The Sovereign Status of Ahwaz Prior to Occupation by Persia


In the context of contemporary international law and relations, sovereignty is a complex concept in terms of its meaning, development and evolution, encompassing a multiplicity of meanings in legal analysis. Firstly, sovereignty has a common conceptual form representing the laws and legal systems that we experience in daily life. Secondly, sovereignty is claimed by actors representing the legal or political figures of the state acting on behalf of a nation or people (Walker, 2013). This article is intended to study the sovereign status of the Ahwaz region to occupation by Persia, the year when this land was occupied and effectively annexed by Persia, now better known as Iran.

Concept of Sovereignty

The contemporary idea of sovereignty stems from the medieval European characterisation of a ruler or sovereign who had absolute power over his or her own citizens and was not subject to any legal duty to any superior authority, holding absolute political power inclusively (Loughlin, 2010). The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia saw this conception change to include sovereignty as the monopolisation of power, which later evolved to include the idea of the modern ‘nation-state’ (Jackson, 2003). The contemporary concept of sovereignty was outlined by Richard Haass, the director of the Policy Planning Staff of the US Department of State, who stated: ‘Historically, sovereignty has been associated with four main characteristics: First, a sovereign state is one that enjoys supreme political authority and monopoly over the legitimate use of force within its territory. Second, it is capable of regulating movements across its borders. Third, it can make its foreign policy choices freely. Finally, it is recognised by other governments as an independent entity entitled to freedom from external intervention. These components of sovereignty were never absolute, but together they offered a predictable foundation for world order.’ (Haass, 2003).

Nonetheless, these aspects have developed gradually in international law, given that this concept of sovereignty was previously largely unrecognised in many countries in the Third World in comparison with the advanced nations in Europe (Jackson, 2003).  This means that the external sovereignty of the majority of states in the world was affected by other powerful and oppressing states.

To determine the sovereign status of Ahwaz, it is important to compare the domestic and external practices of the rulers of Ahwazi territory with the development of the concept of sovereignty in Europe in order to have specific and comparable criteria for this purpose. To start with, according to the observations of Pedro Teixeira, the Portuguese traveller who visited the Ahwazi region in 1604, the independence of this land and its sovereignty were already established. Teixeira defined the relationship between the emirate of Moshashaiyan in Ahwaz with the two neighbouring Ottoman and Safavid empires of that time as hostile and confrontational. Teixeira wrote that to prevent the two biggest empires of the Middle East from interference in his territory, Mubarak, the son of Motaleb, the then-ruler of this territory, entered into a military treaty with the Portuguese state which, at the time, had great power in the Arabian Gulf region (Teixeira & Steven, 1802).

Similarly, Pietro Della Valle, the Italian explorer who travelled down the Karun River in Ahwaz as part of his journey to East India and the Arabian deserts in the second half of the 17th century, described Motaleb’s son, Sheikh Mansoor, as the king of the region who stood firmly against Shah Abbas I of Persia and prevented him from interfering in the internal affairs of the emirate of Ahwaz (Al-Dawood, 1965) (Valle, 1665). It was also acknowledged that Sheikh Mansoor controlled the whole of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway and would not allow any ship to pass through this channel unless it paid taxes to his agent (Al-Najar & Al-Rawi). The Moshashaiyan state exercised its authority over Ahwaz for centuries. Plentiful evidence shows that when the Safavid state tried to invade Baghdad, then a territory of the Ottoman empire, and demanded assistance from the Moshashai ruler on the basis that the Ottoman empire was their shared religious enemy, the Moshashai prince replied that ‘If the Shah (of Safavid) is the king of Persia, I am the king of Arabistan (Ahwaz), and the Shah has no value to me.’

After the Shah’s defeat in 1639 at the hands of the Turkish Khalifa, the leaders of Iran and the Ottoman Empire signed an agreement recognising the independence of the Ahwazi state (Al-Abidi, 1980). Meanwhile, the 18th-century German explorer Carsten Niebuhr, documenting his journey to the Ahwazi area in 1772, stated that Arabs were the owners of the entire eastern coastal area of the Arabian Gulf, adding that it was difficult to determine the precise time when Arabs colonised this coastal region. Niebuhr also cited ancient historical records which explicitly stated that Arabs had constructed colonies there dating back to the sixth century BC. This, he stated, had prevented the Persian kings from becoming masters of the Gulf coastal region (Perrin) (Niebhuhr, 1792) (Slot, 1995).

The Evolution of Sovereignty

Looking back at the evolution of the concept of sovereignty, the medieval system of absolute sovereignty was gradually eroded, with some types of responsibilities increasingly imposed on rulers, institutionalising and codifying the limits of their domestic power, although they largely retained their autocratic   governing authority over the whole political community within the state (Walker 2013). The notion of indivisible yet impersonal sovereignty was advanced by Grotius, Bodin and Hobbes between the 16th and 17th centuries. Their work led to the acceptance of the idea that for an authority to be regarded as unitary, it is not necessary that it should be controlled by one person or a small elite of people. In addition, there was a growing acknowledgement that the separation of authority from a specific individual or individuals would allow for a better-regulated continuation in the exercise of sovereign authority over time without interruption (Bertelson, 2011). This new form of sovereignty balanced by accountability has developed as a concept underpinning the contemporary ordering of states, with reference to the domestic interaction of the state with its subjects and to its international relations. Therefore the ‘modern’ notion of sovereignty denotes the conclusive and comprehensive remit, and the indivisibility of the ruling powers within a territory. It follows that the domestic and external dimensions of modern sovereignty become closely intertwined, being mutually conditional and enabling one another (Walker, 2013).

It is necessary for any ruler to have some form of political and diplomatic recognition from other external powers and to obtain their guarantee of non-interference in order to effectively govern a territory and to achieve and maintain unchallenged domestic sovereignty. In the same manner, it’s required that the ruler or ruling body be able to demonstrate the indivisible and conclusive nature of their domestic authority in order to exercise external sovereignty in the role of an international agent capable of enacting and maintaining the state’s legally binding promises and obligations at the international level (Armitage, 2007).  It should also be noted, however, that ‘claims of sovereignty are not merely utterances conveying a set meaning but have real and variable effects on social and political practice through persuading, threatening, enlightening, inspiring, or otherwise shaping behaviour or expectations. These effects are inseparable from the history of a particular set of sovereign arrangements and the constellation of meaning associated with that history’ (Walker 2013, p. 23).

In Ahwaz, the Moshashaiyan emirate’s reign ended in 1724 when the Kaab tribe extend its influence over the Arabistan (Ahwaz) region (Al-Abidi, 1980). Despite the change in leadership, however, the sovereignty of the land’s rulers remained constant after the Kaab tribe replaced the emirate’s previous rulers.  Under the Kaab tribe’s leadership, the emirate implemented a system of tribal council elections where the tribes would elect a Sheikh to be the head of the Ahwazi state. The Sheikh was responsible for collecting revenue, supervising state expenditure, providing security, governing in domestic affairs and appointing representatives in different cities and regions of the emirate. In terms of external relations, the Kaab emirate (Sadawi, 2000) actively resisted Persian efforts to seize control of the territory, entering into treaties with Britain and other states to prevent Iranian interference. This situation forced Persia to formally recognise the autonomy of Ahwaz again in 1857.

The British government of the time became a close ally to Sheikh Khazal (Strunk, 2005), the last prince of Ahwaz, expressing its willingness to support and advocate for his policy and guaranteeing to defend his emirate. Sir Arthur Hardinge, the British Consul-General to Iran between 1900 and 1906, wrote a letter in 1902, stating: ‘We shall protect Muhammarah (the capital city of the emirate) from any sea invasion carried out by foreign countries, no matter the nature of the pretext (…) if you act according to our advice, we will in return continue our help and approval’ (Khazal 1962, p. 100).

Also, in 1914, Major-General Sir Percy Cox, the British government’s Resident and Consul-General in the Arabian Gulf, stated in a letter that the British government recognised the independence of H E Sheikh Khazal’s emirate and was prepared and committed to saving this territory from aggression of any other countries including Iran (Mojtahed-Zadeh, 2015) (Khazal, 1962). This recognition was based on the fact that Sheikh Khazal had exercised effective control over this territory without any influence from Persians (Yazdi, 2013).

Further evidence which illustrated the sovereignty and independence of Ahwaz was the treaty between Sheikh Khazal and Great Britain in 1909 regarding the oil refining in this land (Agreement, 1909). In this context, Sir Percy Cox, as the representative of Britain, negotiated and signed a treaty with the Sheikh of Muhammarah in order to obtain permission for a pipeline passing through the area to a refinery in Abadan city for the fixed annual rent of 650 Pound Sterling (O’Connor, 1962). This was official British recognition (Lenczowski, 1960) of Arabian authority over Ahwaz which, from a legal perspective, could not be undermined. The British authorities were aware of the reality on the ground and did not negotiate over oil in this region with the Persian rulers in Iran since Tehran lacked any power over Ahwaz. Documents of the time underline that Persia’s rulers had no influence over the Arab sovereignty in this region (Perrin) and Khazal was independent in his territory (Albasri, 1950).

Nonetheless, with the rise of Russian power after the October Revolution of 1917, the United Kingdom showed interest in supporting Reza Khan the leader of the Persian army financially to deter Russian influence in Iran and to prevent its access to the Arabian Gulf (Lewis, 1982). Consequently, Sheikh Khazal sent his messengers to Iraq and Persia to tell prominent politicians and other leading figures about the sinister plans of the then-Prime Minister of Iran to eradicate Arabs in Ahwaz. Sheikh Khazal also filed a petition of complaint with the League of Nations (LN), signed by 15,000 people, calling on the member states to help oppose Reza Khan who was preparing to invade the emirate (Albasri, 1950). In addition, Khazal appealed to the British government, demanding that they honour their commitment towards his state and reminding them of their obligation to recognise their official mandates regarding his emirate and to respect the pledges signed by their representatives, recognising the sovereignty of Ahwaz (Al-Najar & Al-Rawi).   Despite all these efforts, Reza Khan and his forces brutally occupied and annexed the Ahwazi emirate in 1925 and overthrew one of the most famous, sovereign and legitimate emirates in the region at that time (Curtis & Hooglund, 2008) (Al-Najar, 1971).


Ahwaz had every aspect of sovereignty before 1925. The rulers of this territory exercised effective control over this land by governing its internal affairs, collecting revenue and providing security for their subjects. In addition, they entered into international treaties and commitments, acting as representatives capable of representing Ahwazi people externally. Furthermore, they interacted diplomatically and politically with foreign powers who recognised their sovereign authority, as well as maintaining relations with successive British governments and the leaders of neighbouring countries who also acknowledged their sovereignty. Moreover, Ahwaz was recognised as an independent state by Ottoman and Persian authorities on different occasions prior to 1925, not to mention the legality of the treaties and official statements of the British government recognising the independence and sovereignty of this land.

Written By: Abdulrahman Hetteh


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