Have you ever heard of an oppressed people languishing in desperate poverty in one of the wealthiest places on Earth? This is not a riddle or a theoretical question, but the reality that Ahwazis have lived with over the past nine decades ever since Iran occupied the oil-rich region in 1925.
For the past 95 years, Ahwaz has been located in south/south-west Iran, comprising the Iranian province of Khuzestan, a small part of its Elam province, and Bushehr and Hormozgan. Despite the desperate hope for change in 1979, the colonialist tyranny became even crueller after the ayatollahs took power in Iran, turning the region into a vast open-air prison for the Ahwazis, persecuted for their Ahwazi ethnicity. Today, nearly eight million Ahwazis struggle to survive in the grips of this ruthless police state that has been in place since the era of the Shah.
An extremely critical question may pop into the minds of those following the issue of Ahwaz: what might Ahwaz have been like if Persia/Iran had not occupied it?
In the popular imagination, the only colonialist empires are those of Europe, despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire controlled vast territories of ethnically diverse people. For Ahwazis, the imperial ambitions of the Ottoman and Persian empires resulted in Ahwaz being traded like a horse in the 19th century. For the Ottoman Empire, it exchanged an otherwise less important border area and its navigable waterway for a peaceful eastern border so that it could focus its energies elsewhere. At that time, however, the rights of Ahwaz’s native inhabitants were not abandoned; as an emirate, Ahwaz remained under the rule of its own leaders until after World War One, when the ascendant Reza Khan managed to obtain British support and the abrogation of its decades-long promises to support the Ahwazi princes. By 1925, Ahwazi independence was no more.
If the Persian/Iranian annexation of Ahwaz had not happened, the present rulers in Tehran could not have remained so vastly powerful despite Iran’s eroding economy due to the sanctions imposed on it by the US.
If Iran hadn’t taken control of Ahwaz, its rulers could not have obtained the funding necessary for establishing or boosting its nuclear projects, since most of this wealth was generated from the sales of oil and gas extracted from Ahwaz, where at least 95% of the combined oil and gas resources claimed by Iran are located.
This is in addition to the Ahwazis’ other natural resources and the ports on the Gulf, whose products and revenue account for more than half of Iran’s annual income. The land so casually bartered away by the Ottoman Empire has proven increasingly pivotal over the past century and a half.
From this point in particular, we are made aware of the massive significance of Ahwaz to Iran, which explains why Tehran clings to the region, deeming it a matter of life or death, mercilessly crushing the protests and demonstrations that break out regularly across the region, and viciously repressing its people using every means, especially its fearsome state security apparatus, by far the most effective element of its regime, which has been systematically attempting to erase the Ahwazis just as it has erased the name of their homeland in favour of Persianised Khuzestan and Bushehr and Hormozgan. And so, what the Ahwazis are facing at the Iranian regime’s hands is ultimately nothing short of ethnic cleansing, which affects every area of the people’s lives, including the economic, scientific, intellectual and social aspects. But to fully explain the importance of the question posed by this article, it is necessary to consider several aspects of its exploitation.
Ahwaz: the looted region
The tragedy of Ahwaz, or Arabistan as it was alternatively known historically, began in 1925 when Iranian forces under the rule of Reza Khan forcibly entered and annexed the then independent emirate, with Britain’s blessing.
Prince Khazal Al-Kaabi, the ruler of Ahwaz, was arrested and imprisoned.
There is no doubt that Iran’s and Britain’s attention was drawn to the region primarily by the huge oil and gas resources located there, along with its strategic location as the gateway towards the Arabian Gulf and Iraq. Indeed, the Abadan Refinery, built on Ahwazi land in 1908, was at the time the largest refinery in the world.
It is estimate that about 97 per cent of the oil claimed by Iran is extracted in the Ahwaz region, and 100 per cent of its gas product is extracted from this region.
In addition to these critical resources, Ahwaz also contains eight sizeable rivers, the most important of which is the Karoon River, whose waters were once busy with international oceangoing vessels as well as smaller boats, and which was crucial to trade long before oil became valuable. Up to 65 per cent of the arable lands in Iran are located in the region, which is completely ecologically dissimilar to its Persian territories.
In this context, it should be stressed that despite the fact that Ahwaz contains most of Iran’s oil and gas sources, its people are the poorest in Iran and among the poorest globally: again, more than 97% of Iran’s oil comes from Ahwaz, yet the residents of that region are the poorest to this day.
The Ahwazi region’s many rivers make it home to 35 per cent of Iran’s freshwater resources, but it is the Karoon river’s usefulness in providing the regime with water for its nuclear reactors, primarily for the largest nuclear facility in Bushehr that has led to its increased modern importance. Meanwhile the region’s vital ports, such as the one at Abadan city, which has what is still the second-biggest oil refinery on the planet, have provided another asset for successive Iranian regimes – but no benefits for the indigenous Ahwazi people.
As all the above facts and many more clearly show, the assertion of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami that “Iran lives via Ahwaz region” is simply a statement of fact. Nearly 80% of Iranian exports come from the region, with materials extracted there accounting for almost half of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product.
Despite the vast wealth of resources taken – or, more accurately, stolen – from Ahwazis by successive Iranian regimes, the Ahwazi people have never seen any of the benefits. Even the water that reaches them from their 13 rivers – much of it rerouted to other regions – can no longer be relied upon, as the remainder that reaches them is so horrendously polluted that the indigenous Ahwazis can’t find potable water.
Here we can cite the example of an American researcher of Persian origin, whose name is withheld to protect her and her family’s safety, on a recent trip to Iran to carry out academic research on the living conditions there and how these affected social care, health and other issues, she visited most areas of the country. At the end of the visit in which she explored the circumstances of peoples across Iran, she noted that the Ahwaz region is different from the rest of Iran.
The researcher found that while poverty and deprivation are widespread in Iran, in Ahwaz they are far worse, with the already atrocious circumstances there rapidly deteriorating still further. The researcher said that during her visit, she did not see any health centre or even a modest clinic, which further raised her concern over the spread of malaria due to drinking contaminated water, despite Ahwaz being rich in fresh water as a region. The deliberate environmental pollution and drying up of the region’s rivers have also meant that since 2011, Ahwaz has been at the top of the World Health Organisation’s list of the most polluted areas in the world.
If only one could believe that the regime’s cruelty to Ahwazis stopped at its previously listed practices. Following the outbreak of an uprising in Ahwaz, however, it became clear that the regime intended to exacerbate the pollution of water, which had already caused an increase in cases of infertility among women. As the formerly cited researcher noted, this can only be described as ethnic cleansing by every possible means.
Despite the constant and terrible pressure on them and the huge power imbalance between themselves and Iran’s rulers, the indigenous Ahwazis have never agreed to or otherwise willingly submitted to the Iranian regime’s policy of annexation or fraudulent and colonialist claims of ownership. The first Ahwazi uprising broke out on the same year the region was annexed, 1925, starting a pattern of courageous resistance that has never ended despite the terrible retaliation inflicted in response by the rulers in Tehran to even the most peaceful of protests.
Many uprisings erupted in Ahwaz and across Iran in recent years, the most recent of which broke out on 15 November 2019, nominally due to an increase in the prices of gasoline; the first spark in this explosive series of fuel protests, in fact, came from Ahwaz.
In reality, while the fuel price hike was the singular straw that broke the long-suffering people’s backs across the country, for Ahwazis, it was part of the ‘normal’, terrible pattern of abuse by the regime.
“There is a large number of executions in Ahwaz – we are talking about hundreds of people who were executed during the current year alone in the region, with 30 percent of them being children and women,” Nouri Hamzeh, an Ahwazi analyst noted. Another point raising public anger in Ahwaz is the regime’s indifference to the global COVID-19 pandemic, he explained, especially in the already overcrowded jails. “Prisons suffer due to the spread of the Coronavirus … The number of deaths due to the outbreak of the virus is so huge that people find difficulties in burying the corpses of their dead relatives.”
The regime’s concern about the uprising against it in Ahwaz prompted it to pursue an even more despotic approach than usual, one even crueller than that already pursued against Iranian dissidents, using every form of repression and all its state security and police apparatuses. Once more, it is necessary to underscore Iran’s systemically racist practices in order to appreciate the full extent of what its increased repression means.
In Ahwaz, successive Iranian regimes have implemented an unofficial but very apparent policy of ethnocide (defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction of the culture of an ethnic group) against the indigenous Ahwazi people, as a means of erasing their identity through obliterating all manifestations of Ahwazi culture. This has been carried out through many different ways, from destroying Ahwazi books, magazines, and other printed publications and confiscating other literary works, to deporting Ahwazi people to the capital Tehran, which is a textbook case of illegal forced population transfer.
Iran has outlawed the public wearing of Ahwazis’ traditional Arab garb or speaking of the people’s Arabic mother tongue, even at the region’s schools and universities, where writing in Arabic is totally banned. This is a flagrant violation of international law, since Iran has been a signatory to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1975, and is therefore bound by its Article 27, which clearly and unequivocally provides that “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”
These proscriptions also apply to the judiciary. Litigation in the Arabic language has been banned, along with even bringing a translator to translate to or from Arabic into Farsi.
These and countless other clearly racist and discriminatory laws and a deep-rooted prejudice which the regime actively encourages have left the Ahwazi people among the poorest in the world despite the region’s massive wealth of resources.
Even conservative estimates suggest that half of the young Ahwazis are unemployed, whilst humanitarian organisations estimate an average of four to six suicides per week due to the dire conditions and lack of hope.
“More than 87 percent of the Ahwazi people live below the poverty line”, according to Kamil Alboshoka, an Ahwazi human rights expert, an assertion confirmed by a US foundation, which found that more than 75 per cent of the Iranian people live below the poverty line, with the highest percentage being Ahwazis. “Residents of Ahwaz are the poorest to this day, with the average income for a family of four being around US $ 5 per month. “
The regime has also sought to deliberately and systematically alter the demographics of the region, as it has brought many Iranian citizens to Ahwaz, encouraging them with incentives such as well-paid jobs denied to the Ahwazi people, along with specially built settlements, development loans and other financial incentives. These ethnically Persian settlers are automatically given all the high-ranking or well-paid jobs in the region, having absolute control of the oil and gas refineries and related infrastructure which provide Tehran with income and energy. Thus, the Ahwazis are further relegated to destitution even as their demographic importance is pointedly diluted.
The blatant racism practised by the Iranian regime towards these indigenous Ahwazis, denying them their most fundamental rights, along with employment and life opportunities, extends to every area. Another part of this demographic change policy is the regime’s large-scale confiscation of Ahwazis’ farmland and farms, with the farmers and their families being left destitute and without any hope of compensation. These farms are then ‘given’ as rewards to loyal ethnically Persian citizens from Isfahan, Shiraz and other areas. All of these policies collectively affect young Ahwazis worse than any other group, with unemployment among the Ahwazi youth standing at more than 93%.
Returning to our opening question of how Ahwaz might have been if Iran had not annexed it, it’s fair to say that its people would never have allowed it to become a blighted, desertified hellscape of oil rigs belching pollution. There might be problems, but these would not be on the scale of the poverty, racism, repression, deprivation, hunger, thirst and unemployment that are all Iran has brought to the Ahwazi people. There would be better living standards and a sense of hope for the future, with its indigenous people not languishing in unimaginable poverty on pennies per month, struggling constantly simply to stay alive. But even for a largely uncaring world, it would mean that the nihilistic and imperialist Iranian regime would not have the means of pursuing its nefarious foreign agendas to destabilise the region and threaten its neighbours. The American Central Intelligence Agency correctly observed decades ago that Ahwaz is Iran’s Achilles Heel. So we leave by posing two questions. What if it had not been occupied by Iran? Or, perhaps, what if it is no longer occupied?
By Rahim Hamid & Aaron Eitan
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Aaron Eitan Meyer is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. He tweets under @Aaronemeyer