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HomeStudies  Ahwazis, Silenced Twice Over, by Iran's Securitisation & the World's Indifference

  Ahwazis, Silenced Twice Over, by Iran’s Securitisation & the World’s Indifference

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How Iran Got Away with Ethnic Oppression for a Century by Colonising and Securitising Ahwazis

  Introduction 

 Silence is not mere passivity. People, individually or collectively, are often silent for a reason. Often, things happen around us that we don’t want to hear, see or speak about. In those cases, silence is active – a deliberate attempt to avoid a conscious response to a problematic situation.

Consider the horrific crimes of Nazi Germany against the Jews, and the inaction of all too many people who – though not enamoured of Nazi ideology themselves – chose to stay silent rather than confront the developing genocide. Therefore, the analysis of social silence is the study of a social phenomenon and its roots, akin to crime analysis, suicide analysis, social protest analysis, and political revolution analysis.

This silence results from an active choice and process of not seeing, hearing or speaking. This is not to say that there is some singular reason for choosing silence; it can be the result of coercive influences, genuine apathy, or a lack of knowledge combined with a lack of desire to take the time necessary to speak out knowledgeably.

In the introduction to his book ‘The Elephant in the Room’ on the sociology of silence and denial in everyday life, Israeli-American sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel wrote: “During my childhood, I witnessed Arab friends who were in school with us sometimes being expelled, and then I found out that their houses were also destroyed. When I talked to my family about this, their response was silence and advice not to get into these issues”[1]. His parents’ admonition to seek silence reflected a tension between awareness and at least public avoidance.

This sociological principle is all too easily weaponised, particularly in the modern global society, wherein silence can be made to reflect the discriminatory construction of power. It is human nature that if one belongs to the dominant group, there will be a tendency to avoid the inconvenient plight of the oppressed, even if one is not an active part of that oppression. A man might prefer to avoid being in a group where the suffering of women is discussed since it will inevitably entail discussion of relative advantage and suppression.

In other words, filtering out unwelcome information that might make the hearer uncomfortable paves the way for complicit silence. This silence is seen commonly among the privileged Iranian-Persian dominant group who opts for this comforting silence. In that case, they needn’t reflect on why Iran’s prisons are full of Ahwazis and other non-Persians or question why the Iranian leadership persecutes Ahwazis and other non-Persian peoples. The dominant group has no reason to think about these questions because they choose not to know about these issues [2].

Even in the modern age, many of those who were directly responsible for the mass murders in the early days of the Iranian revolution, such as the 1979 massacre of Ahwazi Arabs, dubbed ‘Black Wednesday’, have claimed since, in their memoirs and other writings that they were “uninformed” about these crimes at the time, and that while they “heard things” about the events, they did not take those “things” seriously. These claims of “not knowing” and of being “uninformed” are very much part of an active process. Silence is not passive but an active and purposeful action [3].

In the online age and despite the new virtual space, such willful silence still thrives; the decisions to ignore or to leave or unfollow activist groups or turn away from social media accounts reporting on ethnic non-Persians in Iran help to nurture this complicit silence by actively choosing to not hear or see provide the ground for silence by hitting the button of not hearing and not seeing. The study makes all these points in particular to highlight the silence of Persian-Iranian activist groups opposing the Iranian regime regarding the racism towards and multifaceted oppression of non-Persian peoples in Iran, such as the Ahwazi people [4].

The casual observer might think that these activists remain silent on this issue of racist persecution and injustice because this is not their central concern. In reality, however, their silence is an expression of their unease at examining this issue since they belong to the same dominant group as the oppressors and in many cases, consciously or unconsciously, share the same negative views towards Ahwazis and other non-Persian peoples, something they’d rather not recognise [5].

Any acknowledgement by these activists that they are more similar to the regime that they claim to oppose than they care to admit and have no problem with the regime’s and government’s abuse of non-Persian peoples, especially Ahwazis, would be a damning indictment of their own claim to oppose the regime out of support for freedom, justice and human rights. Far better, then, to maintain a deliberate and proactive silence, seeing, hearing and saying nothing to avoid self-exposure [6].

Here the study will discuss the narratives used by successive Iranian regimes not only to suppress the Ahwazi people and other non-Persian peoples in Iran, but also to successfully win the approval and support of the majority of the Persian-Iranian public for the implementation of these demonising narrative. Taken collectively, these policies of securitisation reduced the Ahwazis and other non-Persian peoples and all issues related to them – societal, cultural, economic, political – to the imaginary ‘security threat’ they pose to the Persian-Iranian state, a complete inversion of reality, depicting the oppressor as the victim and vice versa [7].

For almost a century, successive regimes have prioritised this policy of securitisation, dehumanising and criminalising the Ahwazis as a means of robbing them of their humanity and delegitimising their cause of fundamental freedom and justice. 

Here, the study will focus particularly on the charges of ‘threatening national security’ commonly used to smear Ahwazi dissidents and to justify relentless persecution, imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial execution. This policy has encountered little or no resistance from the Persian-Iranian opponents of either the Pahlavi monarchy or the Khomeinists’ theocracy, who have unquestioningly accepted, internalised and repeated this racist narrative; this decades-long complicit silence and unwillingness to hear or speak about the oppression of Ahwazis have emboldened and mainstreamed racism, enabling both regimes to easily justify and carry out extrajudicial executions of Ahwazi dissidents, who are not even recognised as political prisoners but are instead depicted as threats to Iran’s national security [8].

This process and narrative of securitisation is carried out not only against Ahwazi Arab dissidents and activists who are routinely imprisoned as supposed threats to national security, but is used to vilify all Ahwazis. First, the regime invokes ‘national security’ as a justification for disempowering Ahwazi Arabs, denying them jobs and employment opportunities at gas and oil and government institutions located overwhelmingly in the Ahwaz region [9].

Second, the regime takes this effort to destroy the Ahwazi people a step further by building dams and diverting the waters from the rivers that made Ahwaz an agricultural hub, and destroying agriculture which is the primary source of living for the majority of Ahwazi Arab people; this in turn forces Ahwazi people to migrate from their lands[10].

On 1 June 2023, a regime official openly acknowledged that the Ahwaz region is ranked third in unemployment levels in Iran as a result of the destruction of the region’s agriculture, the primary source of the Ahwazi Arab people’s problems [11]. This acknowledgement is further confirmation that keeping Ahwazi Arab people below the poverty line is part of a calculated policy based on the regime’s securitisation strategy, by which Ahwazis are economically disempowered, marginalised and disenfranchised, thus ensuring that they will be unable to pose any challenge to the regime or to wider Persian society, both of which see their interests lying in weakening the Ahwazi people and maintaining them in a powerless state unable to challenge the colonial theft of their resources – not only the oil and gas used to sustain Iran, but the water from their rivers redirected to other regions [12].

At the level of securitising Ahwazi Arabs’ expressions of culture and identity, after denying the right to education in Arabic to Ahwazis for four decades, the regime has now added another law banning any signs in Arabic on shops, businesses and streets, with anyone violating this ban facing prosecution [13] & [14].

The successive regimes have also attempted to redefine the identity, name and even the geographic location of Ahwaz by changing its name in 1925 to a Persian one in an effort to link it to the Sasanid Persian empire as a way of claiming it had Persian roots [15].

In addition, the former and current regimes have developed a propaganda narrative which asserts that the region’s proximity to Iraq and Arab countries means that Ahwazis will potentially work as enemy agents to carry out sabotage activities against Iran; this falsehood is used to justify the large-scale military presence of Ahwaz, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) building massive bases and military garrisons on lands confiscated from local Ahwazi farmers on the border areas between Ahwaz and Iraq[16].

The forces deployed at these bases are constantly deployed in raids in Ahwazi areas, especially during protests, using the regime’s policy of fire at will to target Ahwazi protesters under the pretext that they’re threatening the country when they are, in reality, simply chanting slogans in Arabic, raising the name of Ahwaz and rejecting the regime’s slanderous fabrications about their homeland, history and culture[17].

Iran began its historical revisionism, erasure and denial of Ahwazi history and culture virtually from the first moment of annexation in 1925 when Reza Khan’s forces first stormed the emirate and colonised it for Persia State. Ever since then, the Ahwazi people have been subjected to relentless persecution and an Orwellian denial and rewriting of the past and present in which their heritage is expunged from the history books which have been rewritten to claim that Ahwaz is simply a separatist fantasy. Those who resist and speak out for freedom are persecuted and imprisoned. Even the Ahwazis’ native Arabic language is deemed a threat to this revisionist history, with Tehran imposing Farsi-only education and outlawing Arabic in schools [18],[19],[20] and even punishing the Ahwazi people for wearing their traditional characteristic Arab garb.

According to successive Iranian regimes’ totalitarian worldview, allowing any political or cultural freedom in the regions annexed by Tehran will lead to insurgency and defiance from the oppressed peoples, with the rulers in Tehran ruthlessly crushing any popular movement in their effort to prevent rebellion [21].

Ahwazi peaceful protesters were simply gunned down, with many frustrated and pressurised Ahwazis feeling that amid the intensifying crackdown on Ahwazis, armed confrontation would remain the only means of resisting the repression carried out by the Iranian forces. Even that would unlikely provide any protection and would be merely an excuse for Tehran to heighten its militarised environment in the Ahwaz region and continue mercilessly retaliating against any expression of resistance or desire for freedom[22].

For example, when protests break out in an Ahwazi area against the regime’s discrimination and economic marginalisation of the local Ahwazi population, the Iranian armed forces would retaliate with the unspeakably cruel slaughter of the protesters, targeting the men, women and children indiscriminately[23].

In order to further impoverish and punish the surviving Ahwazis, many of whom were farmers or rural smallholders dependent on growing their own food and rearing sheep or cattle, Iranian army forces would storm their farms and homes, killing or stealing their livestock and destroying their crops. After many such incidents, the Ahwazi protesters opted to leave the inhabited regions, moving to the forests and marshlands where they could hide out. Even then, they were relentlessly persecuted and hunted down by Iranian forces, with Tehran demanding absolute slavish subjugation of these colonised peoples [24] & [25].

The consecutive Iranian regimes have employed every means at their disposal in order to continue to destroy the assets of the Ahwazi people. The biggest danger in the eyes of these rulers, past and present, lies in Ahwazi cultural figures – writers, poets, artists – and political and humanitarian activists who continue to resist Persian supremacism and to embody a spirit of freedom. For this reason, successive rulers have worked to crush and eradicate Ahwazi culture, imprisoning and killing generations of activists and cultural figures, with only the Ahwazis’ indomitable spirit of resilience ensuring that these efforts have been unsuccessful [26].

The successive authoritarian regimes in Iran have justified their denial of the Ahwazi Arab people’s fundamental rights through constructing a historically revisionist narrative according to which Ahwazis are a dangerous national security threat to the Iranian state, requiring constant repression, with Tehran building an entire literature of criminalisation rationalising this fundamentally false representation [27].

One of the most oppressive methods employed by the current and former regimes to target Ahwazis is the categorisation of Ahwazi people, their rights, movements, and activities as a national security issue, meaning that the Ahwazi people are depicted as posing an exceptional, existential threat to the Iranian state and dealt with accordingly, with the Iranian state required to undertake extraordinary measures through the use of violent force to protect the nation by neutralising this ‘danger’[28].

Based on the securitisation theory, the Iranian state and its political decision-makers first targeted the Ahwazi people, including the Ahwazi activists, through the introduction of various negative discourses, depicting them as perceived enemies [29] & [30].

To legitimise its violence and brutal action against Ahwazis, the regime has ordered its own institutions and media to propagate the Iranian state’s securitising narrative that is mainly intended to persuade the elite audience among the privileged ethnically Persian community and to convince them that any distaste they may feel for the regime’s extraordinary measures targeting the Ahwazi people should be outweighed by patriotic support for the benefits of these measures in supposedly protecting Iranian society; to speak out against the regime, according to this view, is unpatriotic.

This Iranian securitisation narrative has been used to justify multiple crimes against the Ahwazi people; here, the study will examine two major crackdowns carried out by the regime against Ahwazis from the perspective of this theoretical framework.

April Uprising

The first of these being analysed here is the crackdown in April 2005 when Ahwazi Arab activists managed to obtain a leaked document issued by the office of President Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, which stated that, for national security reasons, it was imperative to reduce the Ahwazi Arab population in the Ahwaz region (much of which has been renamed ‘Khuzestan’ by Iran) to less than half of the total regional population within the next ten years [31] & [32].

The leaked document ordered the introduction of several measures to effect this demographic change policy, firstly by encouraging Persians to migrate to Ahwaz by promising them good housing, high salaries, low-interest financial loans, and high-level positions in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industry sector (positions denied to Ahwazis, no matter how well qualified), as well as settling these workers in purpose-built, Persian-only settlements, in addition to confiscating as much land as possible from Ahwazi farmers.

Meanwhile, the document continued, locally educated Ahwazis should be forced to relocate to the Persian-majority Tehran, Isfahan, Karaj, and Mashhad cities. This leaked document was a rare official confirmation of the regime’s publicly unacknowledged policy of implementing large-scale demographic change across the Ahwaz region; this was presented by the regime, as always, as minimising the supposed security threat posed by the native Ahwazi Arab people’s presence in the region. The leaking of this incendiary document had an explosive effect, with thousands of Ahwazis taking to the streets on 15 April for a day of protest against this blatantly racist effort at ethnic demographic manipulation [33]. 

Regime officials predictably dismissed the document’s authenticity, calling it a forgery orchestrated by Iran’s extraterritorial regional and Western foes, including Great Britain and Israel, intended to incite their supposed domestic allied enemy [the Ahwazi people] to destabilise Iranian national security [34].

Through the use of this misrepresentation, the regime authorities and leadership once again resorted to their securitisation narrative, not only to legitimise using extraordinary measures and brutal military force against the Ahwazi people, but also to promote the regime’s favourite conspiracy theory that the Iranian state and people are eternal victims of a plot by these treacherous domestic fifth columnists (Ahwazis) working for Iran’s enemies to undermine and harm Iran [35].

Using this fabrication as a pretext, the regime deployed various state military forces and affiliated militias, including snipers, to target and terrorise Ahwazi protesters, wounding and killing around 100.

After crushing these protests, regime forces raided the homes of Ahwazi activists across the region, arresting and torturing hundreds and parading many on state TV in 0typically grotesque, obviously coerced ‘confession’ videos in which they confessed, obviously reading from an autocue, to being linked to the Iranian regime’s external enemies; these coerced televised confessions were used to help legitimise the execution of a large number of Ahwazi civic activists, human rights campaigners, bloggers, teachers and poets on charges of treason and working as foreign agents conspiring against Iran’s national security[36]& [37].

Ma’shour massacre

In 2019, meanwhile, the regime committed another mass killing of Ahwazi protesters, this time in Mashour City; on this occasion, when Ahwazis took to the streets for peaceful protests against regime abuses, marginalisation of the native population and anti-Arab racism[38].

 Regime media and officials reacted to these demonstrations by slandering the protesters as being affiliated with ISIS, and accusing them of seeking to cripple the Iranian economy and destroy the regional petrochemical industry by cutting off routes used by oil tanker trucks. These obviously false accusations were used to justify the deployment of massive numbers of regime troops, led by the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, unleashing a bloodbath against the Ahwazi protesters [39].

The regime uses the same securitisation narrative to invert reality in the same way against other brutalised and marginalised ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, including Kurds, Balochis and Azerbaijanis, among others, depicting itself as the persecuted champion and defender of the Iranian state and people resisting the efforts of these domestic enemies and would-be oppressors to harm Iran; this narrative is so ingrained and so prevalent among all state media, institutions and even Persian society that it has become a standard reaction to any criticism of the regime’s racism, oppression and marginalisation of minorities[40].

This standardisation of the profoundly racist securitisation narrative employed by successive Iranian regimes for the past century since the foundation of modern Iran is now so deeply entrenched in Iranian society that it is essentially reflexive and unconscious among most Persian-Iranians, not only the regime’s supporters but among its opponents; even those who oppose the theocratic ‘Islamic Republic’ share the view of its leaders that Ahwazis and other non-Persians are separatist insurgents threatening Iran’s national security[41].

Extraterritorial repression

 The Iranian regime’s persecution of Ahwazis doesn’t stop at Iran’s borders, with regime agents and supporters worldwide, particularly in the West, targeting and attempting to intimidate and silence Ahwazi dissidents in exile regionally and internationally who speak out against and expose the regime, using methods up to and including terror threats and assassinations in its efforts to silence the voices of freedom and human rights both outside and inside Iran [42].

Analysis of the regime’s transnational and extraterritorial activities shows that it commonly uses its intelligence service as one of its tools in extraterritorial repression [43]. While the use of such official agencies has its limits, however, the regime’s fanatically devoted loyalists living abroad also provide it with invaluable help through slandering, intimidating and threatening the lives and even the families of Ahwazi and other dissidents in exile, doing so both online and in person. All these activities demonstrate the alarmingly ubiquitous reach of the regime’s securitisation narrative in convincing its supporters worldwide to unquestioningly do its bidding out of the mistaken belief that this criminal behaviour is somehow ‘serving and defending Iran’ [44].

 The history of security-related accusations in Ahwaz 

Every year hundreds of Ahwazis are arrested for dissent; those ‘lucky’ enough not to be executed or sentenced to death on the basis of forced confessions extracted under torture are invariably sentenced to lengthy prison terms often for decades.

The former Chief of Police for Ahwaz, Haidar Abbaszadeh, on 22 September 2020, announced that the regime’s security services arrested around 1,250 Ahwazi accused of involvement in “separatist activities” between 2017 and 2020. Since this figure comes from the regime itself, however, the actual number is likely to be far higher [45].

Iran’s regime routinely uses several charges against Ahwazis, with supposedly credible international media unquestioningly and uncritically repeating the details given in the regime’s press releases, despite its widely acknowledged history of imprisoning dissidents, never reaching out to Ahwazis or other dissidents to ask about these cases, further helping the regime to slander the already oppressed Ahwazi people and devalue their just cause for freedom and human rights [46].

The successive rulers and regimes have used several security-related charges to delegitimise and slander Ahwazi figures and justify their murderous persecution. These charges include: 

 ‘Wanted Fugitive’

Tehran’s use of this false allegation against prominent Ahwazi dissidents first became widespread in the 1940s and continued through the 1970s. The useful vagueness of labelling every dissident as a ‘wanted fugitive’ meant it was deployed by the Shah’s infamous SAVAK secret police and security services constantly, reaching its peak in the 1960s.

This allegation was usually used along with other charges, such as having external links with foreign entities or receiving covert support from regional powers. Those accused of being wanted fugitives were routinely subjected to extrajudicial killings or sometimes to sham trials in military kangaroo courts whose verdict – invariably execution – was pre-decided.

Among the leading Ahwazi figures labelled as ‘wanted fugitives’ was the resistance icon Hatem bin Jaloush nicknamed ‘Hatteh’[47]. Newspapers in Tehran reported on him on a daily basis, and he was massively popular, meaning SAVAK single-mindedly hunted him down. Another prominent Ahwazi political leader who faced the same charge was Adeir al-Bustan [48]. Most of those accused of being ‘wanted fugitives’ were subjected to extrajudicial assassinations, often during car chases by regime forces.  

 ‘Nasserist’ 

 The charge of being ‘Nasserist’ was attributable to the popularity at the time of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who gained fame and renown among Arabs across the Middle East for his charisma and his revolutionary stance against colonisation, a stance with which Ahwazis identified strongly.

The Iranian monarchy’s relation with Egypt’s republic regime worsened after Nasser took power, with the Egyptian government attempting to influence the entire Iranian population, including the Ahwazis.

From SAVAK’s perspective, labelling Ahwazi dissidents as ‘Nasserists’ was a way to justify the persecution and arrest of Ahwazis, fabricating charges of collusion with Nasser’s government to justify brutally persecuting and imprisoning Ahwazi resistance figures and cultural activists who were once again subjected to sham trials whose verdict was a foregone conclusion.

As with all dictatorial regimes, Iran’s rulers have always sought to create an imaginary enemy in the collective mind of the people, and then to accuse dissidents and political figures of collaboration with this enemy; while the enemy changes periodically, the technique remains the same. 

 The Shah’s regime continued using the ‘Nasserist’ allegation against Ahwazis from the period when Nasser first rose to prominence in Egypt up till his death. These accusations were always subject to political variables in the region, especially relations with neighbouring states. Among the prominent Ahwazis executed during this period were: Mohyeddin Al-Nasser, and Dehrab and Eissa al-Mazkhour. 

 ‘Baathism’

This accusation was among the toughest allegations made against Ahwazi prisoners. When the Baath Party first seized power in Iraq, relations between the regimes in Iraq and Iran deteriorated, with the regime’s state-controlled media seizing the opportunity to build this into another imaginary enemy. As a result, the Iranian monarch created the Rastakhiz Party, a literal Farsi translation of ‘Baath Party’, a false copy of the entity that had emerged in Syria and Iraq, in order to suggest that dissidents were conspiring to introduce Baathism to Iran.

The Iranian leadership’s announcement of this party’s formation (though not, obviously, of its own part in this) was successful in creating a hostile atmosphere against the Baathist regime in Iraq by arousing the sectarian sentiments of the Iranian people through regime-affiliated clerics who repeated the regime’s script [49].

The regime of the time was deeply concerned about the potential influence of the Iraqi Baath Party on the Ahwazi people, especially since the Ahwaz region shares a land border and a long history of alliance and cultural proximity with the Iraqi people. For this reason, the Iranian regime’s intelligence services focused heavily on Ahwaz and the borders, with SAVAK harshly cracking down on any imitative group or movement emerging in the region, especially in the Ahwazi cities bordering Iraq, particularly Muhammarah and Abadan.

The most prominent of the Ahwazi figures assassinated by the regime over accusations of collaborating with Iraq’s Baath Party was Sheikh Faysal Hazirat, with the regime killing him and all his family members, including women and children, in a village on the outskirts of Khafajiyeh City shortly before the 1979 revolution.

‘Pro-PMOI’

Accusing Ahwazi and other dissidents of membership in the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e-Khalq (PMOI/MEK) first became a favourite allegation of the clerical factions in the midst of the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah’s oppressive and unjust monarchy, which was used to justify the arrest of many of those demanding their long-denied rights and freedoms. 

As a party promoting Marxist theories of class struggle advocating a modernist interpretation of Islam, both of which were antithetical to the hardline conservatism of the theocrats who formed the Islamic Republic, the PMOI was quickly declared persona non-gratis by Ayatollah Khamenei’s new ‘Islamic Republic’ regime.

Most peoples in Iran, including the non-Persian peoples, were supportive of the revolution, which was driven more by strong anger at decades of injustice than by political rationalism, meaning that they accepted the mass arrests and revolutionary trials of hundreds of prisoners, even though the ‘revolutionary courts’ which both issued and carried out the verdicts were a mockery of justice – as they still are.

The allegation of PMOI membership or affiliation has been used by the regime to justify the killing of countless dissidents and political and cultural activists, as well as freedom campaigners in Ahwaz, remaining the regime’s favourite charge against dissidents and protesters for many years and still routinely being used even now.

The people executed on this charge are too many to count, with executions being carried out arbitrarily and without official or recorded trials. Unlike the previous allegations, this charge has not been confined to Ahwazis, but is used against all non-Persian dissidents. 

 ‘Saddamist’ 

 As the term suggests, this charge is clearly linked to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. This accusation was a standard charge against Ahwazis by the end of the 1980-88 Iraqi-Iranian war, with the mobilisation units of the Iranian regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) pursuing such cases zealously, assisted by state-run media, which ran numerous campaigns against Saddam Hussein, ‘the unbeliever’.

The regime doesn’t present the conflict with Saddam Hussein’s regime as a political engagement, but depicts it in sectarian terms in order to inflame sectarian sentiments, particularly among the poor, who are bombarded with sectarian rhetoric constantly, partly to deflect attention from the regime’s failure to keep its promises to the people.

In reality, Saddam’s rule simply led to different kinds of torture then execution, with no desire for any such affiliations amongst Ahwazis on the ground. Despite this, the regime employed the accusation of Saddamism to conflate Ahwazis and all Arabs with its adversary and justify denying the fundamental rights of the Ahwazi people.

This once again showed the ability of the Iranian regime and its media mouthpieces to take advantage of any political variables in the region at a given moment to serve its own agenda and support oppression. Sometimes the regime employs these accusations or links alleged activities to regimes, groups or individuals who could be condemned by the international community in order to justify its own violence towards anyone supporting Ahwazis’ rights for freedom and social justice.  

Separatist’

In the late 1990s, the Iranian regime’s courts began punishing Ahwazi cultural and political activists on charges of being ‘separatists’. These rulings were utterly unjust and monstrously disproportionate, with most of those accused of separatism receiving death sentences. This charge was always accompanied by another allegation, namely undermining Iran’s national security [50].

At this point, Iranian state media began attempting to link these activities, real or imagined, to global, not regional, powers. In most cases, Ahwazi activists are accused of being connected to Western countries, primarily the USA, despite the fact there is no significant support for the Ahwazi cause from any of these countries[51].

As usual, however, facts don’t matter to Tehran, which finds these allegations against Ahwazis useful in winning domestic support from Persian Iranians who are predisposed to believe the worst of Arabs due to the aforementioned anti-Arab racism.

The moral crisis within the Iranian cultural system has been clearly exposed for those paying attention to these issues, especially when they see Iranian/Persian characters side with the regime, which call those activists separatists instead of independence seekers. It is true that the result is the same despite semantic differences. However, the word independence has undeniably positive and progressive connotations, while separatism, which invariably receives a negative response, is always related to people who refuse to engage in the political process, which is a right for all people. In reality, independence is nothing to do with separatism, with Ahwazis simply wanting independence after almost a century of repression. 

‘Wahhabism’ 

This accusation, which is used widely by various Iranian clerics and proxies, surfaced after the political differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran became apparent, with the IRGC using this charge to arrest any activist involved in any political or cultural activities in Ahwaz[52].

Ironically, while it is easy to find Ahwazi activists who have sporadically been detained and tortured on accusations of being Saddamist, separatist, PMOI-affiliated or Wahhabi, it’s impossible to find any who actually belong in any of those categories, with these charges simply serving as devices for the regime, devoid of any truth or political or cultural coherence. This doesn’t matter to the media, whose task is to guide the people on which imaginary enemy is this week’s hate figure. This can clearly be seen by the way in which the regime’s former enemy, Saddam Hussein, was quickly replaced by the Iraqi people. 

The accusation of Wahhabism became popular with the regime after 2007 and continues to be used to the present day alongside charges of separatism. Many activists have been tried on this accusation of supposed Wahhabi affiliation, although there is no Wahhabi component amongst Ahwazis. However, as pointed out above, reality is not something that troubles the regime, which simply uses whichever regional variable suits it at a given moment to vilify and abort any movement for social justice in Ahwaz and to justify the crushing of freedom. 

‘ISIS’ 

With the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic Republic of Iran found another tool with which to slander Ahwazi activists and members of the Sunni community in Ahwaz, with hundreds arrested simply for their status as Sunnis.

In a recently published book, the prominent Iranian labour rights activist Sepideh Gholian, currently once again in jail for her activism, provided shocking accounts of several detained Ahwazi women she met during her previous incarceration, voicing outrage at how they were arrested and tortured for the ‘crime’ of being Arab and Sunni[53]. Gholian reported that some of the Ahwazi female prisoners who were pregnant at the time of their arrest gave birth in prison, with prison officials contemptuously calling their babies ‘ Daeshi children’.

As noted above, this dehumanising racist narrative of securitisation used against Ahwazis and other non-Persian peoples is employed not only by the regime, as by its predecessor, but by a number of Persian-Iranian opponents who like to depict themselves as human rights activists, despite apparently only supporting some humans’ rights.

While claiming to be horrified by the regime’s cruelty and extremism, there are many Iranian nationalist figures who echo the regime’s own extremist, virulently racist rhetoric depicting Ahwazis as ‘separatist insurgents’ and a national security threat’ and amplifying this racist narrative internationally, effectively coordinating with the regime to defame, distort and misrepresent the Ahwazi people’s already maligned and denied struggle for freedom, justice and human rights.

Thus, Ahwazis are persecuted twice over, not only by the colonial rulers but by those who acknowledge the regime’s repression and who should be expected to express solidarity; as a result, Western media and governments, guided by the Iranian opposition, routinely proscribe and censor Ahwazi Arab activists in exile or even arrest them using the same malicious and wholly false ‘securitisation’ narrative employed by the regime.  

 When journalism becomes a tool of suppression

 In the West, it’s largely still taken for granted that journalists will strive for independence and credibility in their reporting, checking facts and ensuring the reliability of their sources and claims. In free nations, journalists will go to great lengths for the sake of ensuring truth and pursuing justice, ‘speaking truth to power’.  

For media inside the Ahwaz region, as in the rest of Iran, unfortunately, this kind of journalistic integrity has no place, with news media being simply one more tool of the Iranian regime. 

 All the news agencies licensed to work in Ahwaz are affiliated with the regime’s intelligence services, with the Ministry of Intelligence ministry defining the issues to be covered and how they should be reported.

These media outlets essentially act as regime mouthpieces, assisting the intelligence services by reporting false accusations as fact and justifying the regime’s vicious policies, rationalising its repression and routine executions and slandering Ahwazis in order to falsify events and mislead the public. Even worse, due to the lack of any free and independent media – ruthlessly suppressed by the regime – many people believe these mouthpieces of the totalitarian state. The regime’s intelligence and security agencies and the extremist nationalists’ groups and media outlets which they control work closely together, coordinating to quickly quash any nascent organic movement promoting or raising awareness of Ahwazi culture or history. This process is like a relentless form of cultural ethnic cleansing.

 In addition, the Ahwazis in exile in the West have failed to clearly explain Iran’s racist oppression and colonisation of Ahwaz due to a number of issues, including the language barrier, censorship and a general lack of interest from Western media and institutions in gaining any real insight into the reality of Iran; instead, media and political institutions have relied on the narrative presented by Persian-Iranians who have preferred to cover up or deny the ugly reality of the ethno-supremacist subjugation that underpins Iranian society.

 Conclusion 

 This study sought to address the ethnic oppression of Ahwazi people to some degree and to educate and inform by demonstrating how Iran, to justify its internal colonisation and relentless exploitation, uses a security-related narrative as a part of an ongoing securitisation process regarding the collective Ahwazi Arab people as well as their resource-rich region, whose oil, gas and water are the lifeblood of successive oppressive regimes in Tehran.

This securitisation narrative serves as part of a security doctrine employed by Iran’s political elites, past and present, who seek to represent the danger which ‘allowing’ the Ahwazis to enjoy their long-denied fundamental human, economic, cultural and political rights would pose to Persian-Iranian hegemony which, according to this profoundly racist narrative, is an existential necessity for Iran’s national security and its very survival. 

Through the decades-long popularising and perpetuating of this unofficial but very clearly understood supremacist doctrine, there’s little if any resistance among Iranians to the clearly racist concept of designing national security policy on the basis of securitising an entire population on the basis of their ethnicity; Ahwazis have been collectively vilified and criminalised in Persian culture to such an extent by decades of this crude bigotry that both the regime and the Persian-Iranian opposition casually use offensive, racist stereotypes and tropes to dismiss any demand for human rights as “separatist troublemaking”, “insurgency” and even a “terror threat”.

 The study focused on the discriminatory structure of the state, its collective criminalisation of Ahwazi people, and how this policy influences and shapes the political views of the Persian-Iranian public to uncover the roles of the Iranian regime, its political players and their supporters in the suppression the Ahwazi Arab people.

The Securitisation theory helps explain why Ahwazis currently see little hope of their conditions improving or of Iranian attitudes becoming more enlightened even if the current regime falls and the leadership is replaced by the present opposition; for Ahwazis and other minorities, it’s highly unlikely that this would result in a change in the securitisation doctrine according to which they’re not equal citizens but a security threat to be quelled. 

For Ahwazis more than other ethnic minorities in Iran, whoever’s in charge of leadership in Tehran will see absolute control of their resources and the geopolitically sensitive location of their homeland at the mouth of the Gulf and of the coastal ports as essential, and any move for freedom or human rights as a threat to be quashed. For Ahwazis to have their long-denied fundamental freedoms and human rights, the Persian-Iranian securitisation narrative must be exposed and this oppressive doctrine dismantled.

As the study concludes, the only way to achieve this objective of eradicating this archaic, racist securitisation policy and of ‘desecuritising’ the Ahwazi people and other non-Persian peoples lies in dismantling the ethno-supremacist Iranian nationalist worldview and the associated centralised monopoly of control imposed from Tehran which have formed the core of Iran’s system for the past century; to become a genuinely inclusive modern nation, Iran must first enable all its peoples by adopting a decentralised devolutionary system of government, transferring administrative, economic and political powers to each of the devolved nations on its perimeters, each of which has its own distinctive ethnic and cultural identity, enabling them to run their own affairs and to act as equal partners, not subservient satrapies.

As the study clearly shows, there is an undeniably strong link between centralised rule, the ongoing colonisation of Ahwaz and the repression of its people. With devolved rule, they could finally flourish again. 

 

Credits: Writing: Rahim Hamid, Editing and Proofreading: Aaron Eitan Meyer and Ruth Riegler, Reviewing the study: Abdulrahman Hetteh and Mostafa Hetteh. 

 

Rahim Hamid: a freelance journalist and a researcher at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies. 

 Aaron Eitan Meyer: an attorney, admitted to practice in New York State and before the United States Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

 Ruth Riegler: a freelance writer and an editor at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

Abdulrahman Hetteh: PhD in international law and human rights from London’s Middlesex University, and a researcher at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

Mostafa Hetteh: a PhD candidate of philosophy in Political Science, an MA in International Relations, a Teaching Assistant at York University-Toronto, and a researcher and analyst at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

 

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