosni Mubarak and Muammer al-Qaddafi.
Hadi Rashedi, a chemistry teacher and brother of the former chair of Khalafabad city council who was also arrested, claimed to have been among a group of gunmen who killed a policeman, despite suffering from serious heart disease that exempted him from military service. Hashem Shaabani, a post-graduate from Ahwaz University and prominent blogger, also gave a “confession” that accorded with the regime’s narrative on Ahwazi Arabs. Neither men have been charged or faced trial, let alone been allowed access to family members or lawyers.
Press TV went further, implicating a number of Ahwazi Arab refugees living in exile who they accuse of assisting with separatist terrorist attacks, without offering any proof.The notion that Ahwazi Arabs represent a fifth column in Iranian society is fundamental to their persecution under both the Pahlavi and Islamic regimes.
However, socio-economic and political conditions are driving Ahwazi Arab opposition to the regime. The Ahwaz Human Rights Report gives the example of Khalafabad, a city of 62,000, around 70% of which are Arabs. Oil facilities in the city’s jurisdiction, including the Ramin oilfield, produce 70,000b/d of oil, worth at least US$2.6bn per annum to the Iranian government and as much as the oil output of Uzbekistan.
Despite the considerable oil wealth, most of the population is living in poverty, unemployment is high, there is widespread malnutrition and access to healthcare is poor. Ahwazi Arabs, like many ethnic groups in other parts of the world, suffer from the resource curse with their persecution sustained by the natural wealth of their homeland.
Whilst Khuzestan’s oil forms the backbone of the Iranian economy, its people have been viewed, at best, as an inconvenience, or, at worst, a threat, by the Iranian government. In order to eradicate their threat to the Iranian establishment, Ahwazi Arabs are subjected to a mixture of Persianisation, forced migration, violent political repression and economic exclusion.
The Ahwazi Arabs have, for decades, campaigned for their national and cultural rights. Their struggle, however, has been part of the wider struggle of the Iranian people and all other ethnic and national minorities. But unfortunately their role has not been fully recognised. They actively participated in the 1979 revolution, hoping that the new regime would recognise and guarantee their legitimate rights and fulfil their aspirations. Yet, the new Islamic regime not only denied the Ahwazi Arabs and other ethnic groups their legitimate rights, but also started a campaign of killings, torture and violence against them.
The Ahwazi Arabs are determined to continue their peaceful and just struggle, alongside all Iranian peoples, until the realization of their national rights and the establishment of a democratic system in Iran based on freedom, justice and human rights.