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Murdered by Iran as the West Stood By: How the World Betrayed Habib Chaab



The official date of Habib Chaab’s death was Saturday, 06 May 2023, when he was hanged in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison. Unofficially, it was 09 October 2020, the day when he was kidnapped and drugged by Iranian regime agents shortly after his arrival in Turkey, bound hand and foot, and smuggled across the Turkish-Iranian border. From that day on, his death sentence and execution following the standard torture, ludicrous televised ‘confession’, and kangaroo trial were simply formalities. 


Anger at this latest state murder is rising domestically among Ahwazi Arabs, who’ve endured successive Iranian regimes’ racist brutality for decades, with Tehran once again desperately trying to quash these expressions of solidarity, rage, and grief. Regime intelligence agents have transferred a number of Ahwazi Arab political prisoners on death row in the infamous Sheyban Prison to an unknown location in revenge for their holding a memorial gathering to mourn Habib Chaab and going on hunger strike in protest at his execution, with reports that the prisoners are likely to be executed sooner than had been planned in retaliation for their expression of solidarity and anger at such injustice. 


Pouring more fuel on the flames of Ahwazi people’s anger, the regime authorities on 9 May officially announced the introduction of new legislation banning the public use of the Arabic language in Ahwaz. Announcing the new law, a regime official asserted that Arabic, the native tongue of 8 million of the Ahwazi Arab people, is a “foreign language” and that nobody has the right to use it in Public, with Farsi being the only acceptable language for using and promoting it in the region. Furthermore, those caught using Arabic signs and placards in stores, supermarkets, and any other places will henceforth face fines and possible imprisonment.  


As a Swedish-Ahwazi citizen, Habib Chaab should have been able to rely on his compatriots at the Swedish Foreign Ministry to intercede and secure his release on the very obviously fabricated charges against him. He had often praised his adopted homeland for its freedom and prioritisation of democracy and justice, expressing relief that his own children would be able to grow up and flourish free of the oppression and injustice that blighted his own early years and still blight the lives of millions of fellow Ahwazis. Tragically for Habib Chaab, no such help came. Whilst the Swedish ambassador in Tehran registered his disapproval of the arrest and detention at the time, and the foreign ministry in Stockholm issued a statement of condemnation, these caused no unease among regime officials that might cause them to pause or shelve the execution. 


On Wednesday, four days after Chaab’s execution, Sweden’s parliament voted to designate the regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation; this overdue action came as a reaction to Habib Chaab’s execution as well as a response to the regime’s escalating murderous crackdown on protests, which has seen thousands of protesters imprisoned for participating in demonstrations, with hundreds executed since the start of the year. The Swedish branch of Amnesty International also held an event on Wednesday to express its abhorrence at Chaab’s execution, calling it a shameful miscarriage of justice. 


Unfortunately, such sanctions and statements of disapproval are likely to be the full extent of Sweden’s and the West’s condemnation; for regimes like Iran’s, these are toothless threats without the power to dissuade or deter.


At the time of his abduction in 2020, Chaab was serving as head of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a group that campaigns for Ahwazi independence and protests against the Iranian regime’s crimes. In other nations, the ASMLA could declare political party status, but in Iran no opposition parties are allowed. Having outlawed opposition, the regime deems those opposing it as insurgents and terrorists.   


Chaab was appointed to the position in 2020 when the officially elected head, another exile, Habib Jabor, living in Denmark, was arrested, along with his brother and son-in-law on the basis of unsubstantiated claims against them by the Iranian regime of spying on behalf of Saudi intelligence services – a favourite claim of Iran’s regime. This was even more bitterly ironic since Danish police, in a massive Europe-wide operation, had just foiled a planned assassination attempt against Jabor by an Iranian regime sleeper agent, Mohammad Davoudzadeh Loloei, who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 2021. This sentence for planning murder was a year shorter than the eight-year sentence given to Jabor at his trial the following year on the ‘espionage’ charges. 


Those Western media that have reported Chaab’s execution have uncritically cited the Iranian regime’s accusations against him, namely that he was responsible, as the ASMLA’s head, for an attack on a military parade held by the regime’s so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Ahwaz in September 2018; despite Chaab being thousands of miles away in Sweden, despite ISIS, which views the secular democratic ASMLA as heretical, almost immediately taking credit for the operation, even releasing purported photos of the attackers, and despite even the regime’s own recognition of ISIS’ culpability,  the regime found the clearly false allegations against Chaab too useful to let mere contradictory facts get in the way.  


Speaking to DIRS about Chaab’s execution, Irina Tsukerman, the American human rights and national security lawyer dedicated to actionable analysis, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Outsider, said, “European and US diplomatic statements about Iran’s execution of Habib Chaab will not bring him back nor will they make up for the suffering of his family and everyone impacted by the cowardly and shameless tactics of the Islamic Republic and everyone who was complicit in his abduction, torture, and execution.”


Tsukerman added, “Iran feels impunity at violating the national sovereignty of European countries, of laughing at human rights laws and the high-minded rhetoric. This incident is yet another in the series of revelations that showed that international human rights standards are selectively applied, certainly not producing any outrage over cases that concern the ethnic minorities abused by Iran. This means, essentially, that human rights have no meaning at all and cement the perception that rather than forming a basis for civilised societies and a minimum expectation of modernity, they are a luxury that barely applies to the countries that claim to care the most about them. Meanwhile, the same societies enable the voices that shut down any criticism of the regime, while the Persian media censors any protestations at home and spread disinformation about the regime’s victims such as Habib Chaab, and all other Ahwazi activists.”


She concluded, “It is ironic that the international community is now cheering Sweden for its initiative to blacklist IRGC as a terrorist organisation, without mentioning Chaab or the injustice against him and continuing to deny Ahwazi activists platforms to address Iran’s continuing violations. The European press continues to apply absurd standards of taking up Iran’s fictitious grievances against Ahwazi human rights defenders as terrorists and separatists, shutting down their channels and throwing their leadership in prison. Enough of the empty statements; the societies that have allowed Iran to spread its tentacles globally and which have stayed silent while people like Habib are tortured and executed, are complicit in their deaths; the blood on their hands cannot be washed off with perfunctory comments.”


While the Iranian regime’s abduction of Chaab in Turkey was the only successful operation against him, it was far from their first attempt to forcibly return him to Iran. Indeed this was the fifth effort by Iran’s regime to have him detained while travelling in the Middle East since 2012.  


Sadly, the Iranian Persian opposition in exile is also highly unlikely to speak out on Chaab’s behalf, for his widow and young children in Sweden, or for his parents and his other family members in Iran who have been warned against marking his death with any funeral events and denied the right to even see or bury his body, which will be disposed of in an unmarked grave like countless other dissidents. 


While the opposition is, nominally, dedicated to supporting and partnering with all citizens wanting freedom and human rights, Ahwazi Arabs and other minorities demanding recognition and respect for their own history and culture are regarded with the same hostility by the opposition as by the regime itself. For the opposition, mainly supporters of restoring the Pahlavi monarchy, Ahwazis’ most unforgivable crime, like that of Kurds, Balochis, Azeribajanis and other non-Persian peoples, is to reject their own enforced assimilation and to oppose the eradication of their culture and history; Persian Iranians even refuse to accept the Ahwazis’ own, centuries-old name for their land and their own identity, Ahwaz, insisting that this is simply the name of the regional capital and the existence of a distinctive Ahwazi people and nation is an Iraqi Baath Party fabrication created to justify separatism, despite the fact that this is easily disproven by the historical record.


This reluctance on the part of the Iranian opposition to express solidarity with the fair causes of Ahwazis and other non-Persian peoples, who collectively account for 70 per cent of the population in Iran, means that these persecuted and discriminated peoples, in turn, have little interest in supporting the opposition and once again risking their lives for freedom, as their grandparents and forefathers did in 1979, only to find they’d exchanged one flavour of brutal racist oppression for another without any perceptible improvement in their own conditions. For Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis, Azerbaijanis and others, the difference between the Shah’s rule and that of the ayatollahs is the veneer covering the oppression, which changed from totalitarian hereditary monarchy to totalitarian theocracy, with the bigotry underpinning both remaining unchanged.  


Adding to non-Persian ethnic minorities’ frustration is the refusal of many or even most in the West to recognise the reality of the Persian ethno-supremacism at the core of the Iranian establishment, which has remained unchanged under both the Pahlavis and the Khomeinists, being encouraged by both as a means of securing power. This can even be seen in the country’s modern-day name, changed from ‘Persia’ to ‘Iran’ in 1935 by the self-proclaimed Shah Reza Pahlavi (a title conferred only in 1925), the grandfather of the current Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, founder and leader of the self-styled National Council of Iran; this national name change was chosen not only to appeal to this sense of mythic historic supremacy among Persians, but as a means of underlining the ethnic Persians’ supposed ‘racial purity’ in contrast to ‘inferior’ Semitic Arabs and Jews.


As American author Howard Blum recounts in his astonishing, and true, 2020 book, Night of the Assassins, Reza Shah and Adolf Hitler enjoyed a great sense of kinship based partly on this shared notion of racial supremacism: 


How can one explain the deep, mutual attraction between Reza Shah and Adolf Hitler? Two strongmen, prone to fiery tirades, who held on to power with an unforgiving, take-no-prisoners vengeance? Two egotists hell-bent on realising their personal ambitions under the pretence of the national interest? Two would-be dynastical rulers convinced their legacy would resonate for the next thousand years? Certainly, the commonalities ran deep…


‘….Reza Shah proudly howled whenever he got the chance that his people were not lowly Semites like their Jewish or Arab neighbours, but pure-blooded Aryans – the same as the Germans. He made sure the world got this message, too. In 1935 he issued a proclamation to the League of Nations that “henceforth” the country of Persia would be called Iran – the name reaching back in time to the country’s ancient roots and the Sanskrit phrase “Airyanem Vaejah,” or “Home of the Aryans.”


‘In quick response, Germany bestowed their seal of racial purity on the kingdom: the pernicious Nuremberg Laws that had made anti-Semitism the law of the land, were amended. Iranians, the Nazi’s racial nit-pickers formally adjudicated in 1936, were to be considered as Aryan as any full-blooded German. 


‘This happy kinship received further cultural staying power from the fact that the swastika was emblazoned all over Germany, from the flag to the uniforms of its goose-stepping battalions. It was the iconic emblem of the Third Reich. Yet millennial before the crisscrossed geometric design had been designated as the calling card of the Nazi Party, it had been a commonplace good luck symbol in Eurasia; the word, “swastika,” can be traced back to sacred Sanskrit texts. 


The swastika had decorated Persian art since the time of Zoroaster, carved into ancient stone columns, and etched into tribal pottery. Now, however, this historical accident was deliberately seen as something more – further proof of the deep-seated Aryan ties between the people of the Reza Shah and, as the German chancellor was called with deference in Iran, Hitler Shah. 


‘But Reza Shah’s affection for the Nazis had other deep roots, too. An emperor setting out to do nothing less than establish a dynasty, he was by necessity a practical statesman. He wanted, needed, to be on the side that was winning. In the opening years of the war, the Nazis had not only blitzkrieged across Europe, but seemed poised to take control of the Middle East. The Reich’s far-reaching talons were firmly hooked into Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Syria. Waves of German paratroopers had dropped like mythic omnipotent gods from the sky to seize the oilfields and refineries at Mosul, in Northern Iraq. And the Afrika Korps was still on the march. It seemed inevitable that their panzers would roll victoriously through Palestine, Egypt, and Iran as the unstoppable battalions rumbled towards India. Reza Shah was convinced he was backing the winning side.”‘


In 1939, meanwhile, Nazi Germany provided Iran with the so-called German Scientific Library, which contained over 7500 books selected “to convince Iranian readers… of the kinship between the National Socialist Reich and the Aryan culture of Iran”. In various pro-Nazi publications, lectures, speeches, and ceremonies, parallels were drawn between the Shah and Hitler, and praises were given to the charisma and the virtue of the Führerprinzip.


While the Allies subsequently forced Reza Shah to abdicate the throne in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1941, with the former Shah and his openly Nazi associates sent quietly into retirement, these poisonous and nonsensical notions of Persian racial supremacy over the ‘lesser, non-Aryan’ peoples, have never been seriously renounced by the former or current regimes. Indeed, both have, to varying degrees, encouraged this ethno-supremacist narrative, to help in justifying the repression of ethnic minorities domestically, and, by the current regime since 1979, to justify both hostility to Israel and support for Iranian regional expansionism, particularly in the past decade. 


Despite the nominally Islamic Republic’s quasi-egalitarian rhetoric and ever-more implausible claims of support for Arab freedom that fly in the face of its murderous regional actions, its ethno-supremacism and racism towards Ahwazis and other Arabs, as well as to other minorities, is no less overt than that of the opposition. 


It’s notable that whilst no political parties opposing the Khomeinist theocracy are allowed in Iran, overtly neo-nazi, regime-friendly, ethno-supremacist parties like the ‘Pan-Persian Party’ are not only allowed but encouraged, with their members among the regime loyalists allowed social media accounts which are denied to most Iranians. Their fondness for the former regime is not considered problematic in any way since their virulent racism, including their anti-Arab bigotry are an asset for the so-called ‘Islamic Republic’, with party members enthusiastically helping to terrorise the Ahwazi people and other targets in Iran and the region. In hundreds of threads of tweets, dozens of members of the Pan Persian Party and other Persian ultranationalists groups gloating over Habib Chaab’s execution wrote, “There is no place for anyone like Habib in Iran; we are just sorry that Reza Shah and his son didn’t kill massive numbers of these terrorists separatists”[one of the most common terms used to refer to Ahwazi Arabs and criminalising them].


Speaking to DIRS about the execution of Habib Chaab (also called Habib Asiud), Ali Qate, an Ahwazi human rights activist based in London, expressed frustration at the feeble response from the European governments that makes the Iranian regime more confident of its impunity: “The failure of the European governments’ efforts to push Iran to halt the execution of the death sentence against the Ahwazi leader, Habib Asiud and other politicians, especially those who hold dual European-Iranian affiliation, clearly demonstrates Iran’s lack of respect for European countries and their legal and human rights demands! This disrespect also means the fragile relations between Iran and European countries resulting from the lack of trust between the two parties as a result of the behaviour of the authority in Iran, which resembles the conduct of gangs instead of the behaviour of the natural government that is bound by international law and protocols!” 


In a statement to DIRS, the American attorney and researcher Aaron Eitan Meyer condemned the murder, saying, “The message the free world has sent has been a poor one. Weak protestations and condemnations after the fact do not return Habib to his family. Vague statements about consequences mean nothing to a regime that has repeatedly shown it has neither morals nor integrity of any kind. And this was a real moment for everyone to unite, to stand as one against the despicable Iranian regime. Instead, Habib’s very existence is being whitewashed to make him a generic martyr. He was not some generic Iranian oppositionist. He was an Ahwazi, dedicated to seeing his colonised land and long-persecuted Ahwazi Arab people free once more. He was an Ahwazi who should have been safe in Turkey, and protected by Sweden. Instead, he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, with only weak responses. I do not want to see candlelit gatherings or diplomatic reprimands. I want to see action on behalf of those Ahwazi and other non-Persian ethnic minorities who are facing similar murder and ethnic oppression at the hands of this bloodthirsty regime.”


For Habib Chaab, slandered in death as in life for demanding freedom, human rights and the acknowledgement of his and all Ahwazis’ humanity and right to liberty, justice and autonomy, it’s too late for the international community to save him. For millions of other Ahwazis as for their forebears, who have waited a century for the ‘civilised’ world to acknowledge their suffering and their struggle and to help right a grotesque historic injustice and stand for the values it proclaims, the clock is still ticking.  

BY Rahim Hamid and Ruth Riegler

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42

Ruth Riegler is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom. Ruth tweets under @Syrians4J


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