Since the first days of Iran’s occupation of Ahwaz, successive Iranian regimes have adopted various racially motivated strategies in Ahwaz in an effort to eradicate its Ahwaz identity, giving it a wholly Persian character. This effort to eliminate the distinctive Ahwazi nature of Ahwaz has even extended to efforts to outlaw the indigenous Ahwazis’ language, Arabic, with the region divided into three provinces and then renamed Khuzestan, Bushehr, and Bandar Abbas and many of its towns, cities and villages given Persian place names in 1936. Despite all these efforts and decades of apartheid-style discrimination by successive rulers, however, the people have retained pride in their Arab heritage and identity.
Refusing to accept the people’s rights to self-determination or acknowledge the Ahwazi character of the region, however, Iran’s current theocratic regime has in recent years devised a new strategy which plans to completely alter the demographic character of Ahwaz anticipated by the year 2030 through a process of mass population transfer, with many Ahwazis being forcibly dispersed to Iranian provinces while large numbers of ethnically Persian Iranians are offered incentives by the regime to move to the Ahwaz region, including funding for agricultural projects on lands which the original farmers were driven out of by the regime.
This policy of population transfer is already underway, with the Ahwazi population’s numbers already declining as the number of ethnically Persian residents rises. In this paper, we will discuss the population transfer program and its possible effects in more detail.
Many in Ahwaz fear that, without international support to help the Ahwazi people to oppose this profoundly racist discriminatory policy which denies the people any agency or the most basic of human rights in their own land, this policy will lead to the very deliberate eradication of Ahwaz’ Arab identity, culture and heritage as planned by the Iranian state, an injustice on a historic scale.
The policy of demographic transfer is only one part of the systemic injustices inflicted on the Ahwazi people by the current Iranian regime as by its predecessors, with the theocratic regime being the worst by far in the severity of the brutal abuse meted out to the region’s people, who are denied any sort of outlet for peaceful protest. Ahwazi organisations like Al Hewar (‘Dialogue’), which attempt to foster public discussion and raise awareness regarding the policy of demographic transfer, are unceremoniously closed, their members arrested, imprisoned and executed, with the regime outlawing the creation of similar organisations.
Up until 30 years ago, fertility levels and birthrates in Ahwaz remained relatively stable, with large families being a norm regardless of the prevailing socioeconomic conditions. For the past few decades, however, socioeconomic deterioration and deprivation, along with a policy encouraging birth control have seen fertility rates and birthrates steadily falling. This is not coincidental with the Iranian regime recognising the link between economic development and birthrates, and deliberately setting out to keep the area’s peoples in poverty and reduce the population numbers, while ensuring that the people were denied information that might enable them to challenge the status quo.
Two factors have been particularly influential in the Tehran regime’s shaping of demographic change in the region. One of these was the introduction of family planning programs, with greater access to abortion and contraceptives for women. This was introduced in tandem with a policy of population transfer, offering inducements to ethnically Persian Iranians to move to the Ahwaz region in order to increase the numbers of non-Arab peoples even as Ahwazis’ numbers continued to fall steadily.
The regime’s concern for family planning has not extended to any similar help with neo-natal care and reducing infant mortality rates among Ahwazi people, with several women dying in childbirth in the cities of Ahwaz annually due to woefully inadequate medical facilities.
The leadership in most regional countries is aware of the cynical reasoning behind the Iranian regime’s family planning policy as part of its efforts to change the demographic balance in Ahwaz.
Addressing the connection between sociocultural variables and declining birthrates amongst women in recent decades, an Iranian healthcare researcher recently claimed that the previous high fertility rate among Ahwazi women was largely caused by the social norms regarding the centrality of the family unit in Ahwaz culture.
In this context, some major issues arise regarding the role of Arab society in prioritising large, close-knit families and the conflict between this and the Iranian regime’s efforts to discourage this and other features central to Arab culture.
Since the mid-1980s the Iranian regime has intensified its policy of attempting to drastically cut birth rates in the Ahwaz region through a number of policies, including distributing contraceptives, facilitating access to abortion and offering female sterilization.
These regime policies have succeeded in reducing the regional birth rates amongst Ahwazis by more than 70 percent, with large numbers of Ahwazi women opting for either contraceptives or sterilisation. While increasing poverty and deprivation, high unemployment rates and lack of medical support lead many women to welcome smaller family sizes, it should be emphasized that the regime’s objective in this policy is not to help women, but to reduce birthrates amongst Ahwazis while increasing the numbers of ethnic Persians in the region, often by offering them resettlement packages and inducements not available to Ahwazis, thus changing the demographic balance.
More shockingly in recent years, human rights activists have documented a number of cases in which women reported that they were sterilised without their knowledge by doctors at state hospitals in the region following Caesarean deliveries of their babies, only discovering what had been done to them later. These horrifying reports provide further compelling evidence of a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing and effective ethnocide against the Ahwazi people by the Tehran regime.
The aforementioned poverty, deprivation and high unemployment rates (far above the national average in Iran) are also felt to be the primary causes of massively increased rates of domestic violence, divorce, drug abuse and suicides amongst Ahwazis, with the financial problems stemming from the former largely driving an increase in the latter social ills.
With levels of childbirth in Ahwaz declining faster than in other areas of Iran, it’s clear that the Iranian regime’s discriminatory policies and efforts to alter the demographic balance in the region threaten the very future of the Ahwazi people.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.