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How much has changed in the lives of Ahwazis since the 1979 Revolution in Iran?

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To comprehensively analyse the situation of the Ahwazi people, it is essential to first examine the establishment of policies and regulations, as well as the perception held by the dominant groups in society, specifically the perspective of the Persian ruling class and government elites, both the previous and current regimes in Iran, in regard to issues concerning the Ahwazi Arab people.

The prevailing belief among the Persian elites and regimes is that the legitimate demands of the Ahwazis pose a threat to the Iranian political entity since these demands contradict the mindset of Iranian colonialism

Any recognition of the social, cultural, economic, and developmental rights of Ahwazis is viewed as undermining Iranian national security, as any form of empowerment for Ahwazis would likely fuel their aspirations and demands for further rights, including autonomy and self-determination.

 These Ahwazis’ self-governance demands and self-determination aspirations are collectively labelled as ‘separatism’ by the regime, which uses them as grounds for the persecution and marginalisation of the Ahwazi people in all aspects of life.

 This mentality is also pervasive within the Persian dominant society, where there is not only a lack of action or empathy towards the plight of the Ahwazis, but which actively views their own economic and power interests as being aligned with the regime’s oppressive policies, with Persians’ status as a privileged group meaning they profit from the colonisation of Ahwazi resources.

A historical analysis of the policies and security agenda of the regime and their impact on Ahwazi society can provide insight into the causes of the uprisings and protests that have occurred in the Ahwaz region in recent years. Consequently, it is reasonable to examine the extent to which these policies have affected the conditions and experiences of the Ahwazi people. 

This study aims to explore the circumstances that existed prior to the outbreak of protests in Ahwaz, as well as how these conditions changed as a result of the Iranian regime’s responses to these events.

Even before the Islamic revolution in 1979, the Ahwazi people faced suppression, exclusionary policies, and discrimination in terms of their cultural, ethnic, and identity rights, as well as their access to education, employment, and essential services and infrastructure. Under the Pahlavi regime’s rule, the oppression, execution, and forced displacement of Ahwazis increased significantly year after year. 

By examining the securitised measures implemented against Ahwazis during this time, it becomes evident that the current regime, which is a continuation of its predecessor in its approach to Ahwaz, has turned the region into a metaphorical prison for over 8 million Ahwazi Arabs, who suffer from a lack of social and economic development due to political and security-related reasons.

The current Iranian regime has employed similar securitised policies against Ahwazis, resulting in a substantial body of racist literature that has not only adversely impacted the Ahwazi people, but has also influenced the wider Persian society. 

The majority of Persian citizens hold implicit and explicit views that deny Ahwazi people their rights, including even the most fundamental right to life, under the assumption that Ahwazis pose a threat to Iran’s national security and its territorial integrity and, therefore, should be disempowered and marginalised. This alignment between the ruling regime and the privileged Persian minority has made it easier for the regime to suppress and marginalise Ahwazis and has even led to the forced displacement of large numbers of Ahwazis from their lands in certain areas.

The Iranian regime’s deliberate violations of human rights in Ahwaz are not limited to the security services but rather form part of a systematic state policy that includes all state bodies. 

The repressive policy of arrest, torture and execution is an integral part of these broad regime policies in Ahwaz. In addition, numerous comprehensive reports by international organisations have made it clear that the Iranian regime’s policy in Ahwaz is brutal and includes multiple crimes against humanity, such as the large-scale seizure of lands and property, and illegal killings, such as torture and shooting at checkpoints.

 Forced displacement, strict restrictions on Ahwazi activity, even social and cultural activities, and depriving Ahwazis of economic, educational and cultural growth all represent violations of international humanitarian law. 

Reports and widespread, well-documented evidence from Ahwazi organisations, activists, and victims indicate that the Iranian regime’s policies are at a level which constitutes apartheid under international law. For example, many Ahwazi areas are walled off behind concrete barriers and spatial segregation structures, while, by contrast, most settlers in Ahwaz, who are mainly Persian, live in modern settlements provided with full services and amenities denied to Ahwazi people. This policy approach has been maintained through ongoing violations since 1979. 

Stop-and-search operations carried out by regime security services and police, which are rubber-stamped by Iran’s courts, have led to the harassment and arrest of many Ahwazis at security checkpoints surrounding cities, neighbourhoods, and villages in the Ahwaz region. 

These repressive policies are implemented by the security services to intimidate, suppress and arrest anyone who tries to criticise the regime’s systematically unjust policies in Ahwaz, even where this criticism is of policies related to items essential to sustain human life, such as actions and policies that adversely affect the quality of drinking water and water used for agriculture.

Soon after seizing power in 1979 following the revolution led by Khomeini, the Iranian regime’s forces, air and ground, carried out a massacre in the city of Mohammerah, which was so horrific that the day came to be known as Black Wednesday. Since then, the regime’s systematically unjust and repressive policies against the Ahwazis have developed year after year until the present day.

Since the Black Wednesday massacre in Muhammarah, the Iranian regime has denied Ahwazis any rights, even the most fundamental rights related to human life and dignity. The regime has brutally crushed Ahwazi uprisings and protests, appointing officials with a chauvinistic mindset to run the region for Tehran, along with a gruesome procession of executioners in the hierarchy of Iranian state institutions in Ahwaz. The regime has established Basiji militias and so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) camps inside and around all the cities in the Ahwaz region to suppress any protests.

The Security Agenda

There has consistently been a lot of anger and discontent among Ahwazis in response to the Iranian regime’s policies. A notable controversy occurred in the early days of the revolution in 1979 due to the arrogance of the politicians in the new Persian regime. These tensions continued for months, culminating in the Muhammarah uprising, with the regime responding to this protest with the horrors of ‘Black Wednesday,’ sending air and ground forces who perpetrated war crimes against unarmed civilians by bombing the city, using tanks and military helicopters.

Based on these experiences, Ahwazi activists, from the earliest post-revolution days, understood the new Persian regime’s policy regarding Ahwazi peoples’ rights. Following the Muhammarah massacre, many Ahwazis migrated to Iraq, with some of these people establishing the Arab Front for the Liberation of Ahwaz and the Ahwazi National Army to confront Iran’s murderous colonial agendas in the Ahwaz region.

From the first, Ahwazis were treated as a demographic threat to the Iranian entity because of Ahwaz’s geographical isolation from the depths of Iran and its vital strategic location at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf. This led Tehran to adopt policies that securitised Ahwaz, creating a restrictive and repressive security environment crushing any Ahwazi activism or political movement. Consequently, since those early days in 1979 and under each successive president, the regime has created a terrifying security environment for the Ahwazi people.

The regime’s policies and systemic racism have led to high unemployment rates, low wages, poor housing, and a lack of the most basic facilities and infrastructure.

All these problems increased frustration in Ahwazi society, especially among younger generations. Therefore, when a secret official letter documenting regime plans for demographic change in Ahwaz, allegedly written by Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, was leaked in 2005, anger flared among the Ahwazi people. 

According to this letter, then-President Khatami’s government intended to implement policies that would significantly reduce the number of Ahwazi people while simultaneously encouraging a large influx of Persian immigrants into Ahwazi territories. The first flashpoint for protests was the Al-Thawra neighbourhood in the capital. This was followed by widespread demonstrations and protests spreading across Ahwazi cities. Instead of attempting to address the people’s worries about the contents of the letter, the regime dispatched IRGC and army forces, Basiji militias, and security services personnel to suppress the protests brutally.

 Security forces attempted to disperse the Ahwazi Arab demonstrators with gunfire, leading to violent clashes between protesters and the authorities. The following day, Abtahi and other government officials denied the letter’s authenticity, claiming that it was a forgery, though this claim was viewed with widespread scepticism.

These protests, known as the Ahwazi April uprising, resulted in the deaths of at least 50 Ahwazi Arab protesters who were shot dead on the streets by regime forces. Moreover, in the following years, between 2006 and 2008, more than 30 of the Ahwazi activists who participated in the protests were arrested and executed, with hundreds more detained by security forces. The detainees faced lengthy prison sentences on ludicrous charges such as ‘enmity to God’, with some receiving life sentences.

As Ahwazi human rights organisations and activists have noted, the Iranian regime’s violations of human rights in Ahwaz are prohibited by international law and contradict international agreements to which Iran is a signatory, including agreements regarding environmental protection and other issues. 

Extensive legal research and analyses conducted by several international and Ahwazi organisations confirm that Iran is implementing racist security and social policies against the Ahwazis, policies and practices that guarantee harsh discriminatory and abusive treatment, such as depriving Ahwazis of job and economic opportunities and cultural and educational growth. These policies are intended to control and subjugate Ahwazis and facilitate their forced transfer from the Ahwaz region to ethnically Persian cities elsewhere in Iran. 

Human rights organisations have documented internationally outlawed violations by regime forces against Ahwazis across the Ahwaz region. Iranian authorities use multiple methods to deliberately deprive Ahwazis of their fundamental rights and freedoms, including imposing severe restrictions on cultural activity, denying Ahwazis the right to learn and use their mother tongue or to learn about their history and culture. Reports also document forced transfers, administrative detention, torture, unlawful killings, environmental sabotage, dam construction and dozens of other illegal actions that are classified as violations of human rights laws. 

Since 1979, the Iranian regime has pursued a policy of attempting to create and maintain a non-Arab demographic majority in Ahwaz through constructing settlements for ethnically Persian incomers and maximising its control over land and economic resources in Ahwaz via these settlers. After the end of the war with Iraq (1980-1988), Iran expanded these policies to include additional economic strategies, including an environmentally ruinous sugarcane project, for which it forcibly seized vast areas of arable land from Ahwazi farmers.

The policy of unlimited repression in Ahwaz by the Iranian regime is undoubtedly a violation of all international laws because these policies are the leading cause of suffering in Ahwaz. 

Ahwazi citizens currently enjoy very few rights and freedoms compared to the ethnically Persian settlers in the region. For example, the regime confers economic and cultural privileges on settlers unavailable to the Ahwazis, such as distributing land and generous grants to them and employing them in the Ahwaz region’s oil and gas companies and all economic and educational sectors. By contrast, the Ahwazi Arab presence in these sectors is minimal and combined with the plundering of their agricultural lands. This has led to widespread poverty among Ahwazis.

 Stripping Ahwazis of their property and displacing them from their homes in rural areas constitutes a fundamental pillar of the Iranian regime strategy. Since the establishment of the regime, the Iranian state has continued its widespread and cruel confiscation of agricultural lands. 

The regime also continues to implement countless laws and policies to force Ahwazis to migrate by seizing their lands under the pretext of extending its aforementioned environmentally devastating (and financially lossmaking) sugarcane projects. This policy led to the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Ahwazis from rural areas to ghettoes and slums in major cities in Ahwaz. 

The Iranian regime has also demolished hundreds of homes under the pretext of the lack of building permits, even though the residents and their forefathers were living in these areas before the arrival of the current regime in 1979.

These policies and actions confirm that the current Iranian regime has essentially continued and intensified the brutal approach of the Pahlavi regime in suppressing the Ahwazis through a restrictive security environment. From 1979 to 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, the regime committed crimes against humanity, starting in Muhammarah and then displacing Ahwazis under the pretext of its war with Iraq. The first eight years of the current regime’s life were focused on expelling the Arabs from the Ahwazi cities and rural areas as a strategic policy.

Following the war’s end, in the years from 1988 to 1997, the regime introduced another security project, the previously mentioned sugarcane project, which involved confiscating agricultural lands in vital areas and building new settlements to bring ethnically Persian and Lor immigrants to Ahwaz.

The third phase of the regime’s policy, from 1997 to 2005, focused on the spread of economic poverty, depriving Ahwazis of housing, confiscating agricultural lands, and instituting a program to bring in many settlers, which led to another Ahwazi uprising in 2005 against the Persian settlement policy in Ahwaz.

The Ahwazi people continued to face increased persecution and antagonism from the Iranian regime, particularly after the election of Hashem Rafsanjani as president in 1989.

One of Rafsanjani’s most ambitious and cruel projects, mentioned above, was the state-subsidised sugarcane farming project, which resulted in the seizure of thousands of hectares of farmland from Ahwazi farmers without warning, compensation, or legal recourse. This displacement pushed numerous families into poverty. The farmland was transformed into large sugarcane plantations, accompanied by the construction of extensive refineries along the riverbanks.

The sugarcane project had initially been proposed by Shah Reza Pahlavi before the revolution in 1979, a fact acknowledged by Rafsanjani himself during the opening of the first sugar refinery. Rafsanjani even boasted about fulfilling the plan that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had failed to accomplish.

Furthermore, Rafsanjani launched a significant river-damming and diversion project in the Ahwaz region, rerouting millions of gallons of water from the region’s rivers to other non-Arab areas of Iran, further exacerbating desertification and pollution levels in the region. Ahwazi people perceive these water rerouting projects as covert attempts by the regime to displace them from their ancestral lands.

To add insult to injury, the indigenous Ahwazi Arab people are denied anything but menial jobs in the sugarcane and oil industries on their own lands. Instead, the regime imports ethnically Persian managers and skilled workers from other parts of Iran, offering them high wages, incentives, and homes in specially constructed, well-appointed settlements where Ahwazis are not allowed to live. These settlements enjoy amenities and privileges that are inaccessible to the majority of poverty-stricken Ahwazi people, who face de facto apartheid conditions despite living in the most resource-rich region of Iran. This systemic discrimination has left the Ahwazi people living in medieval conditions.

Similar to the oil and gas refineries and factories, sugarcane refineries are built along the riverbanks to access large quantities of water for the refining process. This exacerbates the pollution in the region’s already depleted rivers caused by the regime’s upstream diversion and damming programs. 

Millions of tons of untreated chemical waste from the sugarcane refining process are dumped back into the rivers, resulting in unimaginable ecological devastation on a massive scale.

The persistent economic discrimination faced by the Ahwazis has created a vicious cycle of poverty, depriving the  Ahwazi population of their rights, resources, and opportunities.

Ahwaz is known for its vast reserves of oil and gas, which are the foundation of Iran’s national wealth. However, rather than benefiting the Ahwazi population, these resources have been exploited by successive Iranian governments, primarily to the advantage of non-Arab settlers and the Iranian state itself. Ahwazis have been denied equitable access to economic opportunities and have no real control over their own resources.

One significant aspect of discrimination against Ahwazis is the deliberate neglect of infrastructure development in the region. Essential facilities such as water and sewage systems are poorly maintained, leading to severe health hazards and environmental degradation. This neglect perpetuates a sense of marginalisation, as Ahwazis are denied the essential services provided to other parts of Iran.

As a consequence of economic discrimination, Ahwazis face inadequate public services, poor living conditions, and limited socioeconomic mobility. This has led to widespread frustration and discontent within Ahwazi society. Despite being relentlessly brutalised for their demands for freedom and human rights, Ahwazi people have continued to organise resistance movements and protests to demand equality, justice, and economic opportunities.

Through resource exploitation, infrastructural neglect, and employment discrimination, Iran’s regime perpetuates poverty and inhibits the development of the region. However, the Ahwazis continue to resist these injustices, striving for equality, socioeconomic empowerment, and a future free from economic discrimination.

After the Rafsanjani period, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency from 2005 to 2013, the regime initiated another program: building a vast network of massive dams on the Ahwazi rivers, causing agricultural and ecological catastrophe and widespread pollution.  

 During this period, arrests, imprisonment and executions of political activists intensified, and poverty and marginalisation worsened, being documented and reported by several human rights organisations.

 In addition, during the period of Hassan Rouhani’s government from 2013 to 2021, the regime continued the Ahmadinejad government’s dam-building program, expanding it to transfer vast quantities of water to Persian desert regions. Also, during this period, the regime committed another horrific massacre of Ahwazi demonstrators in Ma’shour in November 2019, killing 148 Ahwazi Arabs. 

The current Iranian government’s policies focus on deploying armed forces, including the IRGC and the army, in the Ahwaz region on the pretext of ‘confronting the American threat’, although their real goal is to intimidate the Ahwazis into abandoning any resistance or protest.

The relentless injustice of the regime’s policies, primarily economic, political, geographical, and cultural, fuels the resentment of the Ahwazi people due to the resulting deprivation in every aspect of life. 

While some hoped the 1979 revolution would bring positive change for the long-suffering people of Ahwaz, Ahwazis continue to be treated as second-class citizens and deprived of fundamental rights and of any agency or control over their own resources despite Ahwaz being renowned for its rich agricultural diversity, its network of rivers, ports and marshes, and its resource wealth in oil and gas.

Moreover, one of the most prominent policies of the Iranian regime in Ahwaz is deliberately denying Ahwazis the right to learn in and use their Arabic mother tongue, forcing schools to teach the only official language in Iran, which is Farsi. The policy of depriving Ahwazis of education in their mother tongue has led to the creation of a bitter atmosphere in society, forming part of a deliberate effort to alienate the Ahwazi people from their Arab environment and leading many Ahwazi children to leave school at an early age. 

International Reports on Ahwaz

International organisations have published numerous reports condemning the Iranian regime’s policies in Ahwaz. In the United Nations 2005 human rights report on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, detailed how he had spent 12 days travelling across several Iranian provinces, including Ahwaz, collecting information. Kothari noted in his report that “obtaining adequate housing in Iran is fraught with difficulties.” 

Kothari’s mandate included studying issues related to the rights of ethnic minorities, women, property eviction and land tenure. During his mission, Kothari met with a group of representatives of governmental and non-governmental agencies.

Mr Kothari reported that he encountered thousands of Ahwazis living in hovels with open sewers, no sanitation, and no regular access to water. He noted: “There is no electricity or gas, while there is an attempt by the government to build new cities and bring new people from other provinces to Ahwaz.”

The UN rapporteur also indicated that between 200,000 and 250,000 Ahwazi Arabs had been displaced from their villages by Iranian regime policies.

In the United States, the White House issued a statement in November 2019 expressing support for the Iranian people, including Ahwazis, in their peaceful protests. “We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators,” the statement said. 

It should be noted that the protests that began in Iran on 15 November 2019 in response to the increase in gas prices were suppressed across Iran, with the regime unleashing the most brutal acts of political violence the country had witnessed since the revolution in 1979. In one incident, on 18 November in the city of Ma’shour in the Ahwaz region, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard opened fire on a group of demonstrators, killing 148 people.

Reuters, citing three Iranian Interior Ministry officials, reported that about “1,500 people were killed in Iran during less than two weeks of unrest that began on 15 November, including at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also noted in its 2021 report that “the high death toll and mass arrests raise serious concerns about the Iranian authorities’ response to the recent protests in Ahwaz and other provinces.”

HRW’s report further stated that “the authorities should immediately and unconditionally release peaceful demonstrators, provide information on deaths, and allow an independent international investigation into the security services’ alleged use of lethal force. All those responsible for violations should be held accountable.”

On 15 July 2021, people held a peaceful demonstration to protest the deteriorating living conditions in Ahwaz. Iranian security forces used fire and tear gas against the demonstrators, killing dozens and wounding hundreds more. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, Ahwazis face severe problems due to the Iranian regime’s systematic agenda of repression because the regime is committed to reducing the presence of the Ahwazis in this vital region in order to monopolise and exploit their resource wealth in its own interests. The systematic discrimination and brutal policies and practices of Iranian regime security services and state institutions continue to devastate the lives of the Ahwazi people. Rather than improving, Ahwazis’ quality of life since 1979 has been massively worsened, even as protests and demonstrations have flourished in most Ahwazi cities, due to economic conditions and the regime’s persecution and targeting of the  Ahwazi people’s Arab identity. 

As this study shows, each wave of protests that erupted in Ahwaz over these conditions has been followed by ever-more punitive Iranian policies and more severe targeting of the economic and health infrastructure, with the regime’s policies driving atmospheric and environmental pollution, desertification, the drying up of rivers, and the spread of diseases, all of which contributed to a lack of growth in culture, the economy, and development in the Ahwaz region, in stark contrast to the regime’s simultaneous colonial development in Ahwaz.

The Iranian regime’s policies should be classified as a crime against humanity because of the extent to which Iran uses extreme policies, including violence, to repress the Ahwazi people and society and to crush Ahwazi protests. International organisations have asserted, in several reports, that Iranian officials who committed systematic crimes against Ahwazis, such as the murder of Ahwazi peaceful protesters in Ma’shour port city, must be held accountable. Investigations by researchers detail how Iran practices a system of oppression and domination against the Ahwazi Arab people. 

There is no doubt that the regime’s goal is clear, which is to continue expanding its brutal apartheid agenda in Ahwaz, centred on colonisation and wealth appropriation, constructing illegal settlements, and impoverishing, marginalising and forcibly displacing the Ahwazi people, all of which actions will further aggravate the already dire conditions in the Ahwaz region.

By Kamil Alboshoka and Rahim Hamid

Edited by Leonie O’Dowd

Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi freelance journalist at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

Leonie O’Dowd is a human rights researcher and an editor at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

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