Historical records demonstrate that national minorities in Iran began openly pursuing the acquisition of their national rights when the central government destabilised in 1979, with the ascension to power of the current Islamic regime. Like situations that consequently arose in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, similar events have occurred with Ahwazis. Now, after nearly 40 years of increasing dissatisfaction, it is safe to assume that any future uprising of ethnic nations such as Ahwazis, Balochis, Turks, Kurds and Turkmen against the Iranian regime will more impassioned than ever, in order to achieve their long-denied national rights.
A point ignored or unknown by the US and other Western governments is that the protests which gripped Iran in mid-November 2019 began in Ahwaz before spreading to other areas of the country. Until the regime addresses the issues at the centre of protests and aggrieved group’s problems are resolved, no matter how brutally Iran’s regime represses Ahwazis and other minorities, protests will continue and grow as the crisis deepens and intensifies. Ahwazis took to the streets before the latest economic crisis in rage and despair over longstanding grievances and historic injustices, including relentless and racist anti-Arab discrimination and persecution, ethno-sectarian cleansing, and horrendous, deliberate environmental devastation inflicted as part of a large-scale programme to clear the area of its indigenous Ahwazi population.
Much of the region, which was once a verdant area with three huge rivers providing irrigation for farming as well as containing a vast array of seafoods, has now been calculatingly reduced to a barren, sand-blown and heavily polluted dustbowl. Conditions here are increasingly unbearable because of the construction of dams near the source of the rivers. These intentionally reroute most of the water to other areas of Iran.
These measures taken by the Iranian regime have, in turn, led to widespread desertification, forcing the rural Ahwazi population to move to cities or other regions. Although the Ahwaz region is home to over 95 per cent of oil and gas reserves, these have now been claimed by the government in Tehran. Ahwazi people see none of the billions of dollars in profits, with the majority of the population living in medieval-like poverty. No matter how highly qualified they are, Ahwazis are automatically denied jobs at newly-built facilities due to their ethnicity, with the state-owned refineries and other businesses bringing in Persians from other regions, who are offered incentives to move to the region.
These incentives include homes in specially constructed settlements provided with amenities which are not available to local people. Any dissent or complaint at this discrimination and injustice is met with lethal suppression, with Ahwazis routinely imprisoned for decades or executed simply for speaking out or demonstrating for their fundamental rights. This is usually on fabricated charges, including ‘Mohareb’ (enmity to God), ‘spying for enemy states’, or ‘threatening state security’.
These ‘confessions’ are obtained through torture, with kangaroo trials lasting no more than a few minutes, no legal assistance allowed and their verdict a foregone conclusion. Generations of repression and systemic injustice have led to widespread despair and anger among Ahwazis. Furthermore, drug addiction is now a common problem among the young who see no future and no hope. For all these reasons, Ahwazis took to streets last November determined to reject state-sanctioned prejudice, injustice and totalitarian oppression that has made their lives a living Hell for decades. Despite the fact that the protests were peaceful, the regime reacted with its customary barbarism, terrorising, arresting, imprisoning or killing thousands across Ahwaz, including women and children.
Among the worst-hit areas was the city of Mahshour where dozens of innocent protesters, whose only ‘crime’ was to demand their rights, were gunned down in cold blood by the regime’s security and military personnel. They also used the regime’s regional militias to attack people there, some of whom were burnt alive. Although the Iranian opposition and some media mentioned the regime’s violence against Ahwazis in their coverage of events, there was no mention of the Ahwazi protesters’ grievances or the reasons behind their protests, which were simply treated as part of the larger protests allegedly concerning the plummeting economy.
Even the US government followed the same narrative – whilst it did condemn the Mahshour massacre, it failed to mention the protesters’ identity or explain the historic oppression of Ahwazis. Perhaps this is no surprise, because the call for justice and freedom has been disregarded by the world for decades. Indeed, the Persian-Iranian opposition groups were lauded for covering the protests in Ahwaz due to their greater influence with news media and human rights organisations. Ahwazi groups, however, were either completely ignored or labelled as extremist separatists, whilst at the same time being denied any right to use the same venues or media platforms as the Persian-Iranian groups to correct this false and inaccurate depiction.
New York-based international human rights attorney Irina Tsukerman commented on the issue saying: “The US should be able to listen and evaluate the claims of all sides in a society such as Iran, particularly given the history of grievances, invasions, various tensions, and most recently the Islamic Revolution which deliberately exacerbated and exploited existing cultural and religious tensions and differences over territorial claims. Unfortunately, for a long time, most of the US government officials were ignorant even of the existence of Ahwazi Arabs as a significant population segment, much less of their history, culture, and the abuse they have suffered in the hands of their oppressors. At the same time, other groups claiming to be “reformist” have been well organised to lobby the US institutions and to take advantage of power vacuum, ignorance, polarisation, and radical leniencies in education and non-profit sector.
As a result, there exists only a partial and fragmented understanding of the makeup of Iran, and only some preferred groups get to have a seat at a table. That skews the understanding of the entire region, playing right into Iran’s self-aggrandising and divisive narrative and which runs counter to US interests in a stable, cohesive, multicultural Middle East with many societies and different cultures coexisting side by side in harmony while being able to enjoy their own languages, social traditions, and ways of life. Instead, Ahwazis have been defamed and slandered as a nation, denied a voice, and suppressed not only at home but in the Western societies where Iran and its lobby groups and indoctrinated Iranian diaspora pushes the view of them as dangerous threats to be looked upon with suspicion rather than allies in the vision of a peaceful, prosperous, free, and secure Middle East.”
The recent and baseless arrest of four Ahwazi opposition leaders in Europe is an example of such misunderstandings that happen when the media promotes Iranian talking points. The Ahwazis themselves get no say in introducing themselves to society at large but are largely censored by European news outlets. It is time to start breaking down these boundaries, start listening more and judging less, integrating instead of dividing, encouraging genuine pluralism and freedom of speech, not taking at face value the propaganda of the Iranian playbook.
If the US and other Western governments continue to give preference to only one Persian-Iranian opposition group rather than taking into account the multiplicity of voices in Iran and so long as both continue to ignore, undermine or deny any voice or role for Ahwazis and other minorities (who collectively account for more than half the Iranian population) there will be little hope of real change. Giving a voice to genuine opposition to the Iran regime requires a willingness on the part of Western governments to treat all Iran’s peoples with respect and to acknowledge their differing requirements, as well as their basic human rights. If the world’s mainstream media continue to ignore Ahwazis – who account for the highest per-capita number of political prisoners and victims of regime execution – or similarly persecuted minorities, any opposition is doomed to failure. While Pouya Bakhtari is indeed another martyr brutally murdered by the regime whose killers should be brought to justice, he is one of many thousands, with Ahwazi or Kurdish or other minorities’ lives no less worthy of justice.
Persian Nationalism – a major barrier to democratisation in Iran
Persian so-called ‘elite’ and ‘intellectuals’ have adopted oppressive social practices which seek to undermine the autonomy, representation and humanity of any ethnic minorities who desire equality within Iran. For these reasons, minorities in Iran feel they have no option but to fight to preserve their heritage, culture and survival within Iran’s profoundly racist leadership. The Iranian regime not only seeks to deprive minorities of fundamental human rights and freedoms, but it also intends to subsume and assimilate ethnic minorities in order to create what they would like to create – an all-encompassing Persian identity. This pursuit stems from a dangerously insidious desire to eradicate the collective history of these minorities and deny them agency, autonomy, independence and hope of self-government.
The topic of nationality variety within Iran is one of the most problematic features not only for the regime to address but also the Persian oppositions in exile such as MEK and monarchists. The current regime fears that if they acknowledge the rights of ethnic minorities this might challenge Persian dominance and, consequently, lead to the collapse of the regime itself. Neither the previous monarchy nor the current theocratic regime have been able to peacefully and successfully resolve this problem.
Both the old and new governments espoused their own supremacy, which sought to utilise systematic suppression of minorities in order to maintain control of a fractured nation. This increasingly transparent racism has been at the core of the country’s policies towards non-Persian peoples throughout the past century – with the ruling party using their power to undermine minority rights and quash dissent. The problem is, if the world and its media pay no attention to what is happening to Ahwazis in Iran, the regime becomes increasingly emboldened in the extent of its persecution and discrimination against them.
Often when addressing Ahwazis — who are one of the most oppressed and impoverished people inhabiting the oil-rich regions of Iran’s southwest – the Persian community will express racist sentiments such as “You are not real Arabs! You are Arabised due to proximity with Arab countries, but you are really only Arab speakers. If you wish to express your Arabism or defend what you dub an ‘Arab identity’, please get out of here. This is Iran, so go to Saudi Arabia!” This type of racist sentiment denies the whole existence and history of Ahwazis in their homeland of Iran. How are these oppressed people supposed to look forward to a life when they face such blatant racism in their homeland? Do they not have the right to fight back against rising anti-Arab attitudes?
Self-determination is the minimum right they should be granted, immediately. There is no place in Iran that remains free from the systematic bigotry that Ahwazis continue to endure. Anti-Arabism is ingrained into the workplace, printed in newspapers, espoused on the television, spoken about unabashedly by regime officials, and it’s even touted by intellectuals. Everyone in Iran has learned that being anti-Arab is a prestigious trait that is essential to maintaining the facade of Iran/Persian nationalism.
The Iranian myth of one unified Persian identity directly results from over 100 years of ultra-nationalist supremacist ideology that reacted with serious, direct, and brutal, resistance to any sort of critical analysis. Historical records show that at no time during the last two government regimes, can we see examples of where a democratic coexistence and respect for the rights of national minorities in Iran can be found. As such, there is nothing currently embedded within Iran’s history that supports the idea that one unified Iran – with all its ethnic minority nations – is even possible.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.