Ever since Persians first set foot in the land of Ahwaz, they have continuously attempted to eradicate its Arab identity, sparing no effort to achieve their objective.
To enable them to enforce this ‘Persianisation’ of the predominantly Ahwazi lands, they began changing its demographic composition by resettling non-Ahwazi from adjacent ethnically Persian areas as a strategy of demographic change. For the Ahwazi people, the most dangerous of all these Persian resettlement projects has been the ‘tribal settlement project’ which led to the relocation of thousands of families of the Lor and Bakhtiyari nomadic tribes from their original homelands in the region beyond the Zagros Mountains that form the natural border of Ahwaz.
Project Beginnings and Aims
The rulers of the Iranian state, at that time the Pahlavi dynasty, first began researching this demographic transfer policy in 1927(1). Detailed social, political and cultural studies of Ahwaz were undertaken by the agencies of the Iranian occupiers especially established for this purpose at the request of the Iranian state in order to determine the scale and scope of resources and funds necessary to achieve the project. Finally, after obtaining official approval for the project from the parliament in Tehran, the Iranian state issued an official proclamation endorsing the project on August 30, 1933 (2).
Three years later in 1936, the first official resettlement decree was issued by Shah Reza Khan, the king and head of the Pahlavi dynasty at the time, ordering the resettlement of 4,000 ‘Bakhtiyar’ tribal families from their homelands on the other side of the Zagros mountain range to the foothills of the same range on the Ahwazi side (3). The state provided the resettled peoples with all the necessary resources, facilities and amenities to facilitate the move and relocate them in the new area, as well as security guarantees and ensuring they were well looked after by the ruling authorities. It need hardly be said that none of the same resources or facilities were offered to the Ahwazi peoples.
Once the project was underway, the Iranian state no longer hid its objectives; indeed, it proudly proclaimed that this demographic transfer was the natural result of the longstanding aspirations of the Persian rulers who had dreamt for centuries of annexing, controlling and ‘Persianising’ the lands and population of Ahwaz. Following the Iranian occupation in the mid-1920s, Persia’s rulers had decided to pursue this profoundly racist goal, disregarding the wishes of the colonised Ahwazi people, setting out to change the demographic nature and character of Ahwaz by replacing the indigenous population with ethnically Persian settlers.
It was very clear from the beginning to the Iranian state that the Ahwazis would not acquiesce to Iranian occupation however how brutally it was enforced. This became evident from the first with the Ahwazi revolution of 1925 in which the forces of the last Arab ruler of Ahwaz, Prince Khazaal bin Jabir, supported by the Arab tribes of Muhammarah and Abadan, led an uprising against the brutal new occupation of their lands. This revolt quickly spread to all areas across Ahwaz, both urban and rural; after brutally crushing this nascent revolution, Persia’s rulers apparently concluded that the best way to prevent future uprisings was to quickly impose a policy of demographic transfer in an effort to change the identity and character of Ahwaz from Arab to Persian, effectively forcibly assimilating the indigenous people. This policy went far beyond the physical transfer of ethnically Persian settlers, with the new rulers also changing the names of towns, cities, villages, geographic features and landmarks from Arabic to Farsi in an effort to eradicate even the culture and history of the indigenous people.
This policy of Persianisation was enthusiastically endorsed by many prominent Persian thinkers of the time, such as Ahmad Kisravi and Mahoud Ashfar, who wrote extensively on the subject, publishing numerous historically revisionist articles and books which ‘rewrote’ or disregarded merely Ahwazi history and promoted Persian supremacism and colonialism.
As another part of the same project, ethnically Persian businessmen and merchants were offered inducements and financial incentives by the state to move to the newly annexed region where ethnically exclusive settlements were built especially for them offering amenities not available to the indigenous Ahwazi people, a policy which continues to the modern day.
Why the Lor and Bakhtiyar Tribes?
The Lor and Bakhtiyar Tribes were chosen for the following reasons:
- Geographic reasons: The proximity of these tribes’ original homeland on the other side of the Zagros Mountains bordering Ahwaz meant they didn’t have as far to travel as ethnic Persians from other regions, making the move easier and more cost-effective.
- Social reasons: These tribes are pastoral Bedouin tribes thus they are accustomed to travelling and change (4).
- Economic reasons: These tribes’ familiarity with the environment and climate of the mountainous area around northern Ahwaz and the lush pastures available there meant that settling them there would be economically favorable to the occupying state.
It is worth mention here that prior to the Iranian state’s resettlement of these tribes in Ahwaz the tribes had formerly been charged a tax by the Arab rulers of Ahwaz for grazing their livestock in Ahwazi pastures, for which they already bore some resentment towards the Ahwazi people.
The settlements of Bakhtiyar tribes resettled in Ahwaz were represented by the tribal chieftains of the Bakhtiyari, supported by the Qajar state. The best-known of the earlier Bakhtiyar tribal chieftains, the ancestors of those forcibly resettled in Alahwaz were Muhammad Taqiyy Khan Jihar Lang (1830-1891) and Hussein Qali Khan Ilkhaniy (1846-1892). These leaders took advantage of inter- Arab feuding among the Arab princes of Ahwaz during the later stages of rule by the Bani Kaab Arab princes(5).
Prominent British Orientalist Sir Henry Rowlinson (1864-1925) noted that during the era of Muhammad Taqiy Khan, a 19th-century ruler of the Bakhtiyar region, some tribes were settled in the Ramiz area in villages built especially for this purpose (6). This was subsequently confirmed by the American scholar Garth Witt based upon the accounts of the British Orientalist Sir Austin Henry Layard (8), who also claimed to have seen the Jenki tribe settle in a number of villages in the area of Ramiz (9). The French Orientalists Babain Wahosa stated that the tribe of Dinarvandi was settled in the plain of Anshan. Meanwhile, the Russian traveller Baron Dobbed noted that the Bakhtiyar tribes in the era of Muhammad Taqiy Khan took up agriculture after abandoning their original nomadic way of living due to living around agricultural settlements (10).
Various prominent Bakhtiyar figures worked for the Iranian state; the best known of these was tribal chieftain Jaafar Gholi Khan Sirdar Bahadur, who was appointed as minister of war during the era of Shah Reza Khan and played a crucial role in implementing the demographic transfer project. In 1927, Reza Khan ordered the establishment of a special fund for the project and the construction of villages and settlements for the transferred peoples (3).
The Continuation of the Project in Era of the Mullahs
After the victory of what was initially a people’s revolution in 1979 and the accession of the Mullahs to power, the demographic transfer project was suspended for around a decade due to the volatile political and security situation resulting from both Iran’s war against Iraq which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and the brutal campaign of subjugation and murder launched by the Mullahs against their liberal and leftist rivals and the minorities who had participated in the revolution hoping for long-denied freedom.
After this hiatus, the new theocratic leadership created the Organisation for Tribal Affairs, tasked with providing services to Bedouin tribes and aiding their resettlement in areas designated by the government. In Ahwaz, a branch of this organisation was created under the leadership of a Bakhtiyari settler named Ali Rahim Karimi. Despite the change of leadership, Shah Reza Khan’s demographic transfer project was up and running again by 1992 (13). The Iranian state included the settlement of Lor and Bakhtiyari tribes in northern Ahwaz within its second, third, fourth and fifth (current) five-year national development plans.
In the year 2005, an uprising broke out in Ahwaz following the publication of a confidential state document issued by the Persian state’s then-President, Muhammad Khatami, in which he decreed that the demographic composition of Ahwaz should be changed in favour of ethnically Persian citizens. This uprising subsequently became known to Ahwazis as the blessed intifada.
During this uprising, Ahwazi protesters took to the streets of villages, towns and cities across their occupied lands for peaceful protests demanding an end to occupation and the withdrawal of the settlers relocated there by the leaders in Tehran. The Ahwazi National Resistance, headed by the Brigades of the Martyr Mohy al-din al Nassir, the military arm of the Arab Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, also launched a military campaign against many of the Iranian state institutions participating in this project, such as the General Directorate for Planning and the Saman Bank, the state bank responsible for funding this grotesquely unjust project.
The uprising took the Iranian state by surprise, with state authorities and ethnically Persian settlers feeling threatened by their victims’ rightful anger and fearing that it might threaten the future of their settlement project. In response to the blessed intifada, the state launched a typically brutal crackdown on dissent, whilst all the Iranian state bodies, particularly the intelligence services, began conducting research and studies into ways of bolstering their project.
Based upon these studies, the criminal Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran and the leader of the world’s Shia, decided to inaugurate a project to settle Lor and Bakhtiyari tribes funded by the Baraka association which he heads. Khamenei personally oversaw the implementation of this project which carried out 424 development and construction projects including infrastructure, roads, schools, health centres, electricity grids, water and sewage systems, and communications systems at an initial cost of 246 billion Toman (US $246 million) plus an additional 90 billion Toman (US $90 million) provided by the Baraka association (15).
It was decided that these projects should be completed within an estimated period of two-and-a-half years. A total of 100 settlements were planned for Khamenei’s project, with 13 to be designated by the Persian state and 87 (Same reference) to be chosen by the tribes. The Persian state also decided to provide zero-interest loans estimated at 30 million Toman (US $30,000) to each settler family (14) to aid them with the cost of their housing unit. These projects were assisted by a number of Iranian state institutions in Ahwaz, such as the electricity company, the water and sewage company, the Directorates for Tribal Affairs, the communications, health, and education departments, the Khomeini relief organisation, the directorates of agriculture and natural resources, the police department, and the antiquities and tourism departments (15).
It should be clarified that none of these loans, homes, amenities or facilities were made available to the indigenous Ahwazi people who continued to be treated as second-class citizens.
Prior to the Persian occupation of Ahwaz, there was a significant minority of members of the Lor and Bakhtiyari tribes in Ahwaz, as western Orientalists and Persian state sources have acknowledged, with these tribes living in the areas of Arjan (now known as Behbahan in Farsi), Ramiz (Romhormoz), Salihiyya (Andimeshk), Toster (Shushtar), and Al Qunaytira (Dezful), as well as in the area in the mountainous regions. After the Persian occupation of Ahwaz, this number grew massively, with the Iranian state building settlements that later became villages and cities especially for the tribes.
The biggest Persian settlements built by the state that subsequently went on to become towns or cities are Masjid Solyman, Dehdaz, Andeka, Lali, Baghmalik, Saydoun, Qalaat Khawaja, Aghajari, Sardasht, Jayzan, and Haftgels county.
Meanwhile, some of the Lor and Bakhtiyari tribespeople who settled in Arab cities such as Ramiz, Ras al Bahr (Hendijan) and Al Qunaytira came to constitute a large percentage of these cities’ population, with the same pattern seen to a lesser extent in the cities of Toster and Susa. The populations of Al Salihiyya and Arjan, as well as hundreds of other towns and villages, came to consist wholly of settlers.
Statistics undertaken in 2006 by the Iran state show that approximately 1.1 million settlers had been transferred to Ahwaz by the Iranian state through this project (11). The most recent census of the number of Lor Bedouin tribes in all of Iran conducted in 2008 showed that 179,000 Lor tribespeople (12) live in Ahwaz, primarily in 500 settlements in the mountains and in the settlement cities of Masjid Solyman, Izeh County, Dehdaz, Andeka, Lali, Salind, Baghmalik, Qalaat Tell, Hussainiyat Abd, Saydoun, Qalaat Khawaja, Aghajari, Sardasht, Jayzan, Haftgel, Toster, Al Qunaytira, Al Sousse, Arjan, Ramiz, Al Salihiyya, and Rass al Bahr914).
The project is ongoing, with the Baraka 2014 project resettling 8,000 families from the Lor and Bakhtiyari tribes to date in the rural areas of Al Salihiyya, Arjan, Tastur, Qunaytira, and Susa (16).
How the Ahwazis Resisted the Project
Never before in their history were the Ahwazis aware of such a grave existential threat to their national security and their very existence. The confrontations that have occurred have been sporadic emotionally-driven outbursts. Most Ahwazi civil and political movements in previous decades either avoided mentioning the Persian settlements in their political programs or alluded only vaguely to the issue without proposing solutions.
Study of the political history of Ahwaz since occupation shows no significant attacks against Persian settlements with only two exceptions. The first of these was the revolt of Haidar Altelel in 1940 which erupted as a response to the aggression of the Lor and Bakhtiyari tribes, supported by the Iranian state, against the Arab tribes in an attempt to usurp their agricultural land. The second such instance is the military operations conducted by Hatem Jaaloush (Hetteh) and his comrades in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Ahwaz against the Persian settlers in Susa and Al Qunaytira and al Salihiyya.
In the last two decades, however, most Ahwazi movements have begun to give special attention to this vital issue, although they still have to clarify how best to deal with it, particularly since it threatens the national security of Ahwaz in both the short and long term. A primary reason for the failure of Ahwazi movements to formulate a workable consensus strategy to resist this existential threat is that any act of resistance against the Persian settlements will be considered ‘terrorism’ by the nations of the Western world. It should also be noted that these same nations have long ignored the horrendous injustices inflicted on the Ahwazi people languishing under brutal Iranian occupation for decades.
Written by: Mohammad Hatab
1: Document No. 1/6/7-291, letter from the Ministry of the Interior to the Governor of Isfahan, documents of the Ministry of the Interior, National Library and Documents Department of Iran.
2: Document no. 6/650/12007, letter from the Minister of the Interior to the Prime Minister, National Library and Documents Department of Iran. on July 6, 1936 (16-4-1315 solar year).
3: Document No. 2/6/7-291, a document on the settlement of the Lor and Bakhtarian tribes, documents of the Ministry of the Interior, the National Library and Documents Department of Iran.
4: Jafar Gholli, Sardar Bahador, 1999 (1378 solar year). The memoirs of Sardar A’zad Bakhtiari, in an effort by Irij Afshar, Tehran, Legends: C 2.
5: Ghiem, Abdul Banbi Ghiem. 2009(1388 solar year). Five Hundred Years History of Khuzestan: Akhtaran, p. 421-427.
6: Henry R. Rawlinson, a Britsh officer, politician, statesman and oriental. 1983(1362 solar year). Translated by ıskndar âmanollahi Baharvand, Tehran, Agah, p. 148.
7: Gene Rafel. Garthwaite. 1994 (1373 solar year). The political and social history of Bakhtiari, translation of Mehrab Amiri, Tehran: Sahand, p. 126.
8: Sir Austen Henry Layard. 1992 (1371 solar year). Journey in the territories of Bakhtyari and local tribes of Khuzestan, Translated by Mehrab Amiri, Tehran, Culture Center, p. 40.
9: Houssay Babin Frederic, South Iran Travelogue, Translation by Mohammad Hassan Khan Etemad-e-Saltanah, Tehran, Book World, p. 67.
10: David Baron. 1992 (1371 solar year). The Book: Itinerary of Lorestan and Khuzestan, translated by Mohammad Hassan Arya, Tehran, Science and Farhangni, p. 303.
11: Statistical Center of Iran. 2006 (1385 solar year). Detailed results of the Population and Housing Census of Khuzestan.
12: Statistical Center of Iran. 2008 (1387 solar year). Socioeconomic Census of the nomadic peoples of the country.
13: Mardomsalari Newspaper, No. 1573 dated July 22, 2007 (31-4-1386 solar year).
14: Mehr News Agency on January 4, 2011 (14-10-1389 solar) and September 9, 2012 (19-6-1391 solar year).
15: Fars News Agency, news number 8909060848, dated November 27, 2010 (6-9- 1389 solar year).
16: Khoz News website, no news 66767, July 15, 2014 (24 -4 -1393 solar year).