44 years on the massacre of Muhammarah city in the Ahwaz region
Even four decades after these massacres and 17 years after Madani’s death in exile in the United States in 2006, the National Front party and its members worldwide continue to glorify Madani for his anti-Arab racism and crimes against humanity, invoking slogans like “We are all Ahmad Madani” in praise of this mass killer, and threatening to resurrect his murderous brutality if Arabs dare to demand the freedom and human rights that are their birthright. Furthermore, if the Khomeinists are deposed, this pan-Persian group has pledged to carry out a retaliatory mass slaughter of Ahwazi Arabs, who are likewise persecuted by the current regime.
The massacre in Muhammarah of between 500 and 800 unarmed and defenceless Ahwazi men, women, and children was a crime against humanity committed on the basis of genocidal racist hatred. Children, women, and the elderly were among those killed in arbitrary artillery shelling of residential areas, a typical murderous response to these pleas for basic humanity.
This slaughter was followed by a 72-hour campaign of summary murders by the regime’s so-called ‘revolutionary committees,’ aided by its naval forces and gangs of Persian settlers in the area. Khomeini lauded this carnage inflicted on unarmed people, describing its architect, General Ahmed Madani, as his right eye.
Madani was later honoured for perpetrating these crimes against humanity on behalf of the newborn ‘Islamic Republic’ by being appointed commander of the theocratic regime’s naval forces, before defecting and fleeing to Europe, where he died of cancer in 2006.
This dehumanising rhetoric, labelling the Arab people of Ahwaz in southern and southwest Iran who dare to demand freedom and human rights as ‘separatists’ and thus enemies of the state, had been standard since the Pahlavi monarchy laid the groundwork for the so-called Islamic Republic’s myriad racist abuses and oppression.
Iranian ethno-supremacism is a crucial ingredient, though not a formally acknowledged one, in the current Iranian regime’s ruling doctrine, as it was in that of its predecessor; under the Khomeinist theocrats, this bilious racism underpins the ruling doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih, or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, winning over or appeasing both ultranationalist monarchists and religious fanatics.
As a result, the regime has pulled off the chilling, Orwellian feat of normalising its denial of an entire population of millions of people with a distinct history, culture, language, and social identity, successfully erasing Arab identity and a people’s quest for equal rights from the international community’s radar.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the majority of the Western public is unaware that Iran has an indigenous Arab minority, let alone any knowledge of its history or of the Ahwazis’ long struggle for freedom. Such erasures of entire ethnic groups, justified in part by false claims of separatism or insurgency against them as a tool to justify oppression and theft of their land, resources, and lives, have been common practices by various imperial and totalitarian regimes throughout history, first delegitimising, then erasing those minorities that challenge these hegemonic states’ triumphalist, ethno-supremacist narrative.
The history of the territories now known as Iran is long and complex; reducing it to slogans of ‘patriotism’ or ‘resistance’ prevents any accurate understanding of the region and contributes to the ongoing destruction of the Middle East’s diversity of cultures. In fact, rather than being the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, as depicted by successive Iranian regimes, Ahwazi Arabs have overwhelmingly been the brutalised victims of these same regimes’ atrocities. After oppressing the Ahwazi Arab people of the attractive resource-rich land on its south and southwestern borders, Iranian nationalists projected their own brutal, power-hungry motivation onto the vulnerable communities they oppressed.
Ironically, after more than a half-century of brutal oppression and institutionalised racist abuse at the hands of two generations of the self-anointed Pahlavi monarchy, many Ahwazis enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of a new progressive era as the Khomeinists overthrew the Shah’s brutal and despised regime in 1979.
Indeed, many Ahwazis had enthusiastically supported the new Iranian regime and hoped earnestly for long-delayed freedom and justice. Their early hope and optimism, however, quickly turned to bleeding ashes.
The Ahwazi people were eager to express their relief at the fall of the old order and their enthusiastic welcome for Ayatollah Khomeini’s new government in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, with an Ahwazi Arab delegation of 33 prominent dignitaries visiting Tehran in April 1979 to pay their respects to the new leadership, hoping to open a new chapter of democratic egalitarianism and brotherhood.
The delegates covered the entire spectrum of Ahwazi society. They were led by the Ahwazi spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammed Taher Al Shobair Khaghani. They brought with them a number of policy proposal documents, including 12 resolutions on behalf of the Ahwazi people outlining requests for the restoration of long-denied rights, to be given to the provisional government of the day, chaired by Mr Mehdi Bazargan.
The delegates thought that their proposals for a small and modest number of demands for the most basic rights, as supported by a majority of Ahwazi political and social groupings, would be accepted as a given, believing the new temporary central government would assist the people in achieving their legitimate rights.
A partial list of the delegates’ demands is as follows:
- Recognising Ahwazi nationality and ensuring its protection and equal status under the Iranian constitution.
- The formation of a local committee in the framework of an autonomous territory to allow the Ahwaz population to administer the Ahwaz region in a broadly independent manner.
- Recognising Arabic, the lingua franca of the Ahawzi people, as an official language in Ahwaz and allowing it to be taught in schools and universities, allowing the region to establish its own Arabic-language educational institutions, and allowing opportunities for Ahwazi students to attain scholarships at overseas universities.
- A guarantee of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, allowing the establishment of Arabic-language media publications and independent Arabic-language audiovisual media such as TV and radio stations, with no imposition of censorship in these areas by the central government.
- Abolition of discrimination in government employment.
- Allocating sufficient funds from the revenues from oil and gas extracted from Ahwazi territories to fund the development of the impoverished region.
- Restoring the cultural and historical identity of the Ahwazi region through the reintroduction of the historical place names which had been changed to Persian ones under the Pahlavi.
- Reviewing and revising the agriculture reform laws introduced by the previous regime, and redistributing land in the region based on fair and equitable methods concerning the rights of ownership among the Ahwazi farmers.
During their week in Tehran, the delegates met with the new prime minister, some government ministers, and political and religious leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini, emphasising their full commitment to working within the framework of the Iranian state, renouncing violence, and preserving the nation’s unity and integrity.
The memoranda drawn up by the delegation showed that they recognised the Iranian government’s complete and exclusive authority over all affairs related to military and foreign policy, the monetary system, international treaties, and long-term economic plans.
The delegates’ high hopes for the new government, which they had hoped would grant the Ahwazi people long-denied rights while abandoning the injustice and oppression of the Pahlavi era, were quickly dashed, with Ahwazi dignitaries quickly realising that the new rulers were, in reality, little different from their predecessors in their dismissive and openly hostile attitude towards the concept of minority rights.
Soon after their return from Tehran, the delegates published an official statement saying that the new government had trivialised and weakened the Ahwazi people’s demands for justice and human rights. The Ahwazi people, who had placed great faith in the Khomeinists’ revolutionary rhetoric and promises to right the cruel injustices of the Pahlavi dynasty, were frustrated and deeply disillusioned by this betrayal, taking to the streets in large-scale peaceful protests to express their anger at what they saw as the new leadership in Tehran’s duplicity. While the revolutionary slogans espoused by the new leaders during the uprising against the old regime promised to usher in a just, gentle, mild, and tolerant form of rule to replace the Shah’s brutal corruption, the protesters claimed that in reality the leaders had simply betrayed the people, making false claims to gain power and showing their true face by sneeringly dismissing the Ahwazi people’s demands for their rights.
In response to the Ahwazi protests, officials in the new government used what would quickly become their automatic response to any expression of dissatisfaction, accusing the protesters of being part of a regional and global conspiracy to separate Ahwaz from Iran and issuing a dark warning that the leadership would refuse to deal with any such demands, which, these officials claimed, threatened the country’s integrity, insisting that the dissidents must be ‘neutralised’.
The new government’s true, undemocratic, and strongly ethno-nationalist nature became increasingly apparent quickly.
Despite the first president Seyyed Abolhassan Banisadr’s long exile and studies in France, which was widely admired and perceived as a home of revolutionary thinking, freedom and democracy, and regardless of his own longtime advocacy of these creeds, he quickly showed a strong degree of authoritarian Persian ethnonationalism, siding with Mehdi Bazargan, the country’s first post-revolution Prime Minister, another former pro-democracy activist who quickly exposed himself as another ultra-nationalist supporter of oppression, in backing a brutal crackdown on Ahwazi protesters.
Banisadr’s former idealism and support for freedom and democracy were quickly abandoned after coming to power; in a statement to an Iranian news agency in Paris, he contemptuously dismissed the demonstrations and calls for greater autonomy by Ahwazis and Kurds who were similarly disillusioned at the new leadership in Tehran, saying, “Iran will not grant autonomy to any territory because it simply means the disintegration of the country”.
Bazargan, who had promised the Ahwazi delegation during their negotiations in Tehran that he would submit their demands to the committee and then draft the country’s new constitution, quickly reneged on his promises, saying that “Granting autonomy is, without a doubt, considered to be separatism that threatens national unity.”
Another regime official, Ayatollah Khalkhali, went even further, not just opposing the idea of granting any sort of autonomy to the Ahwazi people, but threatening, “We will cover the Shat-Al- Arab river with the blood of those pro-autonomous Ahwazis.”
This was not the prominent cleric’s first or last such hate-filled outburst. In his memoirs, serialised in the Iranian Hamshahri newspaper posthumously following his death in December 2001, his bloodthirstiness and venomous racist hate towards the Ahwazi and Kurdish populations in Iran were very clear indeed, especially in his explicit, nay proud, confession to murder during the period of the mass executions in the 1980s during which the regime killed tens of thousands of dissidents, many of whom were buried in unmarked mass graves. In one typical section of this murderous diatribe, Ayatollah Khalkhali recalled casually, “I have killed a lot of Ahwazis, Kurds and remnants of the monarchy, but I have no regrets, and my conscience isn’t tormenting me.”
Another official of the new regime, which it rapidly became apparent, was even more vicious than its royalist predecessor, was Ahmad Madani, the aforementioned governor later promoted to Commander of the Iranian Navy for leading the massacre of unarmed Ahwazi protesters in 1979 on a day known ever since in Ahwaz as ‘Black Wednesday’ Madani gloated, “The Ahwazi Arabs are inciting riots, so I will drink their blood if they continue insisting on their illegal demands.”
After making this statement, Madani was appointed by the Iranian leadership as military governor of Ahwaz; thereafter, at his command, hundreds of Ahwazi civilians were machine-gunned in the streets or executed by hanging.
Disregarding the demands’ legitimacy, Khomeini rejected blankly, saying, infamously and chillingly, “The interest of Islamic Iran necessitated that we do not recognise these rights.”
Khomeini refused to speak with the Ahwazi Arab delegation in Arabic despite being proficient in the language, preferring to stick to Persian. He quickly ordered the arrest of Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammed Taher Al Shobair Khaghani, who spoke out on the Ahwazis’ behalf and supported their rights, imposing house arrest on him in the city of Qom, and later ordering his assassination.
In the period following the Ahwazi delegation’s visit to Tehran, Khomeini issued a fatwa [religious decree] deeming Ahwazi civil, political and cultural organisations to be seditious enemies of the state, ordering Madani to execute their leaders and members. Madani more than fulfilled his master’s orders, first deploying Iran’s air and naval forces, assisted by masked volunteer militias, in Ahwaz, Abadan and Muhammarah. In these cities, the regime forces ransacked and took control of all the headquarters and offices of the local civil, political and cultural organisations, arresting or simply shooting dead the defenceless leaders and members.
The news of regime forces occupying these political and cultural centres quickly spread across the region, outraging the long-suffering Ahwazi people, with large numbers taking to the streets to voice their anger, marching on the occupied buildings in protest. However, they were confronted by Madani’s heavily armed masked militias, who arbitrarily gunned down the unarmed protesters in the streets.
With these acts, Khomeini informally announced the advent of the so-called Islamic Republic’s one-party dictatorship, beginning a campaign of assassinations and summary executions of Ahwazi political figures, with Admiral Madani launching a ferocious and sustained, murderous attack on Arab cultural centres that had been established in Muhammarah following the victory of the revolution to celebrate what the people believed would be a new spirit of freedom and human rights, which was accompanied by house raids, arrests, and assassinations of prominent Arab civic leaders and human rights campaigners. In addition, more than 870 Ahwazi families were forcibly exiled from the region and sent to the city of Mashhad in the northeast of the country.
The arrested activists and campaigners were subjected to blatantly unfair kangaroo trials by the regime’s infamous ‘Death Commissions’, which oversaw the state’s conviction and summary execution of tens of thousands of dissidents across Iran throughout the 1980s.
Mohammed Sadeq Givi Khalkhali, one of the leading regime officials responsible for running the Death Commission in Muhammarah City, was subsequently awarded for his complicity in these crimes against humanity by being appointed as Chief Justice of the regime’s so-called revolutionary courts. Up to his death, he presided over ‘trials’ a few minutes long, sentencing countless innocent people to death.
Months after leading the bloodbath that became known as ‘Black Wednesday’, Madani stood for election in the Iranian presidential campaign in his hometown of Kerman. In an apparently well-received campaign speech, he boasted of how he had been present in Ahwaz “at the right time”, bragging of how he had crushed and killed Ahwazi protesters, who he depicted as separatist insurgents, claiming that his actions had “weakened their plot and efficiently prevented them from destabilising our country.”
Mohsen Kangarloo, a former high-ranking Iranian security official, revealed that investment and development in the Ahwaz region in the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran was conditional on the basis of killing large numbers of the Ahwazi Arab people. Kangarloo made this shocking admission in an interview conducted in 2022 with Iranian documentary filmmaker Hossein Dehbashi, which was immediately removed from the Aparat website and was not covered, even by Farsi-language media outside Iran.
In the interview, Kangarloo, then the security advisor to Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s last Prime Minister, told Dehbashi that Ahmad Madani, the first ruler of Khuzestan (Ahwaz) following the 1979 ‘Islamic revolution, had announced: “We should only kill the Arabs,”, adding, “Then, when we kill and suppress [them], we’ll have the facilities in the Arab region. So I have plans to make Mino Island and other areas of Muhammarah city a developed area, but only after killing the Arabs.” Kangarloo also recalled Madani complaining that “the Arabs gathered there [Muhammarah] and established Arab national movements and demonstrated against the regime.” With this objective in mind, Kangarloo told the interviewer, he had been “sent to evacuate the city of Khorramshahr” by order of the Supreme Court and the President of the Supreme Judicial Council, Mr Mohammad Beheshti, with Madani offering to serve as his political deputy in the region due to his ‘performance’ in Muhammarah, known in Farsi as Khorramshahr (a reference to his ‘performance’ in killing hundreds of Ahwazi protesters and civilians and terrorising the local population).
Kangarloo recalled that Madani told him about his goals in the Ahwaz region, in these words: “We must kill these Ahwazi Arabs so that they will be too fearful to oppose the regime’s goals. After killing and suppressing all Arabs, then we will create facilities in the region, and we have a lot of plans to make Mino Island a developed area.”
This bloody slaughter of innocents, called the “massacre of the people of Muhammarah” or “Black Wednesday”, is commemorated by Ahwazi Arabs every year in honour of those slain by Madani’s forces on behalf of the new regime.
Survivors of this unspeakable carnage recount that the massacre that began that day went on for three days at the hands of the Iranian Navy, the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards, who opened fire on protesters and other Ahwazi citizens alike, using tanks and machine guns against them, unleashing a merciless assault on the residents of Muhammarah that claimed the lives of more than 800 Ahwazi men, women and children.
That horrific massacre proved to be a template for the regime, which has persisted in a policy of silencing dissent through intimidation, persecution, torture and murder, with its institutionalised racism bolstered by very deliberate systematic starvation, impoverishment and deliberate marginalisation of Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities, with sectarian and nationalist cover and support.
The massacre on Black Wednesday had far-reaching consequences which impacted the Iran-Iraq war. Following the Muhammarah massacre, the rights of the Ahwazi people continued to be repressed, and they were victims of assassinations and summary executions.
Hundreds of Ahwazi families were displaced and had to leave the country due to security concerns and fear of persecution. Many Ahwazi families lost their loved ones in this incident and its aftermath. In addition, a multitude of Ahwazi political prisoners in Muhammarah, Abadan, Falahiyah, Ahwaz and other cities were executed without a fair trial in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic.
One of the consequences of these heinous atrocities came about thousands of miles away; less than a year after the massacre of Muhammarah, at 11:30 am on 30 April 1980, six young Ahwazi men armed with guns stormed the Iranian embassy in London. There, they took 26 people hostage – 18 Iranian embassy staff and eight visitors. The Special Air Service (SAS) unit of the British Army and local security forces initiated negotiations with the hostage-takers who turned out to be from the Ahwaz region. The hostage-takers claimed that they were carrying out this operation in retaliatory protest at the brutal massacre carried out in Muhammarah the year before.
The six young Ahwazi men (named Tawfiq Ibrahim Al-Rashedi, Jassem Alwan, Shaye Hamed Al-Sahar, Abbas Meysam, Makki Hannon, and Fowzi Rafraf) identified themselves as supporters of the “martyr Mohi-ud-Din Al Naser” – one of the iconic Ahwazi leaders who established the ‘Arabistan Front for the Liberation of Ahwaz’ and was arrested and executed by the former Pahlavi regime. To secure the safe release of the hostages, the group demanded the release of 90 Ahwazi political prisoners from facilities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They gave 24 hours for their demands to be fulfilled. Otherwise, they threatened, they might attempt to kill the hostages. However, the provisional Iranian government headed by Mehdi Bazargan (but led in reality by Khomeini) did not accept the group’s demands and stated that it did not care if all the embassy staff members were killed since they would be considered martyrs.
As a sign of goodwill, the group set free six of the men and women seized in the embassy. Moreover, even though the 24-hour deadline had passed, none of the hostages were killed. It was clear that the group of hostage-takers only wanted to attract international attention to the previous year’s massacre and to secure the release of political prisoners. Tawfiq Ibrahim Al-Rashedi (also known as ‘Saleem’), the group’s leader and spokesperson, told the BBC via phone that “we did it [the operation] to the British here to tell the world we want the Iranian government to admit to the existence of the Ahwazi population in the Arabistan/Ahwaz. Therefore, we demand the release of Ahwazi political prisoners and to stop executions of Ahwazis.”
The Iranian regime continued to refuse to negotiate with the hostage-takers. As tensions began to rise, an incident between group leader Tawfiq Ibrahim Al-Rashedi and a hostage named Abbas Lavassani brought the situation to a critical level.
Tawfiq Ibrahim saw a poster on the wall of the press office in the embassy and addressed Lavassani: “In this poster, I see Turks, Lors, Baluchis, Persians, Turkmen, and Kurds – all dressed in their traditional garb and showing their national identities with pride. But where are the Ahwazis? Do the Ahwazi people not exist in Iran, or does your government insist on denying their existence?” In response, Lavassani, who was well known for his support of Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, taunted his captors and continued to do so for days.
After five days of futile negotiations, Tawfiq Ibrahim and his cohort found that neither Iran nor Britain would meet their demands to release the Ahwazi political prisoners in Iran. Instead, the British forces were planning to breach the embassy. It was then that the Ahwazi group decided to execute Abbas Lavassani.
At 7 pm, on Monday, 5 May 1980, the SAS blew out the embassy windows and entered the building. A fierce firefight between both sides ensued. This resulted in the killing of four of the group members, with a fifth member of the group, Shaye Hamed Al-Sahar, surrendering himself. Despite his surrender, the SAS shot Al-Sahar multiple times, killing him. The last member of the Ahwazi group, Fowzi Rafraf, succeeded in escaping the embassy building along with a number of hostages. Fawzi Rafraf was the only surviving member of the hostage-taking group. He was detained and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The operation carried out by the group of Ahwazi dissidents coincided with a pro-Khomeinist extremist group’s takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The latter incident prompted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to officially issue a shoot-to-kill order against all the members of the Ahwazi group who had seized the embassy in London. Thatcher did this in order to appease the Islamic Republic in an effort to convince the pro-Khomeini extremist group holding American hostages at the same time to release them.
After the SAS deliberately killed the five members of the Ahwazi group, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the Iranian President, expressed his thanks and appreciation on behalf of the Supreme Leader to the Queen of England and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for their handling of the incident.
More than three decades after these events, the British government has not officially released the death tolls and the number of wounded in this incident. To this day, it still refuses to explain why Al-Sahar was killed in a hail of bullets despite having surrendered himself. After murdering the five members of this Ahwazi group, Britain once again rushed to the aid of the oppressive Iranian regime – thereby aiding in the renewed silencing of the Ahwazi people, who are, to this day, victims of an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the Iranian regime.
The dead bodies of the five Ahwazi freedom fighters were secretly buried in a cemetery in London. For thirty years, their place of burial remained secret. But in 2009, a man who worked in the cemetery revealed to exiled Ahwazi activists in London the burial place of these men who had sacrificed their lives in a desperate effort to defend Ahwazis’ very identity and their beloved homeland.
A witness who had participated in shrouding and burying the victims’ bodies said they were riddled with bullets, and each appeared to have been shot more than 20 times. This testimony seems to indicate the British government’s intent was not to disarm and disable the men during the embassy situation but rather to deliberately kill them. Fowzi Rafraf, the last surviving Ahwazi freedom fighter, was later released from prison and allowed to stay in Britain after a reduction of his sentence.
In conclusion, understanding the history of Iran and the rest of the Middle East requires looking past the reductive majoritarian narratives which have served particular authoritarian regimes and movements and instead look at the hidden and relentlessly distorted histories of the complex diversity of ethnic groups and cultures that once populated the region, who are now at an increasing risk of disappearing under the relentless advance of Iran’s genocidal, ethno-supremacist regime.
Despite the fact that history is often written by the victor, the international community should collect testimonies from eyewitnesses and survivors of crimes against humanity such as those perpetrated on ‘Black Wednesday’ to help stop the Iranian regime’s Orwellian distortion and perversion of the truth, and to prevent future crimes against humanity enabled by similar poisonous disinformation and propaganda.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.