Several days ago, 20 August marked the 34th anniversary of the end of the Iran-Iraq War, which spanned almost eight years. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is long gone, and the country ruled by his once-feared regime is in shambles. Yet the Iran-Iraq border area remains a deadly hazard due to the continued presence of land mines and other unexploded munitions, which claim the lives of dozens of local people every month.
The worst-affected area lies within Iran’s southwest border, in the region known for centuries as Ahwaz. It was here that Saddam Hussein ultimately unsuccessfully directed four of his six divisions in the 1980s, yet that long-past conflict is not even a hypothetically plausible explanation for the continued presence of countless land mines.
More than three decades since the end of that war, Ahwazi areas are still strewn with landmines which regularly kill or maim local Arab Ahwazi people. While other nations have usually been cleared of these dangerous, internationally outlawed weapons within the first few years of a conflict ending, for Iran’s regime the landmines are simply one more useful means of emptying the oil-rich region of its Ahwazi population. For the same reason, Iran’s regime has made no effort to clear the debris of often historic buildings in towns and villages throughout the border area destroyed in bombardment or to rebuild and rehabilitate communities abandoned during the conflict due to their proximity to the battle zone. As a result, many now are ghost towns, deserted silent ruins that were once bustling, vibrant hamlets and farming communities.
Few outside Iran are aware that 70 per cent of Iran’s population consists of non-Persian peoples inhabiting the peripheral regions in the country. The failure of the Iranian state to recognise or respect the ethnic national identities and cultures of these peoples or to accommodate their demands and movements has led to increasing anger among these peoples who have been disempowered in all aspects of social, cultural, economic, and political life, forcing the Iranian leadership to formulate a new, more effective strategy of oppression with which to confront these deliberately marginalised peoples and deny their just demands for preserving their identity and culture and attaining the fundamental socio-economic rights which have long been completely denied to them. Instead, Iran keeps trying to enforce this increasingly failed policy of forced assimilation or eradication, including against the almost 8 million Arab peoples of Ahwaz.
It is no coincidence that the Iranian regime has left Ahwazi lands in particular riddled with minefields and other deadly ordnance, but part of a systemic and ongoing series of various political and security strategies by Iran’s rulers to deal with what is often called the ‘Ahwazi Arab case’. These strategies have included efforts at forced assimilation, along with denial, mass murder campaigns, forced displacement, destruction of Ahwazi Arab villages and land confiscation. To excuse this oppression to the outside world, the Iranian regime has employed a strategy known as securitisation.
What is Securitization Theory?
Securitisation is one of the basic concepts frequently referred to in security studies and international relations in the post-Cold War era; this has led some specialists to classify it as a central factor in the field of security studies. The original formulation of the concept and theory of securitisation is generally attributed to the Copenhagen School of Security Studies, particularly to Professors Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan.
The basic premise is that when a state labels an issue as a security matter, this effectively gives the state extraordinary powers to introduce special measures to deal with that issue beyond the usual political process; the state interprets the issue in question as an existential security threat that it supposedly cannot deal with without adopting the most extreme and draconian of security measures.
The securitisation process consists of three main elements. These are:
- a) the targeted issue or referent object, which is to say, an object or an issue labelled as an existential security threat to the state and the country, often one traditionally signifying the integrity, sovereignty and identity of the nation.
- b) the securitising actors responsible for shaping the enhanced security narrative and policies in regard to the referent issue – these are governmental personnel, political elites, and state military entities, typically supported by media platforms as well as civil society.
- c) the functioning actors, namely parties with authority or power to influence the decision-making process in securitising the issue or the targeted object; these could be political parties, financial or economic firms, or prominent figures with a stake or interest in the securitisation of the issue, including those who may potentially profit from doing so.
The securitisation theory is readily applied to Ahwaz
Iran has traditionally employed various political and economic, and security strategies, as noted above, to deal with what is often called the ‘Ahwazi Arab case’.
Underlying its decades-long strategy has always been a level of demonisation of the Ahwazi people, whose Arab ethnicity is viewed by Iran’s leaders as justification for viewing them as an inherent existential security threat and therefore subject to any and all draconian measures in accordance with securitisation theory.
Before turning to the extensive history of Iran’s employment of this strategy, it is important to note that the minefields Iran has left intact for decades presents an evident case study in its securitisation; the purported rationale for leaving those deadly unexploded munitions is the ‘threat’ posed by the Ahwazis to the Persia-centric regime in Tehran.
The Conquest and Erasure of Ahwaz
After Reza Shah and his army annexed the formerly independent emirate of Ahwaz by force in 1925 and imprisoned its ruler, they quickly moved to impose absolute Persian rule from Tehran, imprisoning the Ahwazi emir and beginning their efforts to eradicate Ahwazis’ proud history and even the Arab place names before renaming Persia’s newly expanded territories as Iran in 1936; by terrible coincidence, this was the same year that the emir was murdered while still in captivity in Tehran. From the beginning, Shah Reza set out very consciously to forcibly assimilate the Ahwazis, Turks, Kurds, and Balochis into a single, exclusively Persian entity speaking one Persian language; this enforced integration and the accompanying eradication of national identity rights was the backbone of Iranian nationhood. Iran sought to forcibly assimilate these peoples through violence and marginalisation, enforced poverty, rejecting, mocking, vilifying and flatly denying the ‘lesser’ cultures, languages, history and identity of these peoples, who were depicted as backwards, primitive and tribal in unfavourable comparison to the Persians.
These overtly supremacist views led to discriminatory policies and efforts towards the cultural erasure of non-Persian peoples; unsurprisingly, such racist exclusion instead led to rapidly developing and sustained resistance among the peoples in the annexed areas – Ahwaz, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan and Baluchistan – unwilling to accept the erasure of their proud histories and cultures to accommodate Reza Shah’s ethnonationalist empire-building.
Although the royalist regime was ousted in 1979, the clerical totalitarianism that replaced it proved even more supremacist and overtly racist, replacing the rhetoric of monarchy with that of theocracy, and still trying to transform Iran’s purported national identity from its actual multi-ethnic makeup into a homogeneous nation under Persian rule. In this respect, particularly coupled with its absolutist theocracy under the ayatollah, the Khomeneist regime is directly applying another odious philosophy, namely the infamous ‘ein volk, ein reich, ein fuhrer’(one people, one nation, one leader) doctrine of Nazi Germany.
It needs to be stressed that authoritarian regimes rarely rely solely on the use of indiscriminate force to maintain their power. Typically, the groundwork for this policy, regarded as suppressive by many human rights organisations, is first laid by demonising a target population, after which the regime may feel free to act as it pleases. One recurrent tactic is what is known as the ‘creation of moral panic’.
The creation of moral panic is defined as a set of practices, methods, and strategies utilised by a ruling group aimed at creating a public panic to justify the suppression and control of a particular – usually already marginalised – minority. A prime example of this technique is the steady outpouring of books, newspapers, TV programmes and other media output by successive Iranian regimes vilifying Ahwazi Arabs as dangerous criminals, insurgents and inherently uncivilised peoples who understand only the ‘language of physical force’. The Iranian regime has formulated and promoted this grotesquely distorted, repugnant caricature of the Ahwazi people as a means of collectively degrading and dehumanising them in order to justify its practices, deemed illegal according to international norms, against them in every area of life, acting with complete impunity.
However, the vilification of Ahwazis is not being pursued so aggressively out of mere racism. Since Ahwaz contains the vast majority of the oil, gas, mineral and water resource claimed by Iran, Iran has labelled the region as Iran’s beating economic heart. This means that successive Iranian regimes have imposed increasingly suffocating military and security restrictions to crush any sign of dissent or protest against the regime’s corruption, crackdown and plunder of resources.
Ahwazis’ Arab ethnicity means they are routinely accused of being undercover ‘foreign agents’ conspiring with enemy states to undermine Iranian national security and its alleged sovereign integrity through seeking separatism. As a result, even the most minor political, cultural and economic demands by Ahwazi figures have been deemed as resulting from ‘separatism-seeking motives’, with Ahwazi protesters routinely arrested and executed based on supposed security threat issues.
A wide range of civic and peaceful protests and struggle and disobedience of Ahwazis were also met with heavy crackdowns and extrajudicial killing by Iranian military forces with the mission of expelling and neutralising the ‘threats’ posed by Ahwazi Arab protesters, beginning with several massacres during Reza Shah’s regime and three massacres under the ‘Islamic Republic’ regime, such as the ‘Black Wednesday’ protests in Muhammarah in the early days of the Islamic revolution, the mass killing of Ahwazi Arab protesters in the 2005 uprising and Ma’shour Massacre in 2019.
These massacres reflect the effectiveness of Iran’s securitisation approach towards the Ahwazi Arab cause. Iran has reduced the Ahwazi issue to a security-militarised problem, targeting and executing the Ahwazi activists extrajudicially, all pursuant to its longstanding dehumanisation protocol. This securitising/militarising policy has helped the Iranian state eliminate all elements of legitimacy as to Ahwazi national, cultural, socio-economic, and political demands. Accordingly, there is no reason for the regime to even consider abandoning its securitising policy for genuine political inclusion of Ahwazi national demands by giving any degree of self-government autonomy.
Changing the historic Arabic names of Ahwazi regions
The erasure of Ahwaz’s identity is a necessary aspect of Iran’s securitisation process. Since the critical referent object is not only putative Iranian homogeneity and national identity, but more specifically Ahwaz’s significant oil and gas resources, changing the historic Arabic names of Ahwazi areas, towns, cities, villages and landmarks to Farsi has been a core underlying strategy by Iran. After Ahwaz was forcibly occupied by Iran following the 1925 military invasion, the region underwent a massive ‘Persianisation’ process of renaming, in which even signposts were replaced, with historic names changed overnight to new Farsi alternatives.
Although the other main national ethnic minorities in Iran, Kurds, Turks and Balochis, face the same pattern of oppression, their regions still bear their historic names, expressing something of their culture and identity; Iranian Kurds have Kurdistan province, Turks have Azerbaijan province and Balochis have Baluchistan province. The indigenous Arabs of Ahwaz, however, are denied even this small dignity, with most of the Ahwaz region being renamed ‘Khuzestan’ and other parts of the former emirate being divided between other Iranian provinces, namely Bander Abbas, Bushehr and Hormozegan.
Even the spelling of the eponymous regional capital of Ahwaz, Ahwaz City, the only place allowed to retain its historical name, has been changed to ‘Ahvaz’ in Farsi rather than ‘Ahwaz’, reflecting not only the Persian tendency to turn the soft ‘w’ in words into a harder ‘v’ sound, but the determination of Iran’s rulers to eradicate any trace of Arabic.
This policy of renaming everything is a deliberately misleading strategy on the part of Iran’s rulers to ensure that the media and those unfamiliar with Ahwazi history are left with the false impression that Ahwazis are solely the local people of Ahwaz (or ‘Ahvaz’) city, like Damascenes from Damascus, Parisians from Paris, etc.
Through this longstanding disinformation campaign, successive Iranian regimes have massively downplayed and disregarded the history, size and significance of the Ahwazi people and their presence. These regimes have been helped in this effort, especially in recent decades, by a sizeable, well-funded and quite sophisticated political lobby and associated regime-friendly media in the West, which have promoted a tireless campaign of defamation and slander against Ahwazi activists in the diaspora who expose the truth.
Again, the renaming of Ahwazi areas serves to erase the region’s Arab identity and deny the existence, history, culture and thus the rights of a significant Arab minority in Iran. This is explained not only by Iran’s longstanding, deep-seated anti-Arab racism as reflected in grotesque Arab caricatures found in Persian culture, both ancient and modern, but by the determination of Iran’s rulers to claim absolute and quintessentially ‘Persian’ ownership of the region’s vast natural resources and access to its coastal waters.
Due to this continuous Orwellian revisionism and erasure of Ahwazi history, with Iran’s ‘reimagined’ history being taught as historical reality in Iranian schools and presented as unquestionable fact across all media, it is unsurprising that many if not most ethnically Persian Iranians, even including dissidents in the diaspora, unquestioningly believe Tehran’s claims that Ahwazi activists and dissidents are nothing more than troublemaking separatists, ‘terrorists’ or ‘enemies of the state’ intent on inciting insurgency and division. In the Iranian regime’s rewritten history, this fabricated ‘threat’ to Iran from Ahwazi and other national ethnic minorities not only serves to undermine these people’s claim to territorial sovereignty, but provides a primary justification for the securitisation of the Ahwazi cause. It reflects one of the regime’s most successful uses of information warfare.
Among the media figures assisting Iran in this campaign of erasure overseas are Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-American professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City, who writes for Al Jazeera and other outlets. In a typical article published by Al Jazeera English on 25 September 2018, entitled, ‘Is It Ahvaz or Ahwaz – And What Difference Does It Make?’, Dabashi defended the imposed and fabricated name of Ahvaz, describing the indigenous Arabs who use the original Arabic name and pronunciation, Ahwaz, with a soft ‘w’, as ‘ethnonationalists’ and ‘separatists’ for doing so; that is to say, he condemns Ahwazis for using their own native language and pronunciation for their own native land. Dabashi, who writes extensively – if selectively – on the ’post-colonial era’, can apparently see no contradiction between this stance and his ardent support for the imposition of colonisers’ language and pronunciation on a colonised people so long as Iran is the colonising power. The English word that best describes Dabashi’s selective reasoning, in fact, derives from an old Greek word, hypocrite.
Dabashi’s tendentious vilification of Ahwazis who refuse to abandon their native language and Arabic pronunciation and accept assimilation is not unusual among the Iranian diaspora, with Ahwazi writers and activists subject to constant abuse, vilification and often threats on social media, particularly from supporters of the current Iranian regime, for their principled refusal to deny their heritage and history.
Justification for securitisation of the Ahwazi cause
The regime has been doubling down on these attacks even as Ahwazi anger at this historic injustice increases, especially with the approach of the centennial anniversary of the 1925 occupation in only three years’ time. Preemptively, the regime is increasingly suppressing any public protest or expression of dissent by exiled Ahwazi activists and supporters in or outside Iraq, using terms such as ‘Al Ahwazia’ and ‘Al Ahwazion’ as insults, and claiming that these words indicate involvement in a ‘separatist plot’; in the fevered imagination of Iranian regime officials, even use of the Arabic definite article, ‘al’ (‘the’) which normally precedes proper nouns and place names in Arabic, is in itself viewed as a symbol of dangerous insurrection, so reference to ‘Al Ahwaz’ is considered a seditious coded reference to a non-existent ‘Al Ahwazia’ movement.
Even Ahwazi cultural, artistic or civic events or meetings featuring any discussion of Ahwazi history are deemed a threat to national integrity and security, with large numbers of heavily armed regime security and intelligence personnel playing a ‘securitising’ role in which activists, poets, writers, musicians and any Ahwazis speaking out against injustice are depicted as dangerous insurgents.
Securitisation via normalisation of ethnic oppression
In its efforts to further rouse Persian nationalist sentiments within Persian society and possibly to gain sympathy and support from Persian anti-regime groups and the Persian diaspora, the regime has provided legal and official cover for the ‘Pan-Persian’ party, an ethnosupremacist entity, to open offices in Ahwazi Arab cities. Its mission is to closely monitor Ahwazi activists and their activities, as well as to monitor Ahwazis in exile. Within Iran, the party transfers its members to Ahwaz from ethnically Persian areas. Outside the country, it has built strong relations with Persian diaspora groups and media and worked to convince them that any mobilisation in the form of protest or cultural activities by the indigenous Ahwazi people is aimed at strengthening separatist sentiment for Ahwaz, and thereby not towards Persian anti-Khomeneist goals. This provides at least tacit support for the regime’s crackdowns on Ahwazi activists, promoted as an ultranationalist policy essential to maintain national wellbeing and security, to eradicate the threat to Iranian territory and to terminate the sources of separatism.
As a result of this securitisation and of the previously mentioned deep-rooted anti-Arab sentiments of racism, while we see hundreds of Ahwazi activists arrested, jailed, tortured and executed or tortured to death annually, Persian opposition and the Persian diaspora fail to issue any condemnation of these relentless policies and behaviours deemed racist on all measures.
When Ahwazi people take to the streets in protest at this abuse – chanting in their native and suppressed Arabic – and are shot down by regime troops, regime media and Persian opposition media are uniform in omitting any mention of the direct cause of these protests or the ethnicity of the protesters; at best, monarchist dissidents misleadingly claim that the protests are demanding the return of the Shah’s rule, thereby once again misrepresenting the reality of Arab protesters’ anger, i.e. the fact that the people are protesting against the Iranian regime’s oppression and injustice. This underscores the breadth and effectiveness of Iranian securitisation.
In 2019, the petrochemical industry centre Ma’shour City witnessed massive protests by its local Arab population; regime troops and affiliated paramilitaries opened fire indiscriminately and killed at least 150. Even among decades of horror, the Ma’shour Massacre stands out for the fact that regime forces opened fire on the nearby wetlands to eliminate those who tried to flee the automatic weapons fire, causing the sugar cane to be set afire and brutally killing those who sought refuge there.
To justify its heinous acts, regime officials directly and through pan-Persian party members, including the state’s directly controlled and sympathetic media, reported that Iran had acted to protect the companies from ISIS saboteurs, that ISIS organised the protests to harm and destroy the petrochemical companies. Playing on anti-Arab propaganda themes, this misinformation propaganda was effective enough to largely sideline the massacre of peaceful Ahwazi who protested against longstanding ethnic oppression and decades of enforced poverty and marginalisation.
The Persian opposition cynically took full advantage of this massacre, reporting to Western governments and through their own media that Iran killed 150 Iranians, without mentioning the identity and ethnicity of the victims. These murdered Ahwazi were effectively buried twice over, first being savagely murdered by regime forces after being grotesquely slandered as a ‘threat’ to the regime simply for demanding fundamental rights, then being disregarded even in death by the Iranian opposition except to use their deaths as a tool with which to condemn the regime for their dreadful deaths, without acknowledging their Arab ethnicity and the particular problem they faced.
When Ahwazi activists reported on this massacre writing the Arabic name of Ma’shour rather than the imposed Farsi name of Mahshhar, Persian groups lined up with the regime narrative, even attacking the Ahwazi activists as ‘enemies’ simply for using their native language.
Iran’s domestic and international successes from the securitisation of the Ahwazi case
The effects of securitisation are not limited to justifying brutal repression. Classifying the Ahwaz region as a priority security region gave Iran the justification to divert funds that would normally have gone to the sustainable development of Ahwazi areas in favour of other priorities. In turn, this lack of development has kept the region’s urban and rural areas in a dilapidated state, even as the petrochemical plants and imported ethnically Persian enclaves maintain growth. The infrastructure is lacking; there is no access to essential services such as schools, adequately-equipped hospitals, paved roads, or clean drinking water.
This seeming negligence is, in reality, a form of pressure on the Ahwazi population to leave their lands and move to other areas of Iran. Iran’s depopulation of Ahwaz advances the goal of building exclusive settlements for Persian immigrants who were recruited to work in the oil industry as well as those families of IRGC and security forces. These settlements enjoy well-equipped hospitals, schools, parks, and sports clubs. While these settlements are near marginalised Ahwazi areas that are deprived of clean water, the Persian migrants have access to clean water and electricity. Similarly, Persian minority immigrants control the entire workforce in the region, whereas Ahwazis are denied even low-skilled labour work.
Classifying Ahwaz as a security concern has also led to the building of several military garrisons and Basiji bases in Ahwazi areas, after confiscating Ahwazi local lands. This development followed the regime’s deployment of its security forces to crush Ahwazi protests. The Basiji bases are also used to recruit and indoctrinate young Ahwazi, turning them into informants and secret agents tasked with reporting on Ahwazi human rights movements and other forms of activism in exchange for career prospects.
Iran’s securitisation of Ahwaz in the physical, political, and economic realms has created a suffocating environment, severely restricting all Ahwazis’ freedoms, including freedom of movement, with the regime deploying an intensive, heavily armed security presence, whose mission to monitor every aspect of Ahwazis’ everyday lives.
To easily restrict Ahwazi citizens’ movement, regime security forces and Basiji (plainclothes state agents) erect massive numbers of essentially ad hoc security checkpoints whose locations change regularly, often extorting money from those passing through as an unofficial ‘salary perk’. All too often, the armed regime personnel manning them regularly shoot at and often kill young Ahwazis passing through them either for failing to pay exorbitant bribes or simply in order to terrorise and intimidate the public; hundreds of poor young men are killed in this way every year. These killings are carried out with impunity, with the perpetrators often promoted for their ‘dedication’.
Youths riding motorbikes and scooters, a favourite and essential means of transport in Ahwazi areas where most cannot afford cars, are a favourite target for the checkpoint personnel, who fabricate transparently false excuses for the shootings, knowing that they will never be investigated, often claiming that the victims were suspected of a crime. Such extrajudicial killings generally account for most of the state-sponsored murders of Ahwazi civilians documented annually. Most of the young men, who prefer to risk fleeing rather than stopping at the checkpoints, are simply unable to afford to pay the bribes demanded by the regime personnel, knowing that their vehicles, which they rely on for work and transport, will be confiscated from them if they cannot pay up. No matter the reason, the checkpoint ‘police’ always shoot to kill.
The securitisation of Ahwaz has given more range to the Iranian regime to enable it to threaten and terrorise Ahwazi activists in exile. For example, Iran has signed security treaties with Iraq and Syria under which any Ahwazi political and human rights activists who enter these countries while fleeing Iran’s oppression must be arrested and handed over to the regime. For example, in 2009, Bashar Assad’s regime arrested and deported roughly 12 Ahwazi activists who went to the UNHCR office in Damascus to seek refuge. Instead of finding asylum, these Ahwazi dissidents seeking safety were seized by Syrian regime authorities and returned to Iran, where they received decades-long prison sentences on fabricated charges for daring to flee.
Iraq has adopted similar cruel policies, detaining several Ahwazi activists who tried to seek refuge at the Iraqi Kurdistan’s UNHCR office and returning them to Iran. One of those deported from Iraq is Mohammad Ali Amouri, now serving a life sentence in the infamous Shayban Prison. Despite Amouri’s refugee status being legally recognised and ignoring the fact that he was about to be transferred to his supposed host state of Denmark, Iraq’s leaders, responding to a request from Tehran, handed over Amouri in 2011. In recent years, Turkey has also turned into an unsafe place for Ahwazi refugees.
Securitising Ahwaz has provided Iran’s regime with a way to file extradition cases against several Ahwazi political activists based in Europe through the International Criminal Police Organisation, commonly known as Interpol, by accusing them of being ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’ in order to ensure their return to Iran. Several Ahwazi political figures in exile have faced such legal action in recent years.
Securitising Ahwaz has given Iran a free hand not only to target Ahwazi activists inside the Ahwaz region but also internationally, using regime supporters’ help to monitor any Ahwazi media mobilisation or political activism in European nations; this has enabled Iran – through its supporters and covert cells – to assassinate several prominent Ahwazis.
Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based human rights lawyer and geopolitical analyst, has stated: “Iran’s model of creating special extra security regions follows the example of the Soviet Union, which in theory gave autonomous regions to various ethnic minorities, but in reality, they were inundated with ethnic Russians and tightly controlled. Ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union were discriminated against, disproportionally recruited to the armed forces, and lived in underdeveloped and neglected regions. They were also infiltrated with paid agents and spies from the community, who used the trust of the locals to infiltrate gatherings and to report to the authorities in Moscow. The Soviet state had perfected the art of ethnicity-based polarisation and sectarianism inside the country; stoking ethnic and territorial tensions, which were used as a pretext to send extra police and to provoke confrontations which had inevitably led to clampdowns. This “security”-based model of governance had turned the entire country into a surveillance state, of course, but singled out minority regions for that purpose. We are seeing the Islamic Republic, which had borrowed a great deal from the Soviet Union, apply the same idea to the Ahwaz region.
While the pretext is related to claims of separatism, the reality is that Iran is most worried about access to oil and gas and needs to ensure state monopoly over it – or risk losing money, especially when under sanctions. Iran is deeply indebted to China for various forms of assistance and has no choice but to allow unfettered access to Beijing rentiers. Ahwazis residing in the area stand in the way. Therefore, depopulation and security measures under the fake pretext of fighting terrorism are a priority to clear the area and to be able to bring in the Chinese workers to make use of the oil areas they are renting or buying. Iran has had trouble extracting gas from its maritime fields; it is corrupt, and its equipment even in the land is in need of repairs. Having the Chinese on the ground to extract the oils directly solves that problem for Iran; never mind that they become dependent on China, and bringing in foreigners into sensitive energy areas and operations is a risky endeavour. ”
Iran securitises the Ahwazi cause to repress freedom
As this article has shown, there are several goals behind securitising the Ahwazi cause, including effectively delegitimising and criminalising the Ahwazi people’s cause itself. It managed to achieve the end desired by Iran’s rulers, with Ahwazi activists and groups, already marginalised and silenced by Iran’s regime domestically, being further shunned or simply ignored by international media and human rights organisations, denied any outlet to raise broader awareness of long decades of systemic ethnic persecution and subjugation. This lack of coverage means that media and politicians in nations that host Ahwazi refugees, most of whom are in European countries, the USA, Canada and Australia, have shown no interest in conducting any studies on the reasons they were forced to seek asylum.
The diffuse geographic distribution of the Ahwazi diaspora means it is difficult to organise any regular gatherings or activities, while Persian activists and groups, who overwhelmingly share the regime’s view of Ahwazis and other national ethnic minorities in Iran, are widely viewed as being the sole legitimate voice of opposition to the regime and advocates for human rights in Iran. When these opposition parties effectively mimic the regime’s securitisation narrative, describing Ahwazi activists as separatists, insurgents and extremists, this means there is no significant opposition platform or channel in which Ahwazis have an opportunity to correct this egregious misrepresentation and recount their double history of suffering, both as dissidents under successive totalitarian regimes, and as a national ethnic minority denied fundamental human rights on the basis of ethnicity, even by many of those otherwise presenting themselves as human rights champions.
With the centennial anniversary of Iran’s annexation of Ahwaz in 1925 now only three years away, it is time for the world, particularly those who claim to support universal human rights and stand with the oppressed, to actually do so. The Ahwazi people are not ‘a security challenge’, not extremists or terrorists, but a historically oppressed national ethnic minority denied their most fundamental rights and subjected to unspeakable persecution easily documented by human rights watchdogs and international organisations.
Allowing perceptions of Ahwaz to be shaped by the Iranian regime’s ‘securitisation’ narrative or that of others who share the same profoundly racist, Persian supremacist anti-Arab views while refusing to listen to Ahwazis themselves is akin to viewing 19th-century slavery through the lens of the slaveowners while refusing to listen to slaves. If Western governments and media want to genuinely support freedom and human rights in Iran, they need to acknowledge this history of oppression, to heed the concerns of Ahwazis and other national ethnic minorities who collectively make up most of its population, to reject Persian supremacism and to refuse to be parties to further repression. Acknowledging the nature of the Ahwazi cause as it is, rather than as it is distorted through the lens of Iranian securitisation, is not only long overdue but is critical towards effectively counteracting the regime’s overall disinformation strategy. A century of deliberate silencing—using all coercive means—is more than enough. Ahwazis’ voices must be heard.
Coauthored by Rahim Hamid and Aaron Eitan Meyer
Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.
Aaron Eitan Meyer, an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. Meyer tweets under @aaronemeyer.