A conference for the support of the oppressed Ahwazi people in Iran was initiated in Cairo on 10 January this year. The Ahwaz province (also known as Arabistan or Khuzistan) has an indigenous Arab minority who have historically suffered, and more so under the current Iranian regime. Ahwaz was historically independent from Iran and was annexed by Reza Pahlavi’s forces in 1925.
After the last Arab ruler Sheikh Khazaal lost power over Ahwaz, Resa Pahlavi initiated a forced Persianification by enforcing Farsi as the official language and banning the teaching of Arabic in schools. In 1936 Ahwaz was renamed as Khuzistan to further alienate it from its Arab identity.
Though Nasser was a proponent of Arab nationalism, many Arabs have lost interest in him for various political reasons; Ahwaz Arabs are no different, but perhaps this is about to change. The Cairo conference has certainly come as a breakthrough to highlight the suffering of the Ahwazi. The conference’s opening speech was given by Dr Emad Abdulghafour, who is the presidential assistant for social discourse. The conference had representation from Al-Azhar, and the Saudi Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Rahman El-Oreify also gave a speech.
In 2011 The World Health Organisation ranked the city of Ahwaz as the most polluted in the world. It shouldn’t be surprising at all, when the vast majority of Iranian oil and gas (about 90%) is from Ahwaz. Many industrial projects are conducted there and there are plenty of nuclear plant facilities in this province despite it being prone to earthquakes. Furthermore the government built a dam there and is conducting a river diversion project which takes away water from the region and takes it to ethnically Persian cities like Yazd and Rafsanjan.
The suffering of indigenous Arabs is immense as they mainly depend on farming and fishing for their livelihoods, in addition to the sources of their livelihoods being polluted they are being forced to migrate away from their lands without any compensation; forced to live in inhumane shanty towns without the basic necessities of life.
Iran has expelled about half a million Ahwazi Arabs from their land and destroyed their homes to build the Arvand (also known as Shat Al Arab) Free Military Zone which borders Iraq. The huge facility, which is very close to oil rich Basra, is a future threat to Iraq besides being a military consolidation of Ahwaz.
In 2005 a secret memo written by former Iranian Vice-President Ali Abtahi was revealed. The memo drew up a 10-year plan to ethnically restructure Ahwaz to reduce the population of Arabs from about three quarters to less than a third. This explains why the Iranian regime has been conducting land confiscation from indigenous Arabs and selling it to ethnic Persians and non-Arab businesses. In April 2005 Iran lost control over large parts of Ahwaz due to an Arab uprising protesting this forced Persianification and discrimination.
Today the Iranian regime continues its severe discrimination against people of Ahwaz, preventing them from employment and from benefiting from the local natural resources. Forcing them into poverty and silencing any opposition through mass arrests, torture, rape and destruction of homes. It should not be surprising when such offences are carried out in Syria with the support of Iran, as Iranian special security forces are accustomed to such practices.
The Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Council have condemned Iran for their ethnic oppression of minorities. While Ahwazi Arabs are estimated around five to eight million there are millions more of Azerbaijanis, Turkman, Kurds and others who face similar fates in modern day Iran.
The conference was being conducted as the foreign minister of Iran was visiting Egypt. This possibly explains why the conference was completely avoided by the Muslim Brotherhood, to avoid any embarrassment; though the conference was being prepared long before the foreign minister had any plans to visit Egypt.
Iran and Egypt still have a long way to go before coming to any understanding, it is unclear what policy the Egyptian administration seeks towards Iran and what each wants from the other. However as Egypt manoeuvres between different powers in the region; Egypt will certainly have more cards in its favour.
In the mean time it seems that Iran will not be able to keep the lid on the agony of Ahwaz for long.