For all the Iranian leadership’s cynical exploitation of sufferings of oppressed and occupied peoples and well-choreographed constant outrage at the sins of Britain’s colonial history in the Middle East, Iran’s regime prefers to remain very silent indeed on one of the most terrible colonial wrongs from that period, namely the British empire’s support for Iran’s annexation of Ahwaz. This is a glaring omission on the regime’s part since it was this merciless annexation which resulted in Iran’s still-ongoing, almost century-old brutal occupation of the formerly independent emirate, where the regime’s colonialist policies continue to mirror those of Shah Reza and of his imperial backers. Despite the imperial-era usurpation of the Ahwazi people’s freedom and rights being reliant on the Ayatollahs’ favoured scapegoat, the former British empire, this chapter of Iranian history is expunged from the regime’s history books in an act of chilling historical revisionism, along with the history and the existence of the Ahwazi people themselves.
While the Iranian regime makes much of its supposed anti-imperialist stance, the initial annexation and ongoing occupation of Ahwaz is a textbook exercise in supremacist colonialism with the overt and tacit backing of superpowers past and present. In fact, Ahwazis know all too well about Iranian occupation and subjugation, having been under the yoke of such an occupation, which was also – ironically – originally backed by the then-British empire, for over 90 years.
The nineteenth century saw various regional and global colonial powers fighting for control of the Middle East and its resources, with these rival powers agreeing sporadically on various treaties that divided nations and territories amongst themselves with no regard to their people’s wishes – one trait that has, unfortunately, barely changed in the intervening centuries. Regional powers who shared this expansionist mindset were keen to work with these global powers to bolster their own power and increase their territories. Whilst both the Ottoman Empire and Persia attempted over the centuries to claim ‘ownership’ of Ahwaz (also routinely referred to as Arabistan during this period), successive Ahwazi rulers managed to balance their claims in order to retain de facto independence. Two of the main treaties during this period were the Treaties of Erzurum of 1823 and 1847 agreeing on boundaries between Ottoman Turkey and Qajar-ruled Persia. (1)Although Britain and Russia were nominally simply mediators in the latter agreement, both superpowers used these agreements to increase their own influence and footprint in the region and to make their own diplomatic manoeuvres, with the British building strong ties with the Qajars of Persia and with their successors.
Initially these imperial powers’ interest in Iran and the neighbouring Arab states was primarily concerned with their geopolitically central location on international trade routes, given their effective control of the Arabian Gulf and their position at the axis between Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The discovery of massive oil and gas reserves in the region at the start of the 20thcentury, however, added another element to this competition between the Great Powers, initiating a race for control of these resources, even before the advent of the automobile.
This discovery led to further strengthening of the British-Iranian alliance, with the establishment in 1908 of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company or APOC (2), the forerunner of the modern BP, which prophetically followed the discovery of a large oil field in Masjed Soleiman in Ahwaz; although Iranian and British historians have subsequently ‘revised’ this history to place Masjed Soleiman in Iran and deny its Arab history, using the Farsi name ‘Khuzestan’ for the region, they have not succeeded in efforts to eradicate Ahwaz, or ‘Arabistan’ as it was then named by the external powers.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, the Ahwazi leader of the time, Amir Khazal ben Jaber, believed that strengthening his alliances with British officials administering the region would protect Ahwaz from annexation by the then Qajari rulers in Tehran or by other powers, including Turkey and Russia, as well as ensuring that the territorial integrity of the emirate would be protected. Britain’s Consul to Arabistan during this period, Lieutenant A. T. Wilson, commended Amir Khazal’s leadership, noting that the Sheikh was made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE) in 1910 for his services, with the British vowing to defend ‘Arabistan’ from annexation. (3) Amir Khazal also remained loyal to Britain throughout the First World War, helping British forces to quell an Ottoman uprising in Ahwaz.
Following the outbreak of World War One war in 1914, Britain sent a military force to safeguard Arabistan’s oil wells under another agreement with Amir Khazal, as well as requesting his assistance in helping Britain to liberate Basra in Iraq from Ottoman forces. The prominent Orientalist Gertrude Bell reported at the time that Britain’s then-diplomatic representative in the Gulf had sent a letter to Amir Khazal telling him, “His Majesty’s Government has ordered me to make Your Excellency an offer in return for the valuable assistance which will ensure that if we are successful – which we will manage by God’s help – we will not return Basra to the Ottomans, and I assure you personally that His Majesty’s Government is ready to provide you with the necessary assistance to find a solution that satisfies you and ourselves. If the Persian government attacks your borders and your acknowledged rights, we shall do our best to defend you from any attacks by a foreign government and we shall safeguard your money in Iran. These assurances are given to you and to your successors” (5).
Ultimately, however, Amir Khazal’s efforts were doomed by the stronger Anglo-Iranian alliance and by geopolitical tensions between the competing imperial powers of the day, predominantly Britain and Russia, in the wake of the Russian revolution, which resulted in Britain failing to protect Sheikh Khazal or Arabistan as it did the ruling families of other emirates in the Arabian Gulf, who remain in power today.
A primary factor in British support for Iran’s annexation of Ahwaz was its backing for a favourite Iranian military leader Reza Khan, who was promoted by the head of the British Forces in Iran General Edmund ‘Tiny’ Ironside to lead Britain’s efforts to repel Russia’s post-revolutionary efforts to seize control of Iran. After capturing the Iranian capital, Tehran, in 1921, Khan forced the dissolution of the then Qajari government and ordered the appointment of Seyyed Zia’eddin Tabatabaee as Prime Minister. Reza Khan initially took the title Sardar Sepah, or Commander-in-Chief of the Army, by which he was known until he became Shah in 1925. This coup d’état and Khan’s ascent to power were assisted by Britain which feared that a Bolshevik takeover of Iran might threaten its imperial territories in India.
Reza Khan quickly and brutally set about the imposition of centralized rule from Tehran, refusing to acknowledge the independence of Ahwaz or the legitimacy of Amir Khazal’s rule. Whilst Khan’s dynastic regime was secular in nature, his policies imposing absolute cultural homogeneity under which only Persian culture and language were recognised and legitimised, while his refusal to recognise any “ethnic differences”, whether of Ahwazi, Kurds, Balochis or other oppressed peoples in Iran’s annexed territories, have continued to be central policies up to the current day under the theocratic leadership. As a number of historians have pointed out, this supremacist and profoundly racist mindset which regards non-Persian cultures as innately inferior owes much to the British empire’s paternalistic vision of ‘civilising the barbarian peoples’.
Swift and Brutal Annexation
The annexation of Ahwaz in 1925 was swift and brutal. After detaining Amir Khazal, who was taken to Tehran where he remained under house arrest till his death, Iranian forces, with British support, attempted to impose rule. Ahwazis who fought heroically against this colonialist occupation were no match for the military might of Persian and British forces. As recounted in the 2018 article, ‘The History of Arabistan and The Status Quo in Iran’, (8)Shah Reza Khan and his forces, supported by British troops, took dreadful revenge on those who dared to demand their freedom:
‘It quickly became clear to Iran after Shah Reza’s annexation of Ahwaz that its people would not quietly acquiesce to Persian occupation and dominion, however brutal and forcefully imposed. This first became evident in the Ahwazi Uprising of 1925 immediately following the announcement of the annexation, in which Sheikh Khazal’s loyal forces, supported by the Arab tribes of Al Muhammarah and Abadan, led an uprising against the latest colonial usurpers, which rapidly spread across the entire region.
Despite being massively outnumbered and outgunned by the British-backed Iranian forces, the heroic revolutionaries fought like lions, with the revolt lasting several months. Although the Iranian regime attempted to crush the uprising with land forces, it faced difficulties in entering the hostile rebel territories which held out against occupation, particularly given the Ahwazis’ superior knowledge of their own lands and the nature of the terrain there, with the region’s massive areas of marshland, date palm orchards and other areas offering plenty of difficult-to-reach areas from which the resistance fighters could launch guerrilla attacks.
Stymied by the courageous rebels, the Iranian military – not for the last time – adopted a scorched earth policy against its foes, sending in its air force to bomb and raze entire villages housing the rebels, burning down whole hamlets and obliterating agricultural plantations. An Arab writer who interviewed survivors years afterwards recounted their descriptions of the Iranian regime’s attacks on the Ahwazi revolutionaries as a “terrifying massacre”, adding that “thousands of innocent children, women and old men were its victims, in addition to a great number of fighters.” Expressing contempt for the monstrous cruelty and cowardice of the Iranian army’s strategy, the writer stated, “There was, indeed, no equality between the two parties, which enabled the Iranian Army to cause great losses in the souls of Arab revolutionists and their properties.”
This was not the end of Reza Khan’s terrible revenge against the heroic Ahwazi people who dared to rebel against mighty Persia, however. According to the survivors, “After this Arab armed revolt had been eliminated, the Iranian army arrested 600 of the revolutionary leaders, together with their families and children – a total of 3,500 people – and drove them, in front, on a forced march to Tehran [824 kilometres away], driving them through ranges of high and rough mountains as well as through deep valleys and rivers. Anyone who was exhausted by this dreadful march would be run over by armoured vehicles or be left as prey for wild animals or to die from thirst or starvation.”
On their arrival in Tehran, according to the survivors interviewed by the same writer, only 80 of the original 3,500 revolutionaries forced on this death march survived’ (6).
Whilst it is true that the current Iranian regime routinely castigates Britain for its support of the previous monarchy, this stands in stark contrast to the regime’s refusal to even acknowledge that part of the same British support which enabled, equipped and supported Shah Reza Khan’s annexation of Ahwaz and the subsequent crushing of Ahwazi uprisings against his brutal rule.
This refusal stems from the theocratic leadership’s need to preserve its own historical narrative of unbroken territorial sovereignty: according to the regime’s Orwellian historical revisionism, the Ahwaz region was always an Iranian province – indeed the leadership in Tehran refuses to even acknowledge the name ‘Ahwaz’ for the region, insisting that it be referred to solely by the Farsi names of the provinces into which it was divided and renamed under Shah Reza Khan in the mid-1930s, a period when towns, villages, even landmarks were renamed from Arabic to Farsi, in the first of many chilling attempts by successive rulers to quite literally eradicate the Ahwazi people’s history and culture.
In the regime’s rewritten version of history, which is itself a continuation of the history rewritten by the preceding Iranian rulers whose injustices the regime claims to revile, there has never been an independent Ahwazi region, with only separatist malcontents suggesting otherwise. For the regime to admit to the true and terrible history of Iran’s annexation and occupation, therefore, would mean acknowledging not only that its current historical narrative about the region is based on revisionist falsehoods but that its occupation is based on terrible and continuing crimes against the Ahwazipeople, along with persecution and injustice that has continued for almost a century to date, with uncanny parallels to those of the regime’s nemesis and arch enemy. Even though the acknowledgement of the British empire’s key role in supporting the initial occupation would serve the regime’s anti-British agenda, this would come at the expense of admitting long-submerged truths that the rulers in Tehran rely on hiding, not simply for the sake of protecting their reputation but to avert any challenges to their sovereignty over the oil and gas reserves on Ahwazis’ land, which comprise over 95 percent of the total reserves claimed by Iran.
The last leader of Ahwaz, Amir Khazal Ben Jaber, was promised support under a number of treaties with the Western superpower and empire of the time, Britain, when the then-Shah Reza Pahlavi threatened to annex the state adjacent to modern-day Iraq in the post-WWI period. In what’s become a depressingly familiar regional theme, Khazal and the Ahwazi people were subsequently betrayed by the British, who felt their interests would be better served by siding with Iran’s rulers, who offered them sweetheart deals on the massive Ahwazi oil and gas resources (which comprise over 90 percent of those claimed by Iran), disregarding the earlier treaties in favour of backing Iran’s 1925 annexation and military occupation of Ahwaz.
Albeit the leadership of Iran has changed hands since then, with the Shah and his descendants being overthrown in the revolution of 1979, the military occupation has never ended, with the same brutality and injustice inflicted on Ahwazis by successive regimes.
Although the current regime claims to rule in the name of Islam, the Ahwazi peoples continue to be persecuted for their ethnicity and denied the most basic of rights, including the rights to any benefits from the oil and gas resources in their own lands. The only change for Ahwazis in the period since 1979 has been that they are now brutally oppressed under a de facto apartheid system of rule in the name of Velayat-e Faqih rather than in the name of dynastic monarchy, with the oppression itself remaining the same.
There is a deep irony in the inability of the ayatollahs, who base so much of their rhetoric around condemning Britain’s dark history of imperialist conquest and exploitation of regional oil resources, to admit that they are themselves the colonialist heirs and beneficiaries of one such shameful episode.
It is, however, unlikely that a regime whose leaders cynically exploit the suffering of oppressed peoples in order to portray themselves as valiant saviours of the oppressed will ever admit that its own ongoing oppressive and brutal colonialist occupation of Ahwaz is a crime no less shameful than any perpetrated by other occupation worldwide, and one every bit as monstrous as any evil deed in the historic annals of British imperialism.
Ruth Riegler is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom, democracy and human rights who previously lived in the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NippySweetyLass?lang=en
- Treaties of Erzerum, https://www.revolvy.com/page/Treaties-of-Erzurum
- Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Anglo-Iranian_Oil_Company
- Chapter ‘A Précis of the Relations of the British Government with the Tribes and Shaikhs of ‘Arabistan By Lieutenant A T Wilson, Acting Consul for Arabistan’, British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR/L/PS/20/70, in Qatar Digital Library
- The History of Arabistan and The Status Quo in Iran, Dur Untash Studies Centre, https://www.dusc.org/en/article/17617