Ahwazis are the indigenous people of their homeland, formerly known as Ahwaz, is now divided between the modern-day provinces of Khuzestan and some parts of Ilam, Bushehr and Hormozgan. Despite the region housing over 95 percent of oil and gas reserves, most Ahwazis live in desperate poverty, enduring systemic discrimination due to their ethnicity. Denied the most fundamental rights, the majority have little or no access to basic utilities or to healthcare, education or employment.
Ahwazis have been at loggerheads with the Iranian government for decades over their desire to establish an autonomous devolved Ahwazi state within Iran’s borders (Elling, 2008) and to have greater control over the natural resources on their lands and of the revenue from these resources.
Like members of other ethnic minority populations in Iran, such as the Kurds, Azeri Turks and Balochis, the Ahwazis have engaged in peaceful protests and sometimes armed struggle against the Iranian government in their efforts to attain rights and autonomy. Despite many years of these efforts, however, there has been little progress in the journey towards independence and even towards being granted fundamental human rights.
This can be attributed to several factors, including Ahwazis’ own domestic infighting, Iranian government intransigence and regional and global geopolitics.
This paper traces the origins of the Ahwazi liberation movement from 1924 to the modern day, beginning with the history of the struggle, the responses from successive Iranian regimes, and the specific reasons behind the Ahwazi’ pursuit of independence. The focal point of the paper is the obstacles that have undermined the liberation movement and the possible solutions which could be employed by Ahwazi leaders to make meaningful progress in the struggle for independence.
Origins and history of Ahwazi Arabs’ struggle for independence
The autonomous emirate of Arabistan existed long before the advent of the Pahlavi dynasty’s rule in Iran which began in 1920. Plentiful evidence shows that Arabistan or Ahwaz was for centuries a self-governing entity culturally and politically distinct from its Persian neighbours to the East.
With the ascent of the Pahlavi dynasty to power in Iran in 1920, tensions between the Persian government and surrounding autonomous states such as Arabistan, Kurdistan and Azerbaijan began to rise. The Iranian government sought to eradicate the role of Arabistan’s ruler, the last emir, Khaz’al al-Ka’bi and strip Ahwazis of their autonomy by annexing the territory. Shah Pahlavi’s efforts led uprisings against Iran’s colonialist interventions between 1922 and 1924, which are widely viewed as the birth of the modern Ahwazi independence movement. The first major insurrection took place in in November 1924 when Iranian forces killed hundreds of people. The second wave of uprisings took place between the 1920s and 1940s. During this period, there were several riots and outbreaks of fighting between Ahwazi resistance forces and the Iranian army.
After the end of World War Two, prominent Ahwazi dissidents founded the Saada Party, which they used as a rallying point to demand complete independence from the Persian-majority central government. The uprisings led to several massacres by the government (as documented by Amnesty Australia in 2014). This period also saw the formation of several other political organisations with similar objectives, including the Ahwaz Liberation Front, the National Front for the Liberation of Arabistan, the Arabistan Liberation Front (1956) and the Arab Gulf, formed in 1960.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution in 1979, Ahwaz saw another major uprising as Ahwazis, buoyed by the revolutionary wind of change, launched massive protests and rose up to demand their long-withheld rights and autonomy. The promise of positive change heralded by the Iranian revolution proved short-lived, however, with the new leadership in Tehran quickly sending forces to brutally quash the uprising in Ahwaz, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.
The next two turbulent decades were followed by the establishment of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) in 1999. The sole objective of this new political organisation, which was stronger than its predecessors due to the greater unity among its ranks, was to achieve complete independence and self-rule by and for the Ahwaz people in their lands.
The period between 2005 and 2015 was marked by three major episodes of unrest in Ahwaz. In 2005, weeks of peaceful protest demanding reforms and human rights which began on April 15 culminated in a ferocious crackdown by the Iranian government that left at least 30 dead and hundreds more injured. Protests broke out again in April 2011 in the wake of the regional Arab Spring movement, with the ‘Ahwaz Day of Rage’ followed by several instances of armed conflict between Ahwazi resistance fighters and Iranian regime forces. The uprising in Ahwaz was easily and mercilessly crushed by the Iranian regime, which responded with mass arrests of protesters and the killing of many individuals suspected of involvement in leading the protests. More protests broke out in 2015, with the regime again greeting them by brutally cracking down on all dissent and arresting dozens.
Between 2015 and the present day, there have been several more large-scale outbreaks of protest in the Ahwaz region, characterised by civil disobedience, the targeting of state law enforcement and security forces, and fighting between Ahwazis and regime militias, who are drawn from an ethnically Persian settler population and widely viewed as illegitimate interlopers introduced to the region specifically to help in oppressing the Ahwazi people. Protests which broke out in April 2018 quickly spread to other areas of the region, with many Ahwazis feeling that their decades-long struggle for freedom and autonomy which has cost so many innocent lives had come closer to bearing fruit than in the past.
The response by the Iranian government to the separatist movement
The manner of the Iranian regime’s reaction to peaceful protests, in Ahwaz and elsewhere in Iran, is best described as ruthless (Cronin, 2017). The ongoing unrest in Ahwaz which broke out in recent months has been brutally targeted by police who are drawn from the majority Persian population, as well as ethnically Persian militias (Basij and Iranian Revolutionary Guard). The regime’s brutal reaction has included massacres of unarmed protesters and mass arrests and executions, with large numbers of Ahwazis killed.
Despite the change of regimes and governing political systems since the 1920s, the position of the leadership in Tehran towards Ahwaz has not altered since the Ahwazi people’s first calls for independence and justice almost a century ago. Rather than show any compromise, the Iranian state has asserted its authority by increasing the police and security presence in the region and implementing a series of programs aimed at further undermining the already persecuted Ahwazi people politically and economically.
Iran’s government has not restricted this effort to undermine the Ahwazi people to the domestic arena, also working tirelessly to besmirch and sabotage them internationally.
The combination of all these strategies used by the leaders in Tehran has resulted in massive, relentless and widespread violations of human rights as standard policy; there are countless documented instances of torture, illegal detentions and extrajudicial killings of individuals suspected of engaging in pro-independence activities (Lea, 2016). This has instilled even greater fear and anxiety among Ahwazis seeking independence, with most too fearful to engage in political or other activism for well-founded fear of persecution, arrest and imprisonment. As a result of all these factors, the people’s struggle for rights and freedom has been crushed for many years, with successive generations unable to marshal the necessary efforts and force to make any progress (Weiss, 2017). The number of casualties between 1922 and 2018 illustrates the extent of the excessive force that is being applied by the central government in quelling the peaceful movement (Human Rights Watch., 2014).
The claims for independence: motives and strategies
While the individual motives behind Ahwazis’ demands for autonomy and independence from Iran are as varied as the strategies they have used to achieve this objective, they can broadly be classified under two principal objectives. The first objective is to end what the people view as a hostile and illegitimate colonial occupation of their lands by successive Iranian regimes, which has lasted for almost a century to date. The Iranian government has systematically dispossessed the Ahwazi people of their territory and properties since first formally annexing the formerly autonomous emirate in the 1920s. This historic injustice has angered generations of Ahwazis who are denied both their most basic rights and any decision-making power or sovereignty over their own ancestral lands, which have been exploited and colonised by ethnically Persian Iranians who treat the indigenous Ahwazis as second-class citizens in their own lands, building ‘Persian-only’ settlements where Ahwazis are forbidden to live, which are provided with amenities not available to the native Ahwazis. Within the last decade, the regime in Tehran has accelerated its program of settlement-building, offering inducements to encourage ethnically Persian Iranians from other parts of the country to buy land and settle in areas that historically belong to Ahwazis. Many Ahwazis have been expelled from their homes and farms, with Iranian state authorities seizing their lands and properties without warning or compensation and with no hope of taking any legal action for restitution; those who question these land-seizures will themselves be detained and possibly imprisoned on fabricated charges. The dispossessed are turned into landless squatters in their own nation, either moving to other non-Ahwazi regions in Iran or becoming exiles abroad.
Another motive for Ahwazis opposing Iran’s occupation is the deprivation and economic suffering inflicted on the people under Iranian leadership; Ahwazis are one of the poorest minorities in Iran, despite their ancestral lands being the source of 95 percent of the oil wealth claimed by the state. The Ahwazi population, numbering between 8 to 10 million in total, are subjected to discrimination and prejudice due to their ethnicity and denied the most basic of rights, leaving them with greatly reduced educational and professional prospects, trapped in a cycle of poverty. Most Ahwazis currently live in ghettoes in major towns where they face systematic discrimination and racist abuse from the ethnically Persian majority, which is reinforced by casual anti-Arab racism in state-controlled Iranian media (Al Bawaba. 2016). This anti-Arab racism and discrimination is another major motivation for Ahwazis seeking autonomy; after decades of being brutally punished in retaliation for any protests calling for fundamental human rights, justice, equality and respect from successive Iranian rulers, of routinely being subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture, execution for the ‘crime’ of wanting basic equality and the rights guaranteed to all peoples by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Ahwazis have concluded that autonomy is the only way in which they can finally live normally without fear of persecution.
The second primary objective in seeking autonomy, closely linked to the first, is the quest for recognition of the legitimacy of Ahwazis’ claim to sovereignty and independence in their historic lands by both Iran and the international community. The people of Ahwaz, frustrated by what they see as the oppressive, undemocratic and regressive nature of the Iranian state structure, seek to build a progressive autonomous state governed by democratic institutions and the justly administered rule of law. (Erwin, 2006). Given the abundance of natural resources and a dynamic, outward-looking youthful population, the vast majority of Ahwazis feel that independence is the only path to being able to positively use their resources to build a thriving modern internationalist state for all its people and to finally escape the insular oppressive isolationism that they’ve languished under for decade. Ahwazis, who share a strong sense of affinity with their fellow Arabs in the region and with other minorities in Iran, also want to play an active, positive role in regional geopolitics. Self-rule has been the primary objective of the ASMLA since its foundation, with the Ahwazi people’s long history of interaction and trade with fellow Arabs in regional nations, dating back many centuries, strengthening their perception of themselves as a distinct group within the Arab world (Ahwazi Center for Human Rights, 2017).
To achieve their objectives and to resist Iranian state efforts to further disenfranchise them, Ahwazis have adopted several strategies. The first of these is through armed struggle. This has been a key method which has seen several deadly confrontations with the central government. Ahwazis consider their struggle against the Iranian state, which unofficially promotes a form of virulently anti-Arab Persian supremacism over other ethnicities, to be justified since the Ahwazi people have never consented to colonisation or rule by Iran and reject this racist subjugation (Ganji, 2005), viewing the struggle for independence as a movement for the autonomy and self-determination recognised by international law.
Ahwazis are also pursuing other, official means to attain recognition within the Arab League, as well as seeking support from global bodies such as the United Nations. Their strategy inside Iran involves political action through the political parties (Arostegui, 2013), although this is stymied by the Iranian leadership’s proscription on political activities not approved by the Supreme Leader. Ahwazi human rights organisations are also exposing the killings and torture perpetrated by state authorities to the international community. To achieve this, they use both local and international media, as well as social media platforms, to increase global awareness of the suffering inflicted by the Iranian government.
There are several reasons why Ahwazis’ struggle for freedom and independence has not attained any notable success, despite many years of tireless work by generations of activists. These can be classified into four broad categories, which are: domestic organisational challenges, the actions of the Iranian state, and the prevailing geopolitical situation in the Middle East and internationally. The combination of all these factors has thwarted Ahwazi efforts in the quest for independence.
Domestic organizational problems
The first challenge facing those involved in the Ahwazi independence movement is that of internal divisions within the movement itself. These schisms are largely concerned with tribal loyalties, which have led to fierce infighting for leadership of the movement, as well as weakening the overall unity of the movement. Achieving independence and self-rule requires that all the various tribes that make up the Ahwazi populace come together to present a strong, unified force that can challenge the Iranian state which is ruthless and obdurate in its attitude to separatists. Another internal challenge facing the independence movement is the insular and narrow outlook of some political groups and organisations within the movement which are small, clannish and more concerned with local affairs affecting their own small areas than with national issues. This limits the operations by the larger movement, making it less effective since only a few members are focused on the primary objective of attaining independence. (Shaffer, 2002).
Actions of the Iranian state
Apart from the aforementioned internal obstacles facing the Ahwazi independence movement, the policies and actions of the Iranian leadership and state authorities form a far greater and more formidable obstacle. The Iranian state’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the independence movement (Fozi, 2015) means that Ahwazi dissidents are routinely arrested, imprisoned, tortured and regularly executed for political activism, while protests and uprisings are crushed with murderous force; all of this discourages and demoralises all but the most devoted proponents of independence.
The state’s casual brutality and indifference to Ahwazis’ human rights can also be seen in the systematic dispossession of generations of Ahwazi people, who have been effectively stripped not only of their homes, land and natural resources, but of economic or political agency to challenge these actions, leaving them disempowered in every sense. Meanwhile, political parties and organisations which champion their rights are ineffectual due to inadequate funding and interference by the Iranian government.
Less than one-quarter of the Ahwazi population lives above the poverty line, meaning that most are simply too busy struggling to survive to focus on engaging in any political activism or armed struggle, especially in confronting a merciless state that deploys massive military power to crush rebellions. The Iranian state also deploys ‘divide and rule’ tactics, using financial and other inducements to encourage some independence campaigners to change their loyalties and denounce the independence movement in order to further lower the morale of others engaged in the struggle.
The Iranian state has also worked tirelessly for many years to silence or shut down all voices and outlets promoting Ahwazi freedom, domestically as well as internationally. Ahwazi intellectuals and other dissidents are imprisoned or exiled whilst any media carrying messages sympathetic to the independence cause are automatically shut down and materials and publications distributed by Ahwazi activists are censored, effectively silencing Ahwazis’ voices. The stifling of voices for independence has also limited any international support for the Ahwazi cause, with the Iranian regime running regular propaganda campaigns which slander separatists as extremists and terrorists (Fozi, 2015). The participation of Ahwazis in Iran’s political and civic life has also been severely curtailed as the regime seeks to control their movement and political activities, whilst Ahwazis are denied employment, social services and other vital amenities in a bid to further weaken their spirit. As a result of the regime’s well-coordinated campaign, Ahwazi activists face an uphill battle in the struggle to maintain unity and encourage any public expressions of support for autonomy among the people.
The contribution of Middle East geopolitics
Middle Eastern geopolitics have not favoured Ahwazis’ struggle for independence. Firstly, given Iran’s status as a regional power and the most powerful Shia-majority nation in the region, the countries bordering Iran have no desire to intervene in Iran’s domestic affairs (Fozi, 2015). The value of maintaining diplomatic and trade ties with Iran also discourages other Middle Eastern states from siding with Ahwazis and incurring the wrath of the leadership in Tehran. As a dominant power in the Middle East, Iran also tightly controls and shapes the media narrative on what’s reported to the region and world about events in Ahwaz, with state media representing the independence movement in wholly negative terms. As a result, public opinion in the region on the Ahwazi movement for autonomy, even amongst fellow Arabs, is heavily biased in the regime’s favor, obstructing any hope of support or help from potential regional allies.
Secondly, the well-known rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia contributes to perceptions of the Ahwazi cause in two ways. The first of these concerns the status of Ahwaz as the oil and gas hub of Iran, housing over 95 percent of the oil and gas claimed by the Iranian state. With oil being the engine of both the Iranian and Saudi economies, Iran needs Ahwazis’ oil and gas resources to maintain its position as Saudi Arabia’s main regional competitor; recognising Ahwazi independence would deny the Iranian state access to this vital source of revenue. Secondly, there is a widespread perception amongst the Iranian political class, promoted by state media, that, as fellow Arabs, Ahwazis are sympathetic to Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi government has not explicitly expressed or offered support for Ahwazis, the fact that both are historically closely related means that the Iranian state conflates any victory for Ahwazis as a victory for its bitter regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
To the Iranian leadership and other regional powers, ceding control of any part of Iranian territory, however this was originally attained, would be perceived as a sign of weakness.
Meanwhile, the member states of the Arab League, the major transnational body in the region representing Arab nations’ interests, do not recognise the plight of the Ahwazi people, which means that most of the atrocities perpetrated by the Iranian regime against the Ahwazi people go unchallenged (Valbjørn and Bank, 2010). This lack of support from other majority-Arab nations in the Middle East due to fear of reprisals from Iran has undermined efforts to raise regional awareness of and support for the Ahwazi cause, preventing it from making any significant progress.
The contribution of world geopolitics
Ultimately, the ability of Ahwazis to attain full autonomy and self-rule is wholly dependent on the support of the international community, which currently recognises Ahwaz only as an Iranian territory. International law also works against the pro-independence movement since it forbids countries from interfering with the domestic issues of other nations. Most countries, regionally and internationally, are keen to maintain diplomatic ties with Iran as with other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and are therefore unlikely to offer support to Ahwazi separatists (Samii, 2005).
Whilst the United Nations charter clearly states that people have the right to self-determination and self-rule, the UN has no mandate to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran or other states, only intervening to a limited degree in relation to issues of human rights violations. The pro-independence movement has also failed to garner support from major world powers such as the USA and their European counterparts, which have major security and trade interest in the Middle East. From those governments’ perspective, the turmoil in the Middle East generated by the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan disrupts oil extraction and trade, the mainstays of the regional economy, with any further conflicts negatively affecting their interests in the region, which they would prefer to avoid (Valbjørn and Bank, 2010).
Proposals for effective solutions to help Ahwaz attain achieve independence.
The first proposal for a more effective strategy in the independence struggle is that Ahwazis use only official means to pursue legal action in cases of human rights violations. There should be a move away from protests and uprisings, which have proved ineffective, with rioting that broke out in the wake of some protests, in which protesters were killed by state forces, actively helping to promote the regime’s efforts to depict the freedom movement negatively and undermining its support base domestically and internationally. Any change in strategy would also mean exploring the possibility of negotiation with the Iranian government over the issue of more autonomy. As the results of the riots have demonstrated, the Iranian government’s response to independence supporters is growing increasingly brutal by means of massacres, arrests, detentions and torture (Ansari, 2005). To avoid disillusionment, activists should change their strategy, pursuing peaceful methods to help Ahwazis to gradually increase their economic and political power to point where they can attain the capability to successfully legally challenge the Iranian government.
Ahwazis also need to create stronger alliances with other Middle Eastern peoples seeking freedom and autonomy, such as Kurds and Palestinians. These two groups have made some tangible progress, with the former recently holding a referendum for secession. Building support for a referendum would be a powerful and positive approach to the struggle for independence, helping to legitimise the Ahwazi people’s claim to autonomy and transforming the image of Ahwazis domestically, regionally and internationally. Such a positive image boost would both raise awareness of the Ahwazi cause and improve Ahwazis’ standing in the field of Middle Eastern geopolitics and in the global arena.
TheAhwazis have endured a long and deadly struggle for independence from Iran. This struggle is motivated by the desire for freedom from the oppressive rule by a state dominated by a hostile colonialist Persian majority which views the Ahwazi people as, at best, second-rate citizens. In their quest for self-rule, Ahwazis have encountered and continue to grapple with a number of obstacles, some of which concern their own inadequate organisational skills, as well as issues pertaining to regional and international geopolitics (Valbjørn and Bank, 2010). These obstacles have led to several instances of stalemates resulting in the loss of many innocent lives. In order to succeed in the struggle for autonomy and freedom, the Ahwazi people need to change their strategy. As similar struggles for freedom and justice elsewhere in the world have shown, peaceful methods such as negotiations and legal remedies can be more successful and far less lethal than the pursuit of armed struggle. In the case of Ahwazis, a call for a referendum offers the most promising first step on the road to eventual independence.
This case study was written by Ahmad Haki
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